ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What’s Going on With Technology?

Nintendo 2DS, a PS Vita TV, a handheld Android gaming console, a plastic iPhone—who would have thought gadgets like these would actually exist? While 2013 has seen some really great new tech so far, lately the phrase that keeps coming to mind is just: “Well, that’s weird.”

Has Technology Stagnated?

The tail end of the 20th century was rife with progress. Computers went from occupying entire rooms to fitting in a pocket, and from lighting up LEDs to displaying fully 3D, interactive environments. The foundations were being laid. The next step for technology was always obvious, because the holes in what could be accomplished with it stared us right in the face—literally (and destroyed our eyes in the process).

Then the 2000s rolled around, and technology settled into a comfortable state of being capable of basically anything. Massive, revolutionary changes were reduced to incremental upgrades. If you were a gamer or mobile device-touting business person things were fairly interesting, but the most common technology—the personal computer—didn’t change a whole lot.

Then the end of that decade arrived, and brought with it smartphones and tablets. While these devices changed everything again, they ultimately set everyone back a few years to endure the same development cycle a second time. But there’s one caveat: even now that mobile devices are catching up to PCs in performance and exceeding them in popularity, they don’t offer the same productivity. Whereas technology was once the field of the creator, it has become the field of the consumer.

The Awkward Years

So where do we go next? Technology looks like it’s all grown up, it sounds like it’s all grown up, but really it has yet to fully mature.

Companies still rightly feel the need to push forward…but to where? Now that former garage businesses have thousands of employees to feed, how much creative risk can they take? How much creativity is even possible when all must jump through the hoops and ranks of a megacorporation? Microsoft has been making Windows since the ’80s. Nintendo has been making Mario since the ’80s. Sony has been making Playstation since the early ’90s. All have been and still are great products, but are now becoming difficult to carry forward. Hence for the first time in generations we’re seeing poor sales in a variety of staple tech categories, and we’re seeing developers acting in desperation and turning out oddball products and business decisions. The old is running out of steam, and because of its consuming nature the new can’t pick up the slack. As a result we’re seeing a rise in complexity that is simply unsustainable, as companies attempt to prolong current products with feigned creativity that doesn’t actually carry the technology forward.

In other words…they just don’t know what to do, so they’re fumbling about in the dark.

Console video games now have to have mobile tie-in apps, or if not that, at least a TV show. Everything has to rely on the internet for an all-digital future (which first of all is nonsense because data has to be stored somewhere) which has given rise to ridiculous DRM policies and even paying to use software that exists and operates on a server machine a thousand miles away which you have no control over. It’s all far too complicated, too contingent, and too costly to keep up forever…and it’s definitely not the way of the future.

But there is a new hope. Recent technology has given rise to crowdsourcing—letting people put their money where their mouth is to support and enable the development of products not made out of some obligation to continue a series, but made out of a pursuit for genuine creativity. If you’ve been around ThinkBoxly for a while, you’ll be familiar with some of them: a 3D ‘printing’ pen, a blazing fast parallel coprocessing unit, and so on. Of course there have been a few disappointments like the Ouya, but the bottom line is that garage developers are back, and they now have a platform to get their products out there faster, better, stronger than the last generation—which is, oddly enough, largely thanks to the big companies that seem to be floundering a bit. It’s the building blocks, or stepping stone principle.

The Times, They are a’Changing

Up until now, there has really only been one batch of tech giants who release some version of the same product every few years (give or take). Nobody could compete with them because nobody had the means to gain recognition from under their shadows. But as discontent with tech megacorporations grows and the popularity of websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo continues to soar, the average Joe once again has the opportunity to change the tech landscape as several average Joes (or should I say ‘average Bills and Steves’) did a few decades ago. The true next generation is still finding its feet, but once it does we will likely find ourselves leaving behind multiple product brands and moving on to totally new systems produced by totally new companies. In many cases the puzzle pieces are already out there and it’s just a matter of the right people finding the right way to put them all together and create something great. In other cases brilliant independent minds are still thinking up the puzzle pieces themselves.

At any rate, unless something big changes soon, the future is clear: current technology is hitting a ceiling, and complicating it further is not the way to help it survive. What will happen is that entirely new technology will entirely replace the current technology and set an entirely new floor to build up on. The industry is ripe for fresh development from creative, independent thinkers and the evidence is there to prove that at their hands there is still room for progression.

What will we all be doing after twenty or thirty years? Running Windows 18, playing PS4000, and texting on an iPhone 50SC? Somehow I don’t think so. Most likely we’ll be using hardware and software the likes of which we can hardly conceive of today. Everything may look like its in flux now, but in the end I firmly believe this will prove to be an exciting time for the world technology.