New Technology Is Boring Now

Consumer tech is as good as it needs to be for most people

I’m a tech enthusiast. I’ve been interested in technology since I was a kid, first as a consumer and later as a programmer. In particular, early Apple devices were exciting to me—one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten was one day when my dad gifted me a white polycarbonate MacBook circa 2006.

Over the years I would explore iOS and Android rather equally, and I’d usually fall back on iOS as a more consistent user experience with better battery life. These days, both are great. I’ve been using Android again (on a Google Pixel 5) for around six weeks now and, to my surprise, it has just as many advantages over iOS as iOS has over it. Great job Google.

For full computers, in my adult life I’ve spent most of my time on macOS and now use a System76 Oryx Pro running Pop OS, which is great. Linux is less convenient, but more lightweight and easier to orient toward privacy than either Windows or macOS at this point. I like it, but ultimately wish Apple would make a version of the M1 chip with more RAM. (Working on 8GB of RAM was a nightmare before I got this laptop!)

The thing is, though: unless you’re doing particularly demanding technical work, none of these differences are interesting. All the products are quite good, and incremental improvements every year aren’t important enough to matter to most people.

Consider the iPad, the Pro line of which has been blazing fast for all use cases for years. A couple weeks ago, Apple announced a new version of the iPad Pro with their M1 chip—crazy fast! Literally comparable in speed to their entire line of new computers. But the iPad was already so fast that this is rendered irrelevant by itself, so they resort to lots of marketing speak to sell the product.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an extremely technically impressive product. But we’re at a place where most people perceive consumer technology as having achieved the main things it was supposed to achieve, which is a good internet browsing, email, word processing and social media experience with decent battery life. All modern devices do these things pretty well, and most people won’t venture into computationally demanding things.

When they do, cloud services usually take care of it. Need lots of storage space? Buy multiple terabytes of Google Drive storage! Need to train a GAN? Buy the computation-as-a-commodity from AWS or Google Cloud Platform or whatever (I don’t actually do this and don’t know how to do it, don’t @ me). Need to write a book? You’ll probably get zero benefit from hardware advancements over the last five years.

Companies are subject to a cultural ennui about new technology because it’s already good enough. Software is a little better in this regard: there are still new software products, new apps etc. that capture a large amount of attention (see lately: Readwise, TikTok, Clubhouse for a bit). Many iOS advancements still make iPad maximalists happy—and if I could viably program on an iPad, I’d love my life. It can genuinely improve people’s lives if more useful things could be accomplished on a phone, and that’s why I’m really excited about folding phones taking off if they get cheaper and more durable.

One of the sadder developments for me is that Apple is the established giant brand it always deserved to be, and therefore they’re taking fewer risks and introducing products with rather less fanfare than they once earned. The iPhone changed the world so immensely that I think it would surprise Steve Jobs today, and the rest of the Apple lineup is now so ubiquitous that, by the time I graduated college, it was rare to see a student with any other sort of device. These days, their computer lineup is rather disjointed and confusing, they offer nothing comparable to the System76 Oryx Pro that I just bought, and their latest attempts at potentially interesting innovations fell flat in the market. I desperately want them, or any company, to do something genuinely interesting again, but these days there’s little incentive to change what works, and what works sells as a utility and not as something exciting.

New technology is boring now!

The Exceptions

Let’s work out of this rut a bit. To do this, we’ll have to discuss technologies that aren’t widely part of our lives yet.

First, GPT-3. GPT-3 is a language prediction model created by OpenAI in mid-2020. It’s really good at taking text as a prompt and predicting what the following text should be. It’s so good at this that it can tell stories, write code and be your friend. Surely it can do lots of other things. There was supposed to be widespread public access to the GPT-3 API by now, which would’ve allowed anyone to integrate it into a product, but right now the access is still limited and closed behind a waitlist. Eventually, it or its successors will automate a huge amount of communication online, particularly with companies, and it’ll enable immense advancements in technologies like Siri and Google Assistant, plus new uses nobody has thought of yet. That’ll be pretty cool.

As I mentioned above, folding phones seem neat. I can’t find the tweet anymore, but maybe five years ago I came across one like:

Prediction: the iPhone 16 will be your only device.

I suspect the iPhone 16 is arriving too soon in the future for this to be true, but the principle holds that mobile technology has improved to a point where you can live a functional digital life on just an iPhone—without spending much of anything on third-party apps, too! iPhones are still expensive, so we can also take the example of modern Android phones and it still holds true. This has huge positive implications for impoverished areas of the globe as we can reduce prices and improve cellular connectivity, etc.

For the developed world, though, for the iPhone 16 to be your only device it would need to be foldable. People want large screens for stuff! It would be phenomenal to get both the iPhone and iPad in the same device, for example, or as close as we can get considering, well, physics. Lots of companies are innovating on foldable phones right now. They remain egregiously expensive and not very durable, which is frustrating, but at some point they’ll probably resolve those problems and folding phones will become standard. I certainly hope so!

I’m also quite excited for whenever we can reliably access high-speed internet by satellite, if that works out.

Beyond these things, I don’t have any idea what’s exciting about upcoming technology. I’m excited for Apple to manufacture a high-end computer I want to use for work, whenever that is, and I’m interested in any new software that helps me better organize my life; these days, I tend to imagine an automated personal assistant or something like that, but something less glamorous would work too. Not sure what that would be. I’m curious what, if anything, readers want or expect from upcoming technology. Let me know in a reply if you’re interested.