Microsoft’s vision, and the myth of the carefree gadget

The only thing I don’t believe in Microsoft’s video of the future is how calm everybody is around such omnipresent tech.

Monica Guzman

For as long as there’s been technology, it seems, there’s been this vision of a technology utopia — of gadgets not only fitting into our day-to-day lives, but also disappearing into them, so that a person surrounded by beautiful gadgets is as carefree as a person surrounded by beautiful trees.

Watching the Microsoft video, I saw this fantasy, and I had to wonder: Why lie?

When I was in first grade, there were these two fourth graders — Brendan and Kyle — who were brothers, twins, and, to me, the picture of a carefree life. I worried about my Spelling homework and whether Michael believed Danielle when she told him I liked him (which I did). But the way Brendan and Kyle carried the crate of milks from the first-floor cooler back up to their classroom for lunch, I knew they didn’t worry about things. When I got to fourth grade, I thought, I’d stop worrying, too.

I didn’t. I stressed about buying the right coat and whether I’d heard all the cool music. But the way Brendan and Kyle slung their backpacks over their shoulders and laughed with the girls made me think, Eighth grade. That’s when it happens. That’s when I’ll be able to laugh silly problems away.

And so on and so forth until years and years later, when I realized how silly I’d been, to look at my future and think I wouldn’t be a part of it.

One of the passages that’s stayed with me from “Fight Club” takes on the safety card in the seat pocket in front of you on the airplane. Until I read it, I hadn’t realized that the calm, cool faces bracing for impact in the illustrations were laughably unrealistic.

The people in the Microsoft video, like the people in nearly all videos selling us on upcoming technologies, are laughably unrealistic. They don’t look plugged in. They look sedated. Those sure finger flicks over a screen. The slow, warm smiles. The video reflects who we want to be more than who we are — the relationship we want with technology rather than the relationship we have.

We’ll never be as carefree around our beautiful gadgets as we are around beautiful trees. Not because trees are good and gadgets are bad, but because trees don’t care, and gadgets challenge us to live up to our commitments — call this person, get to this appointment, make this decision, get this done. When they’re not toys, communications gadgets are an extension of our own responsibilities. Responsibilities don’t make us comfortable. They make us better.

From first grade to eighth grade and so on, my life got more, not less, complicated. And I dreamed of taking it easy even as I pushed myself to do things that were harder. Because as it turns out, a lot of the best things in life are a struggle.

Forget the technology fantasy. I think we can handle the truth.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • Anonymous

    What a downer to read! I wonder what great examples of inspiration you can cite that have touched you? I’m guessing idealised people dancing in silhouettes don’t inspire you either?

    • Anonymous

      I understand why it read technophobic; I wrote it after paying $90 to fix my iPhone ;) Only meant to provoke thought. I once wrote a paper about mobile phone advertising in the early 2000s. One trait about these ads that fascinated me was that when they showed someone talking on a mobile phone, smiling and carefree, they almost never showed any other person around them. It’s a little awkward, talking on the phone while you’re in a co-present social situation, a reality better left unaddressed in marketing. I love technology and what it’s done for us, but as a gadget geek and sci-fi fan, am intrigued by the gaps between our tech dreams and our tech realities.

  • http://simon-dufour.blogspot.com/ Simon Dufour

    I’d say technology help us deal with day to day problems and helps us stay calmer and calmer every years. While those videos are probably idealized, they’re surely provoking discussions among scientists and professionals.

  • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

    This topic came up when I was interviewing the Microsoft executives who oversaw the creation of the video. Their explanation was that the video assumes most of the technology would have been around for a while, enough that it would be intuitive for people to use. 

    Monica, I suspect you may be right, but deep down I hope you’re wrong, and that one of the functions of progress is that technology becomes effortless and invisible.

    • http://www.andreajames.net Andrea James

      Todd: It is possible that Monica is right and that your Utopian vision can be too.

