Handheld Technology

Rant: The sudden rises and sharp falls of technology memes

In popular music we became accustomed to shooting stars who burn brightly for a few weeks, months or at best years, and then fizzle out as some combination of PR machines, want-away songwriters and fans losing interest kicks in. Boy bands, fresh-faced angels and the latest shock and schlock merchants are replaced with a conveyor-belt efficiency once it becomes expedient to ship them out. In technology today a similar phenomenon prevails where the ‘big stories’ of Techmeme and other news aggregators are reduced to virtual fish-and-chips’ wrappers tomorrow.

What’s hot is next not and with bewildering velocity too. A harsh yoke dictates that few of the splash stories will make it into youthful, never mind mature, success stories.

Those hot companies become cold or they are reduced to a state of perpetual tepidness. Think of the excitement bubble that enclosed Google+ on launch or recall if you can the brouhaha over the Yo app (you can say ‘yo’ to people…) or the hue and cry over Pebble, Fitbit or any of the other smart pendant makers.

We live in a world where the appetite for novelty is never sated and the thirst for shiny new things is never slaked. This has an odd effect in many areas far beyond the machinations of the professional media organisations and other news creators. Pursuit of new hardware products means that the demand for minerals is unceasing, for example, creating interesting geopolitical dynamics that prop up dodgy regimes and create vast wealth for a few in the poorest and most corrupt countries. Money raising from crowdfunding to venture capital becomes allied to hipster-ism and fashionable terms (‘Big Data’, ‘the Internet of Things’) as much as experienced management, real prospects or research into long-term opportunity.

Even stock markets are affected to the extent that many of the world’s ‘most valuable’ (as specious term at the best of times) companies have been created in the last 20 years. Rapid acceleration of companies in fast-moving segments is nothing new of course and a similar propulsion force applied to the fledgling mining, railways and broadcasting industries, but companies today are far more likely to exist in order to be acquired and often the people that make the money when they are acquired are the same old faces. The startups resemble their products in that they almost have obsolescence built in, like toys with flimsy parts that will break and need replacing. And even those companies that make to IPO will see soaring, throttling and plunging valuations as fashions and perceptions change. Founders, even those with real vision and passion, will be evicted to suit the demands of Wall Street types whose purview extends to a rolling cycle of three-month periods.

All this drives a rapacious short-termism with ‘upgrade’ cycles that relegate products made only months before to being close to worthless as they are ‘End of Lifed’ with no hardware or even software breadcrumb trail to follow. Deal making means that warranties of the acquired companies can be broken without much more than a murmur. ‘Roadmaps’ intended to show a predictable and reliable sequence of plans are not worth the paper they are written on and, rather than pursue old-fashioned research and development plans, companies instead pore over lists of acquisition candidates with cash on tap that was made available via investment vehicles that have themselves raised funds from elsewhere.

The technology industry prides itself on its blink-and-you-miss-it, ‘business at the speed of thought’ process of nonstop reinvention. But the net effect is an unthinking approach to the ecology, a kowtowing to unchecked consumerism and, ultimately, a negligent dismissal of the real value of things, the preciousness of time and the ability to treasure, think, improve and consider.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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