A quick question, Why would someone spend three days outside a store waiting for the latest version of a phone? Why should every update of an operating system of a phone be received with frenzied reviews that heap praise or invective within hours of its launch? And while there will always be those that skate on the thin ice of sanity in their obsession with gadgets and gizmos, the sense of thrall that surrounds new releases of old technologies is one that is shared by a very large number of people. What explains this, given that most often, these updated versions offer less than dramatic change?
Some of the reasons behind this manic excitement that surrounds every new version of a gadget are easy to identify. In a world where consumption becomes the default currency of change, owning the latest becomes a badge of honour. In some senses, the motivation is quite akin to seeing a film ‘first day first show’. This goes a step further, for here one actually owns the gadget and gets to bask in the resultant aura of envy that one inevitably ends up being surrounded by. Also, there is now a universal benchmark for being current on which one can evaluate oneself ;owning an older version of the latest gadget has an a strange air of sadness surrounding it.
But beyond these reasons, there is an internal drive that draws a lot of us towards the idea of the new in technology. This has to do with the nature of gadgets, in particular those of the digital era. Gadgets are nothing but technology with a handle. By compressing science into a form of personal usefulness, they which point human intent into the direction of capability. Personal gadgets in particular help forge a new relationship between the individual and the world she resides in. A personal transistor is a great example of how the gadgetisation of radio made music a portable presence in our lives. It liberated the radio from its perch as a household installation and gave individuals the freedom to develop their own taste and vocabulary in music.
But in the physical world, while gadgets are held in thrall, progression in these is usually extremely gradual with occasional leaps in technology. The gadget was imagined as an asset with a very long lifespan and was thought of a crotchety, high-maintenance creature that could be upgraded only after deep thought and a respectable passage of time. A case needed to be made for every upgradation; indeed in many cases, these gadgets could be bought only once in every lifetime.
There is something fundamentally different about the digital gadgets of today. They take the idea of the primacy of human intent one step forward by being nothing but delivery systems of human desires. The idea of software locates human intention outside of itself into a small handheld device. The digital world is a new settlement of the mind, an entire universe shaped by human imagination. The physical world is a settlement of the body, the digital world that of the mind. These are still the early years of this new world, which is being populated by ideas in real time. New gadgets are the explorers of this new world, in this not only finding new lands but simultaneously creating new ways of navigating these.
The fascination with new versions of technology comes from the excitement of being part of something genuinely new, something that seems wholly to be a product of human thought. So far, human ingenuity has been restricted to finding a way to turn the nature of the material world into a form of advantage for human beings. Technology took existing circumstances and found within them the means of creating a world more oriented towards human desires and needs. In the digital world, the dependence on the physical appears to have diminished significantly.
In some ways, technology is the name we give to the idea of newness as an inexorable force, that lends shape and meaning to humanity as it arcs forward in time. The idea that tomorrow is not merely today happening at another time, but another era that must necessarily move above and beyond today, takes the most concrete form in the guise of technology. We are forever new, perennially improving, and we have technology to prove it. The idea of life as something locked in the future tense makes sense very visibly through the restless newness of technology.
From a world propelled by the idea of capability and limited by the notion of constraints, we are moving towards a world driven by intention, and limited increasingly by the limits of human imagination. Devices give us a way of connecting with this new world, each bringing its own set of capabilities to bear. The mobile phone, which has become the primary device through which we engage with the world, is now increasingly a product of human imagination.. Through this gadget we are discovering not only a new world but simultaneously finding new ways by which we can comprehend and make use of everything it has to offer. The digital landscape is a new one and the tools we have of making sense of it are also being invented in the here and now. The hardware represents the broad infrastructural parameters of this new civilisation which gets filled out with algorithms of human intent by way of software. Apps are the new tools of the time, thousands of impatient bots of ingenuity that push at the outer edges of the capability of technology, delivering usefulness and self-indulgent uselessness in equal measure.
Not every expectation about the new is met, but even the disappointment is eloquent for it underlines the feeling that something truly radical is underway. We expect to be dazzled by some new way of connecting with our world. Technology has just become uncapitalised; it now resides in the nooks and crannies of our lives and will reshape virtually every aspect of how we live. We live with the prospect of the world being perpetually renewed, as one layer of improvement coats another, in rapid succession. In the fullness of time, we might find that the new has a strange way of resembling the old; the full pattern of change might get revealed only when we move a little distance away from it. We may also find that the new does not always equal the better, and that sometimes incremental improvements when added up, begin to look like a disastrous regression into the primitive. But for now, we are dazzled.