      It’s funny because, when I see this video — which I loved by the way so good job MSFTies — I don’t wonder about the stress of the people in the video. I see myself in those people, for the most part. There are times when I am truly walking through an airport, swiping my phone, and I look up and think — with a calm smile — I just connected with someone I love, thousands of miles away, and then responded to an investor client, all from the palm of my hand. All while on the go. I feel alive and a part of the present and as if I am benefiting from the innovations of  the world’s brightest minds. Love that.

      Instead, this video makes me wonder about the people who aren’t able to keep up, the ones who fear technological change, the ones who can’t or don’t want to handle the greater responsibilities (great point Monica!) that come with all these gadgets, and the ones who will inevitably feel outsourced or left behind. 

      (Like the guy who used to produce the laminated paper room service menus in hotel rooms. Will he be a part of the production and sale of the glassware menu? Probably not.)

      And maybe that won’t happen — maybe our education system will be able to keep up and everyone will be able to participate and have a place in this future. Maybe paper-room-service-menu-guy would learn how to design computer graphics instead. 

      There will be churn and displacement — but hopefully it can be minimized. That’s the thing to hope for and fight for.

      • http://www.andreajames.net Andrea James

        PS: Great thought-provoking piece, as usual, Monica! 

      • Anonymous

        Too bad – adapt or die is the way of life.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I hope I’m wrong, too, because who wouldn’t? ;) But in another sense, I don’t see technology “becoming” anything, @toddbishop:disqus in that, I just don’t see it stopping. Technology is an extension of our ambitions, failings, fears and aspirations. As long as we struggle to live better, more meaningful lives, technology will be part of the struggle — not a solution against it. It won’t have a perfect relationship with us until we have a perfect relationship with ourselves.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I hope I’m wrong, too, because who wouldn’t? ;) But in another sense, I don’t see technology “becoming” anything, @toddbishop:disqus in that, I just don’t see it stopping. Technology is an extension of our ambitions, failings, fears and aspirations. As long as we struggle to live better, more meaningful lives, technology will be part of the struggle — not a solution against it. It won’t have a perfect relationship with us until we have a perfect relationship with ourselves.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I hope I’m wrong, too, because who wouldn’t? ;) But in another sense, I don’t see technology “becoming” anything, @toddbishop:disqus in that, I just don’t see it stopping. Technology is an extension of our ambitions, failings, fears and aspirations. As long as we struggle to live better, more meaningful lives, technology will be part of the struggle — not a solution against it. It won’t have a perfect relationship with us until we have a perfect relationship with ourselves.

  • http://twitter.com/voipnorm Chris Norman

    And no one thought you would be able to control a device with hand and body motions but here we are with kinect with xbox 360. These are visions on what the future could be not a detailed documentary on what it will be. Geekwire is typically not known for stuff like this, it would be great if it continued in that vein. If I wanted to read this type of stuff I would go to Network World where all the downer analyst live.

    • http://twitter.com/jasonp Jason Preston

      I don’t think @moniguzman:twitter is asking whether or not the tech in the video is realistic — that’s not the point.

      I think it is pointing out how weird it looks to her for everyone to be so blasé about things like hotels labeled on cab windows and scheduling reminders. Basically – the video is unrealistic not because of the technology, but because it’s like the Stepford future. 

      • Chris Norman

        The technolgy is the showcase here not how realistic the people in it are. I guess I dont get the point of talking about the actors in the video just because they arent showing any grand emotion. I would think the ideas behind the technology in use is the real conversation.

        • Anonymous

          Fair point, Chris. I’ll be the first to say this is an unconventional critique, inspired by but not wholly about the Microsoft video. It’s also pretty unconventional for me; I surround myself with technology and have never really left the awestruck stage with a lot of them. My Kinect still feels like magic. Decided to go down the rabbit hole of an interesting thought, see where it would lead. Interesting to see the mixed reaction. Fascinating in its own right ;)

  • http://twitter.com/luckylou Luis Antezana (luckylou)

    Mónica – great article. I had a similar impression. These aren’t the human beings I know. One thing we’ve hopefully learned over time, as you illustrate, is chaos, uncertainty, and emotion are integral to the human experience, like it or not. Realistic visions of technology necessarily factor this into planning. An idea’s capacity for success is measured against its ability to thrive within that context.

