It might be because Christmas has just happened, which always makes me feel slightly nauseous about the amount of consumption that goes on. It might be because any job where you regularly trawl articles about the latest thing in technology means you read about a lot of pointless products. Or it might be that things really have gone too far. But when I read about the idea that cheese companies could potentially bid to serve ads to your internet fridge when you’ve run out of cheddar, it really did feel like something snapped.
So I was going to write a post about how so many of the products and services being developed now are either completely pointless, or address needs that are minimal at best. But of course other people have done that already, and much better than I ever could: read Ben Davis’ excellent take-down of the internet fridge (“technology is generally supposed to make your life easier or more fun. Looking at fridge selfies on the internet is neither”), or Charles Arthur slamming the Philips Hue lightbulb: “I pause to wonder who feels an urgent need to change the colour and brightness of their lights from their phone”.
But what strikes me most about this is the amount of effort and intelligence and technology that is wasted on developing this Internet of Ridiculous Things as Mr Arthur dubs it. All these bright people being paid to develop something that allows you to turn the lighting a whiter shade of pale. Imagine what these people could do if they were set to work on something really useful, like preventing war, or climate change, or feeding an ever increasing population?
Of course the reason they are not working on this kind of thing is because organisations are all trying to stay ahead of the competition. They know that if they don’t bid for the cheese ad on your fridge, their rivals will.
So what we need – for a week, or a month, or a year, is for everyone to say ‘It’s ok. If you stop pursuing growth, so will we. No-one will try to increase market share this year, or create new products no-one needs (chocolate Shreddies? really?) we’ll all just stop, and work together on something important. Something that might not even need a technical solution, like helping people with mental health issues, or building houses, or dealing with the refugee crisis. No-one actually needs a fridge that takes pictures of its own insides or a lightbulb that changes colour.’
What this would require, though, is unprecedented levels of trust in each other. It’s only going to work if everyone agrees to it, and no-one cheats. I went to see Chris Hadfield talk about his experiences on the International Space Station last year, and one of the things he talked about was how looking down on the planet from space makes you realise that each other is all we have. So it’s completely pointless to keep fighting and competing and inventing cheese auction systems: we should work together instead.
You might think this is ridiculous, and naive, and impossible. Which it probably is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.