In search of objects

My wife came back from an experimental music gig in Oakland recently with these. On the top, a 2 gig microSD card from her audio recorder. On the bottom, well, an audio cassette. There’s something of a trend for these, apparently, just as there is for vinyl (though without the claims about sound quality). The inconvenience is part of the point – they’re hard to digitise, which restricts circulation and means the creator retains a degree of control (this reminds me of a hip denim shop in Tokyo that called itself ‘Not Found’ so that you couldn’t Google it – you had to be in the know). They’re also a way to package up a set of tracks in a way that’s otherwise awkward without a tool like Soundcloud. And a little of it is really a pose, like, say, trucker hats. But the interesting thing to me is that they’re a thing that you can actually give someone. 

As smartphones have subsumed more and more consumer electronics products, you could end up just owning fewer things. But smartphones also enable new products, as I’ve written elsewhere: the smartphone supply chain generates small, cheap and very powerful sensors, processors and other components that can be used for new types of devices. Some of these will be purely utilitarian – fitness trackers, connected door locks or thermostats. But others will tap into the desire for objects that are pleasing. 

You can see some of this in a16z’s portfolio investment Ringly. There is utility, yes, in a ‘wearable’ (a term for the technology world, not the jewellery world) with a small coloured light to tell you if something’s happened. But the point is also delight – a good stone, well cut, and a light that shows different colours if your partner has messaged you. This is about pleasure as much as function – emotion as well as efficiency.  

You can also see this in the Apple Watch. Like the iPhone and the Mac before it, it represents a step in the movement of technology from something you enjoy making (or changing, or configuring) to something you enjoy using, and from something where the technical specifications were all that mattered to one where the technology is in the background and exists only to deliver some other kind of experience. A watch that lets your partner touch you on the wrist from afar is not exactly a technology product – it’s ‘just’ enabled by technology. 

This requires some new mental models, as we will see when Apple reveals the price of the rose-gold version, which will probably be somewhere north of $5000 simply as a function of the cost of the gold. A portion of the tech community will be both loudly scandalised and also secretly comforted: its view of

as a maker of overpriced gimmicks sold ‘just’ on fashion instead of technology will be confirmed. But this has always been the direction of travel, right back to mice, which no serious computer user believed in: the future of technology has always looked like a pretty toy to people comfortable with the past. 

I think ‘wearables’ are one part of a broader opportunity, which one might perhaps call connected objects rather than connected devices – a ring or a watch are not ‘devices’. The Berg Printer was another interesting experiment – a thermal printer that gave you a slip of paper for the day. It could have been an app, but where’s the fun, or physicality, in that? 

One can, perhaps, see this balance between digital and physical or tangible in the whole smartphone app model. There’s a sense that by getting an app you have somehow captured what’s inside it – pinned it to your home screen like a collector’s butterfly. It’s no longer an intangible web page, floating somewhere out there, that you got to through Google and that might not be there anymore, but rather you’ve saved it for yourself. Maybe this is one reason why people hoard apps – you might use them, you think, and you don’t want to have to go back and remember them or find them again. An app is tangible – it’s a thing that you have and keep and can’t lose or forget. 

Hence, I suspect that one of the dominant document formats of the smartphone age is the screenshot. The tech industry is endlessly eating itself, transforming people’s experiences as it does, but people also take back ownership of that experience for themselves, and there’s nothing more authentically analogue today than a screenshot.