    How does the video belie Microsoft’s consideration (or lack thereof) of the realistic environment for which it is designing? Whether or not a technology is familiar or intuitive doesn’t mean it’s going to profoundly alter the human condition.

    On a cynical side I don’t like companies taking advance credit for things they haven’t yet accomplished. It’s not hard to have a pretty well-conceived visualization of a teleporter in action but being the one to make it happen is an entirely different thing. I realize the intro text makes disclaimers around this but nobody reads that stuff except nerds like me.While I also have some of my own reservations with the technological aspects of the vision presented I realize it’s meant to be aspirational so I don’t take it too literally.It’s fun to see these things and more fun to look back years from now and see which were practical and which were the promised jetpacks. It’s also fun to dream and to push our own work in technology to fulfill ideals we may not have colored in so vividly.

    I’m thankful a video like this provides a stimulating platform for discussion of all kinds of ideas, aspirational and critical. More Kirk less HAL.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      “Realistic visions of technology necessarily factor this into planning.” Yup – but hardly ever marketing! As long as consumers don’t confuse the two too often, not much harm is done, I suppose. As you say, aspiration has its merits.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      “Realistic visions of technology necessarily factor this into planning.” Yup – but hardly ever marketing! As long as consumers don’t confuse the two too often, not much harm is done, I suppose. As you say, aspiration has its merits.

    • Anonymous

      Really? I see people whip out their iPhones/Android/whatever and do these amazing things on them with no expression at all. The blase attitude is already here.

  • Don Olson

    This is only a modernized vision of the future that our parents (and for some of you, grandparents) watched in stunning black and white in the 1950s. Back then, they all seemed pretty carefree as well, with push-button video phones and thermal-pane windows.

  • Stan Shaw

    Monica, I agree. I love my computers and gadgets, but sometimes I want to go all “Office Space” on ‘em. And while responsibilities may make us better, they can often make us anxious and frustrated.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Certainly nice to aspire to a technology utopia if it inspires us (which it does). But it feels like we put a lot of stock on future technology’s ability to eliminate not just our technical hurdles but our psychological ones. Today’s technology is never enough. But tomorrow’s … tomorrow’s will really make things easier. Such an interesting cycle…

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Certainly nice to aspire to a technology utopia if it inspires us (which it does). But it feels like we put a lot of stock on future technology’s ability to eliminate not just our technical hurdles but our psychological ones. Today’s technology is never enough. But tomorrow’s … tomorrow’s will really make things easier. Such an interesting cycle…

  • Joabedejesus

    seremos um só, ou eles serão melhor que nós

  • Asok14215

    I don’t get the elementary school anecdote at all.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_J6GNS73AGGJFVYDDDG35FKGBD4 squidq

      Yes, I have to agree. Did Brendan and Kyle turn out to be androids or did they just spend a lot of time in the woods among those beautiful relaxing trees? Are they gurus that exist outside the world of neurosis and mind-numbing yet tension-causing gadgets?

      Still, I’m enjoying the notion that Brendan and Kyle are enjoying life – just kicking it with grins on their faces, aware of life the universe and everything but keeping their nose out of the world that this article outlines.

  • http://www.losethebabyweight.net lose the baby weight

    Gadgets are so pervasive that 40% of smart phone users take them to the toilet. The bright marketing minds see a fantastic opportunity for usage growth, no doubt.

  • http://TopMbaPrograms.org TopMbaPrograms

    Haven’t Microsoft got their predictions wrong in the past?

  • http://www.economyleasinguk.co.uk/car-leasing-deals Car Leasing Deals

    Microsoft’s vision may not be so distant with a new geek toy recently released.

    It’s a robot that’s controlled by your mind.

  • http://www.itrainmymind.com/how-does-hypnosis-work How does Hypnosis Work

    Cool gadgets from Microsoft! we can expect more innovations from them in the next few days. Life is easy and you can live comfortably if you desire so.