Occasionally, new technology changes lives. But mostly it doesn’t. I’m a greybeard and (like most people I think) the number of qualitative tech-driven shifts in my life fits on the fingers on one hand. How about you?

Ground rules · Let’s keep it to this century. Which assumes the Internet, email, and some flavor of real-time chat; they’re part of civilization’s background radiation, these days. Even so, my list of changes will extend further back than most people’s.

I’m pretty mainstream in most respects, but to the extent I’m not, my list might be unrepresentative. So: My life is not automobile-centric, I almost never watch movies, and I’m a bookworm; I think that about covers it.

What happened was · I was reading John Gruber on the iPhones 6; in wrapping up, he said “If there’s a certain flatness to this review, a lack of enthusiasm, it’s not intentional.” No, but it’s inevitable; These are obviously great products and they’ll sell in tens of millions, but they’ll be bought overwhelmingly by those already on the mobile Net, and thus they really won’t change any lives.

Neither will wearables.

So I started scribbling a lists of things that did, and was shocked how short it was.

1. Mobile Net · This became inevitable with the iPhone launch in 2007. Thus: In motion, I don’t need to leave a question hanging or a message unanswered. And I don’t have to be bored on public transit (so I take it more often; screw city driving). And I don’t have to be anywhere in particular to work, or to create.

2. Maps · Wherever I am, I can find my way to anywhere else, fearlessly. If it’s not obvious to you that humans are essentially nomadic, go read Chatwin’s The Songlines.

But it’s not controversial to say that travel is an essential human activity, fear of getting lost one of the deepest primal horrors, and Internet maps are life-changers, big-time.

3. Short-form level-field publishing · To tell the world something important, you don’t need an editor or a publisher or a printer or a bookstore or a newsstand or a marketing group.

Also, you can use the right number of words; there’s no pressure to fill a book, or to cut down to a column-inches budget. The potential for anyone, anywhere, to write something that touches millions of lives still feels like pure magic to me. My life has been wrenched in new directions by things I’ve read (and written) that never would have seen the light if day until, say, 2005.

4. The Net’s book ecosystem · Amazon and its competitors (can we have more please?) combine with ubiquitous book-size screens to remove friction from bookworkms’ lives. The business models still need work, but going back to those dead trees that you have to drive to get, and then crowd you out of your house — unthinkable!

[Weirdly, The Songlines doesn’t seem to be available electronically.]

Too soon to tell · Since late 2012, my life has been changed, more than any other single factor, by Ingress. I get way more exercise and my social circle has expanded; neither of those are small things. People like to play games and they like to go outside; and they get old, so it’s good if some outside games don’t require whacking and jumping and blocking and tackling.

I’m not saying Ingress itself is the life-changer; just the notion of an imagination-based game grown-ups can play out in the real world.

New phones, yawn · When I got out of the necessarily-obsessive Android group at Google, I suddenly realized that nothing I’d been working on there had the potential to be a life-changer. Frankly, the highest-impact product Google has shipped in the last couple of years may be ChromeCast; and that’s just TV.

How about you? · I’m probably missing something obvious.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Lennon Day-Reynolds (Sep 17 2014, at 12:14)

I'm actually surprised you didn't include this one, but for me the modern state of digital photography definitely earns a top spot.

Digital cameras have been around a while now, but really hit their stride with in both compact ones with really great sensors and glass (ala mirrorless kits and enthusiast cameras like the X100 series) and smartphones with surprisingly passable image capture.

Add the ability to have a backup archive of every decent photo I've taken in the last five years and you have a change in the way I experience and communicate with the world. The instant-feedback element of posting photos to social networks just levels up the communication side of the equation.

Photographing all the events (mundane or sublime) in your life used to be a weird, boring-bordering-on-creepy hobby. Now it's simply an assumed way of interacting with the world.

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From: Kamil Kisiel (Sep 17 2014, at 12:19)

Streaming video services like YouTube changed a lot of things. Now if I want to learn a skill, or how to fix my toaster, or demo a musical instrument, I can find out how within a few minutes by just searching there. Also lots of short form entertainment is available, so more time spent watching short clips and less or none watching TV.

Similarly music services like Rdio have done for me to MP3s what MP3s did to CDs. I barely have an MP3 collection any more and just stream almost everything. The exception being indie artists whose music I buy to support them directly.

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From: Dave Pawson (Sep 17 2014, at 12:24)

You missed on Tim? Bandwidth? That enables many of your changers?

Try that on a voice modem?

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From: d.w. (Sep 17 2014, at 12:26)

High-quality compressed digital audio.

I was just the right age to have my life changed by the Walkman. In college I used to walk across campus with 2 or 3 pounds of cassettes in my backpack. MP3 et. al. made it possible for me to go anywhere and pull a nontrivial portion of my music collection along with me.

With the rise of Spotify/Rdio/Pandora/etc I now have the "celestial jukebox" available all day while I work, commute, and relax.

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From: Robert Hahn (Sep 17 2014, at 12:55)

* portable music players that can hold your entire collection - now you can soundtrack every moment of the day, or replace the dj at your wedding with an iPod.

* video on demand - watch your fav shows on your own time - pause it to look after the baby.

* web based language translators - now it's finally possible to help your kids with their French homework

* crowd sourced help on video. Need to learn how to tie a necktie? How about changing the windshield wiper blade on your van? Go to YouTube.

* also agree with digital photography - particularly on a phone. Now you can take a picture of your prescription meds before going to the doctor. Or photograph a problem with your home project before going to the hardware store.

