Whenever you read about consumer technology, it usually discusses RAM, screen size, battery duration, memory or a dozen other similar metrics.
Tech is focused on such metrics because electronics are so central to how people live and work that tech companies invest their resources into developing more and better electronic devices. This is evident by the huge $708 billion spent on research and development and the sheer number of new products released daily. Unfortunately, this focus on electronics has had negative consequences as well.
Tech has become overly obsessed with short-term gains, often releasing products that try to be the “fastest,” “thinnest,” or “most powerful” but lack the long-term staying power of timeless, well-designed products. This has led to a proliferation of poorly made and quickly forgotten products and limited the development of meaningful, helpful, and durable tech.
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While climate change is on the agenda daily, sustainability and the circular economy are far from it. The U.S. alone produced 6.92 million tons of e-waste in 2019 — roughly 46 pounds per person. Meanwhile, consumers of technology are figuratively drowning in content about the millionth new gadget offered on the market.
Companies must strive to develop tech more mindful of the environment and long-term implications. The truth is it’s simply not very sexy to market a product that isn’t fresh or edgy. But sometimes, slightly updating what’s already out there so that it’s less wasteful, or adding a layer of essential utility, produces the most value.
A grand tradition for kicking off the new year is technologists of all stripes descending on Las Vegas for CES, the biggest tech convention globally. Walking around the thousands of exhibitions, it couldn’t be more evident that electronics come first, second, third and fourth in terms of tech writers’ priorities.
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But wedged in between the gadget and gizmos, you find some innovative things that are more important than what you first might think, like GAIT-TECH, which unveiled a Biomech device integrated into the insole of high-heel shoes at the production stage. This device creates a cushioning effect and relieves women of pain when the foot is in vertical flexion — no AI, batteries, bells or whistles.
It shows that technology can be more than just the latest and greatest gadget. Its primary purpose should be to make people’s lives better, more efficient and more enjoyable. And that sometimes means avoiding the urge to put all our eggs in the electronics basket and looking for other solutions.
What’s needed is an improvement in how people perceive technology and its purpose. Wider adoption of human-centered products should take precedence over what’s trendy. But this requires a shift of the tech consumers, tech media, but also tech creators.
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Just think of mRNA technology. Had it not been because of the global pandemic, few of us outside science would have heard about it. But the mRNA vaccines represented the culmination of decades of research, which was more than ripe to bear fruit. Still, it wasn’t in the public’s consciousness at all.
Or think of new recyclable materials in fashion. Innovative fast fashion that isn’t such a burden on the earth will be a game-changer on many levels. Still, we have yet to hear about these advances outside of the fashion industry.
Stella McCartney launched an alternative-leather bag made from mushroom roots; LanzaTech’s carbon-capturing material is now a feature in Zara’s collection; and Gucci-owner Kering backs lab-grown-leather startup VitroLabs. These are technological advances worthy of attention. But as a non-connoisseur of fashion, one can easily be forgiven for thinking that the most substantial fashion tech advances lie in Gore-Tex inventing waterproof fabrics. Those technological leaps were made over 50 years ago.
I might have been a bit harsh on CES, considering the C and E in the acronym are shorts for “consumer” and “electronics,” but the point stands. Advances in biomechanics or pharma have as much bearing, and perhaps even more critical to our lives than electronics.
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Finding a balance between what is sexy and what offers proper utility for the long haul is difficult. We should applaud electronics for their newfound and still-growing ubiquity in our lives, but this should not come at the cost of understanding technology as an ever-evolving tool.
This gap presents opportunities for innovators and technologists. Engaging in tech doesn’t require everyone to know how to code or have a degree in electrical engineering. So take a moment to step away from the world of electronics and venture into new realms of innovation. That would be a new year’s resolution worth keeping.
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