Technological Conservatism

Technology can be a surprisingly ideological topic. In politics, the spectrum of belief is right on the surface: conservative/liberal, right/left. In tech, that same spectrum exists, but it’s rarely discussed. What’s more, unlike political beliefs, I’m not sure most people are even aware of their own core ideas about technology.

Anyone who’s read the past three months of posts on this site could be forgiven for pegging me as a technological ideologue. Though I draw the line at outright dogmatism, railing against technological conservatism has indeed been a recurring theme of mine.

To illustrate the concept, I’ll use myself as an example. Back in the early days of the operating system now known as OS X, I was not happy that the user-customizable Apple menu from classic Mac OS had been replaced with an anemic, non-customizable incarnation. In classic Mac OS, the Apple menu was how I quickly found and launched commonly used applications and Desk Accessories. Apple removed this feature in Mac OS X and replaced it with…nothing, really. The Dock attempted to cover some of the same bases, but the Apple menu could comfortably hold many more items, and in a much more compact form.

In this situation, a technological-conservative position is that Mac OS X needs something like the classic customizable Apple menu. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be an Apple icon in the upper-left corner of the screen. It could be a hierarchical menu spawned from the Dock or another screen corner. (This was actually a popular request back in the days before the Dock supported any form of hierarchy.) The old OS had a feature like this, and it was useful. The new OS needs a similar feature, or it will be less useful.

Beneath what seems like a reasonable feature request lurks the heart of technological conservatism: what was and is always shall be.

In my review of the public beta, I was self-aware enough to moderate my position, merely asking for “some sort of mechanism that equals or betters the functional merits of the Apple Menu.” But what my conservatism prevented me from seeing was that things like LaunchBar, Quicksilver, and (later) Spotlight would provide similar functionality in an entirely different way, and with far more efficiency and elegance.

No one wants to think of themselves as a Luddite, which is part of what makes technological conservatism so insidious. It can color the thinking of the nerdiest among us, even as we use the latest hardware and software and keep up with all the important tech news. The certainty of our own tech savvy can blind us to future possibilities and lead us to reject anything that deviates from the status quo. We are not immune.

Previously on Hypercritical…

Consider four of my recent posts, each of which, in its own way, pressed uncomfortably against the dark matter of technological conservatism among tech nerds.

In response to The Case for a True Mac Pro Successor, a few readers insisted that there’s no longer anything technically interesting about high-performance personal computers. A new Mac Pro would just be a pair of the latest Xeons, some ECC RAM, a few SSDs and/or hard drives, and a big, hot video card.

That’s what the Mac Pro has been, so that’s what it will always be, right? And there it is.

Even explicitly listing several technologies that debuted on Apple’s high-end Macs did not derail the people whose feedback was based on the premise that the Mac Pro will never be anything that it is not already. This assumption is counter to the entire purpose of a product like the Mac Pro. It’s meant to push the envelope, to seek out new frontiers of computing power.

In Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, I tackled technological conservatism head on—though without naming it—by addressing the surprisingly widespread notion that the iPhone 5 is “too light.” This criticism leans heavily on the seductive view of the present as an endpoint, rather than just another step in a journey towards something radically different. (For a long time, I avoided writing the post you're reading now because it felt like a retread of this older one. But I eventually decided that these ideas bear repeating. Do not be surprised when both posts arrive at a similar conclusion.)

Fear of a WebKit Planet was a celebration of what turned out to be the tail end of peacetime in the browser wars. (Well, maybe it was really just a cold war turning hot again.) The post addressed the fear that “WebKit everywhere” would lead us into another dark age of web development. Even before Google’s fork of WebKit, I noted that WebKit was a lot more like Linux than IE6, and that “the products built with WebKit are as varied as those built with Linux.” Pondering that variety, the idea of a homogenous, stagnating WebKit monoculture seemed extremely unlikely. I didn’t have to wait long for confirmation.

Uphill, Both Ways

Finally, the point of Annoyance-Driven Development was completely blotted out in the minds of a few readers by the audacious suggestion that a beloved service remains ripe for further improvement. This post revealed technological conservatism in its most virulent form: not only is the current state of affairs satisfactory, but wanting more is evidence of a character flaw, perhaps even a moral failing.

I find this idea absurd in its present-day context, and numerous analogous historical contexts immediately spring to mind as a means to persuade those who don’t. The trouble is, I can also imagine those same people taking the same technological-conservative positions in all the historical contexts as well. How far back in time do I have to go before it finally clicks?

Poor baby, you have to wait a whole day after a new episode airs on cable before it magically appears on your silent, $99, network-connected TV box.

Walking to the mailbox, unsealing an envelope, and sticking a disc into a slot under your TV is too much work, is it? Now you need to be able to start watching a movie without even picking your lazy ass up off the couch?

Oh no! There are rooms in your house where you don’t have instant access to the sum of all human knowledge! And running wires is just so hard, isn’t it? Those few cents for zip ties to keep yourself from tripping over the wires will obviously break the bank. The prince demands radio-based networking everywhere in his castle!

I guess it’s just too much work to walk out the front door five steps, pick up the newspaper that was delivered while you slept, and then bring it back to your kitchen table each morning to read the news of the world. Now you want it to appear instantly on your computer screen. OK, Mr. Fancypants Bigshot.

Yeah, pressing seven buttons in sequence is so much work. You need a faster way to call someone. Pressing just one button instead will be such a big change in your life, won’t it? You’ll finally have time to write that novel.

You’ve got a way to send a piece of paper from your home to anywhere in the entire country for literal pocket change, but that’s just too much work for you. You need to talk to someone right now, hearing an actual voice as if it’s in the same room instead of miles away.

You are warmed by the sun for nearly all your waking hours, but I guess that’s not good enough for you. No, you’re so important that you need to have light and heat at night as well. What you need, you precious snowflake, is a miniature artificial sun that’s under your control—obviously!

The Unreasonable Man

At some point, we’re all guilty of looking down upon things that have changed since our own formative years, but this attitude has no place in technology criticism—and it’s absolute poison for anyone trying to create great tech products and services. Not all new ideas represent progress. (Do I really need to spell this out? It seems so.) But ideas should not be rejected based merely on a lifetime of having lived without them. Today’s “unnecessary” frill is tomorrow’s baseline.

As the famous saying goes, the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Every great scientific and engineering triumph in human history has been a slap in the face of technological conservatism—the little ones, perhaps even more so. And yet each new step forward, no matter what the size, is inevitably met with a fresh crop of familiar objections. “Just look at what you have already, and it’s still not enough for you. Where does it end?”

It doesn’t. It never ends. Keep moving or get out of the way.