A couple of weeks ago Allison Arieff wrote a piece in the New York Times titled “Solving All the Wrong Problems” that gets to the heart of the technical times we live in and its focus is not what you might think. She includes a long list of things we can buy or subscribe to such as:
A service that sends someone to fill your car with gas.
A service that sends a valet on a scooter to you, wherever you are, to park your car.
An app that analyzes the quality of your French kissing.
A “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down.
A sensor placed in your child’s diaper that sends you an alert when the diaper needs changing.
It goes on but you get the idea and you can always read the article here.
All of these things have in common the idea that just because we have the ability to make them doesn’t mean we should. Presumably the ones that got venture capital financing had someone asking, how does this make money and receiving an acceptable answer.
At about the same time this article ran, I needed a water heater so I went to a big box store and searched for—wait for it—someone to wait on me, to answer a few questions in other words. There were three models on display but in a perversion of good, better, best, there was standard, deluxe, and WiFi. The top of the line water heater could send information to my smartphone about, oh, I don’t know what really.
In my long life I’ve noticed that water heaters either work or they don’t. When they don’t work, I take a cold shower and summon a plumber to rectify the situation. The idea of having a water heater that I could interrogate through my smartphone seemed importantly like a moment in history when a new neurosis is proclaimed—hydrothermia gondii, perhaps.
But I have an explanation or actually two that seem to pacify my mind. The first harkens back to Linus Pauling, a two time Nobel Prize winner who once famously said that if you want to have good ideas, you need to have a lot of ideas. Translation, it’s a numbers game and most inventions don’t make the cut. Of the long list in the Times article, most if not all but the one that evaluates the quality your French kissing, are bound for history’s ash heap.
But Pauling’s point was that you never know what’s going to hit so you take the risk of ridicule and ruin for the chance of success and all that attends it. Still, some of these inventions up to an including the WiFi water heater strike me as over the top science fair faire.
The other reason in my mind might be closer to the truth. It’s that we’ve reached the end of the current paradigm. By paradigm, I mean the thing that frames our economic and social lives, the technology boom. According to the late Russian economist, Nicolai Kondratiev, a paradigm animates our economic lives and lasts between 50 and 60 years before another replaces it. Within a paradigm you can have trends and business cycles but the paradigm is ascendant.
You can know when the end is nigh because it gets really, really hard to innovate around the core tenets of the paradigm without bumping into something else that does pretty much the same thing. In other words, all of the niches are full. When that happens people try to invent niches which is why you get online water heaters and French kissing apps.
Eventually Kondratiev’s wheel turns again and we start anew with a different paradigm. But new paradigms are expensive; they result in what another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called creative destruction in which some of the earlier and perfectly good established economic order is trashed. So, not surprisingly, the establishment will resist change which brings on a period of stasis.
You know you’re there when someone invents something equivalent to a sensor placed in your child’s diaper that sends you an alert when the diaper needs changing. Come to think of it, that’s a perfect metaphor for the times we live in. We’re waiting for change.