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1 April 2019

In an age where new technologies constantly emerge – and the amount of e-waste in the world only increases – we must ask ourselves whether the market’s most current products are truly capable of improving our lives, Grazia Scotellaro writes in this piece from Perfection, a new publication from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific. 

The very essence of technology is built on a constant aim of improvement. We have seen machines that used to take up entire buildings in the early days of computing shrink to the size of a watch.

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In 1980, the IBM 3380 was the first hard drive to have more than one gigabyte. It could store 2.52 gigabytes and was the size of a refrigerator, weighing nearly 250 kilograms. Punch cards, tapes, floppies and CD ROMs (CDs) have come and gone.

Despite this fast-paced change in technology, each newcomer is welcomed with the promise of being the best and most perfect solution.

When CDs were introduced in the early 80s, it was claimed they would change the way audio and video was consumed forever. However, even then, some industry experts could see that such a device would not survive rapid changes in technologies or indeed live up to the claims of ‘perfection’ made on its behalf.

Famously, Paul McCartney told a journalist a story about George Martin (record producer and arranger for The Beatles) showing him a CD. “George said, ‘This will change the world.’ He told us it was indestructible, you can’t smash it. Look! And – whack – it broke in half”. Some years later a Virgin employer in a meeting said, “In a few years, you’re going to be able to carry all the music you want around on something the size of a credit card”. People around the table laughed, “Don’t be ridiculous! How can you do that?”. In the early 90s, Napster (digital music service) came around. Music, at least, started to migrate out of CDs into MP3 players.

In this new technology paradigm, nobody lives under the illusion that the new device in your hand is perfect. The majority of people are happy with the knowledge that their device will be replaced.

Some technology innovations were relegated to the history books after a brief and costly lifecycle. Take the famous Iomega Zip drive, which was launched in 1995. It was initially well received due the ease of use and large (for that time) capacity. But writeable CDs and eventually USB storage made the Zip drive far too expensive. The early 2000s witnessed the end of this seemingly perfectly designed but unfortunate victim of the data storage innovation race.

CDs and later DVDs also changed the video technology landscape. Once, going to the video store to borrow a movie on tape or DVD to be returned a few days later was considered far more convenient or enjoyable than going to the movies. Such power of choice represented the perfect way to spend an evening. But in the past year, almost all of Australia’s remaining video stores shut down. Now, why travel to a physical store when you can stream a movie through Netflix?

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We can see that technology has had a long history of rapid and disruptive changes that sometimes leave people wondering what is around the corner.

What has changed now, however, is that instead of fearing obsolescence as new innovations come on the market, technology companies are using rapid innovation to their advantage. These companies make change and improvements part of their product DNA, aiming for a kind of perfection that intentionally only lasts until the next version.

When Apple launched its brand new and totally revolutionary iPhone in 2007, the device was hailed as the perfect phone. The phone went far beyond making and receiving phone calls. It merged some of the technology Apple had previously used in iPods to transform the phone into a ‘mobile device’. It married usefulness with pleasure. Gone was the keypad – in its place a beautifully designed touch screen. Around the world, people began to transition from a device that had just one function to a device that, over the years, became more like a pocket computer than a traditional telephone.

However, the hype back in 2007 reflected something more: the rise of perfect imperfection.

The first iPhone had taken years to develop behind the scenes. When it was released in 2007, work had already begun on the new and improved version that appeared in 2008, with new features, such as 3G technology and GPS. Apple did not delay the launch of the first iPhone even though the company knew full well that a more advanced version was just a few months away.

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The original iPhone was perfect enough to become a ‘must have’ icon. The marketing around this new product hooked a group of devoted followers. Around the world, people now wait in line for hours to be the first to own the latest iPhone or Apple mobile device. In this new technology paradigm, nobody lives under the illusion that the new device in your hand is perfect. The majority of people are happy with the knowledge that their device will be replaced with something better very soon.

Here lies the trick: a new technology has to be perfect enough for the consumer to want it but it needs to leave enough expectations for the new one coming (very soon) to want to upgrade. I call this the ‘want and release mechanism’.

Apple mastered this art over the years. Anyone who has watched the cleverly orchestrated launch videos from the Steve Jobs days realises that many other companies from Samsung to Google now play the very same game. Technology companies have learned to ‘curb’ the enthusiasm of those who refuse to play the game and hold onto perfectly good devices even after new models are available.

Operating systems and apps follow the lifecycle of new releases. After a while the recalcitrant customer is forced to upgrade simply because not much will work on the old device. The most important marketing ploy to keep customers loyal is to have a product that is great but still leaves you wanting more.

The ugly side of the pursuit of perfection and possessing the latest, smartest gadget, is that technology is contributing to the already growing problem of waste. E-waste is an expanding problem and figures recently published by The World Counts make for sobering reading:

  • 40 billion tons of e-waste is generated annually, and this is growing each year
  • most of the e-waste is shipped off to Asia for ‘recycling’ when in fact it is just a cheaper option than disposing of it in the country of provenance
  • e-waste found in scrap yards in Ghana by Greenpeace was causing severe contamination.
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Some companies like Apple are aware of the issues and try to minimise waste, for example accepting old phones when customers buy a new version with the bonus of a gift card to encourage recycling.

The technology world is full of perfect examples of inventions big and small that have but a finite space in history, destined to shine for a while and then be replaced with something bigger (or smaller) and better. Technological innovation is always searching for something more perfect. But is the ‘more perfect’ really better?

Aiming for longevity in this world of disposable technology is increasingly important. While nothing will last forever, we can aim to use technology in innovative ways that withstand the pressures of the want and release mechanism.

One example close to home is the project that was launched at ANU by the College of Asia and the Pacific to use mobile devices as a learning platform for teaching Sanskrit. In 2014, ANU ePress published a multimedia ebook that used a combination of text, audio, and videos to teach this ancient language. The ebook, created by McComas Taylor and myself, was intentionally produced with more emphasis on usability then perfection.

To keep pace with changing devices, the ebook was formatted to work across platforms and operating systems. This meant forgoing some of the complex features found in other ebooks. Four years after publishing, the Sanskrit ebook is still one of the most downloaded etexts from ANU ePress. Sometimes, simple is best.

All of us occasionally reflect on a time when things were not so complicated, when less was definitely more. Today many people are re-discovering the simple act of putting a needle on a record or actually conversing with someone on the phone without the need to use their thumbs on the keyboards. ‘Retro’ is the new fashion.

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This nostalgia is often well-founded. Many of the technologies of the past were in fact, for the most part, well crafted. Only the need to push for the latest had replaced vinyl with digital, flip phones with mobile devices, Polaroid with digital cameras. Now, ‘hipsters’ are discovering old technologies as the new perfect.

Vinyl is making a comeback as well as flip phones and polaroid cameras. It seems that being too perfect has its imperfections after all, and a few scratches on the old vinyl makes music feel more real and unprocessed.

Now that technology appears to be everywhere, the real luxury may be escaping it. Some argue that the renewed interest in flip phones is, in fact, a sign that too many capabilities on modern phones are not only distracting but destructive. ‘Digital detox’ has become a catchword. The ability to concentrate, instead of being incessantly ‘pinged’ by the world, is just … perfect!

This is a piece from Perfection, a collection of expert essays in the latest edition of Paradigm_Shift from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific. This edition focuses on diverse ideas of perfection that shape lives in Asia and the Pacific. You can read the essays for free here.

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