* on-phone video. Consider the woman who recorded her seizure to show her doctors - which helped them with a diagnosis

* I also want to include remote collaboration. Only this century have we really seen people living in very different places collaborate, in real time (or near real time) on projects with real outcomes.

* gps for everyone

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From: Mike Kozlowski (Sep 17 2014, at 13:33)

Very few things are instantaneous life-changers, but the accumulation of changes builds up into something major. I mean, life without Wikipedia now would be absurd, but there's no one point at which Wikipedia suddenly sprang into being.

I think some of the stuff that gets branded as Google Now (voice control, natural language parsing, expert systems, pushed anticipatory knowledge) is in the middle phases of being revolutionary. The difference between a circa 2000 search for information and a modern one is about more than just the device I'm doing it on.

You dismiss Chromecast as "just TV" but streaming video is a real thing. Before this century, the only sources of video were your cable/antenna signal and DVDs/VHS tapes, which could mostly only be played back on your TV. The modern conception of the TV as just another screen rather than the portal to all video is a big change, as is the ubiquity of Youtube/Netflix/etc.

I think you also underestimate a lot of social things. Online dating has changed things enormously in ways that aren't going to show up on a GDP chart but that it would feel weird to not have. Social networks have altered the arc of relationships (people's relationships with their old college friends in 2014 is qualitatively different than it was in 2000).

And of course, phones tie into all these things, and even as no particular phone model is revolutionary any more, the gap between what a modern high-end phone can do and what that first iPhone could do is enormous.

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From: Doug K (Sep 17 2014, at 13:48)

interesting question.. I could not come up with a single thing other than your #3, which surprised me.

Mobile net needs a smartphone, which I have not yet found a need for sufficient to justify paying the premiums.

Maps similarly, the internet maps are not any help without mobile net. GPS is handy and I do carry one in wilderness areas, but still use paper topo maps for navigation because the screen is too small.

Short-form level-field publishing is absolutely wonderful I agree. In particular there are forums for every possible interest, many of them populated with cheerful friendly enthusiasts. Lovely.

ebook readers again are more tech with screens too small and maintenance costs, and I refuse to buy from Amazon. The public library (a glorious institution) and Powell's fine selection of used books still cover my needs, in particular for older books that are in between gone out of print and not out of copyright. Project Gutenberg is a fine thing though.

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From: AlanL (Sep 17 2014, at 14:01)

Maps? Google and Apple maps are complete garbage compared to a proper topographical map, and if I'm somewhere where I *need* a map either my battery is flat or I have no signal. Or, usually, both.

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From: Avi Flax (Sep 17 2014, at 15:52)

I’m out of town right now and just finished a video call with my wife and daughter, so I’ve got to nominate high-quality it-mostly-just-works video calling over the Internet — it’s dramatically changed the experience of being away from family or close friends for many folks.

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From: Thad McIlroy (Sep 17 2014, at 19:58)

Whenever I encounter the dreaded phrase, "changed my life," I cringe, writhe, and become generally grumpy.

What constitutes a "changed life"? New love. Ill-health (or recovery from). Moving fully into another culture. Extraordinary art (whether a book, a song, a picture, or a...).

The Internet, broadly speaking, has changed my life. But not much in the detail. My smartphone hasn't changed my life. Online video: convenient, sometimes smart and fun, but not a life-changer.

Having to perambulate to a bookstore or library to get a book was never a problem: I don't need every book right this moment.

It's easy to understand why people feel that digital photography, crowdsourcing, video calling, those sorts of things, are life changing.

But I find that we've lost the distinction between stuff that makes life more interesting, convenient, less expensive and so on and true life change.

Digital photography has overwhelmed us with images...literally trillions. Was I ever going to see all of the remarkable analog photos that used to fill the field?

Might video calling reduce our need for true intimacy?

The same technology that makes certain things less expensive and more convenient has been developed during a period where, in the West, incomes began to fall while unemployment became hard-wired into the system.

I'm also 20 years older than I was when I first encountered the Internet. The youth culture surrounding technolnogy makes it difficult for me to regain employment in my field.

Yep, my life has changed.

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From: Dave Walker (Sep 18 2014, at 01:52)

Underneath all the hype, 3D printing's getting there, particularly in medical applications and especially when you couple it to 3D scanning.

While the next big step required involves printing in a far greater range of materials than current hobbyist kit can do, take a squint at what Shapeways can do on their industrial-level kit.

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From: Ian McKellar (Sep 18 2014, at 09:14)

Real-time video chat (Hangouts / Skype / Facetime) is a game changes in terms of establishing and maintaining closeness with friends & family far away. We have a much richer relationship with our toddler niece & nephew on the other side of the country because of these technologies, and to a lesser extent easily recorded & shared short-form video.

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From: Dave Walker (Sep 27 2014, at 08:56)

Inspired by your "Computer Love" post:

x86 virtualisation, once you couple it to laptops with enough grunt to build and run virtual servers on. My MacBook Retina Pro's screen is thoroughly wasted on me, but it's a helluva VM-slinging machine.

Being able to have something in my hand which can (just about) simultaneously run a webserver / appserver / directory server as 3 VMs, or a stripped-down database cluster (if I want to be a bit perverse, or have something to learn or test in that area) without having to sit on a network connection to some iron in a rack somewhere, makes for *far* greater flexibility on working time and location, and far better responsiveness (plus, easy checkpointing for just before I do something that might break horribly).

Even better, those VMs can then be shoved over a network (once I'm on one) to said iron-in-rack to run in production, if needs fit.

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