Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Technology Tipping Point

Let's think about technology, for a few minutes, in terms of supply and demand. Not in the economic sense, though. In the sense that demand represents what users want from technology and supply is what technology can provide. Until now, we've clearly been in a state where supply hasn't quite met demand. Now, we may be at the point where the two are balanced, and supply is about to overtake demand. What happens then?

I used to have a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. It used FM synthesis to produce a wide range of sounds, based on the combinations of six sine wave generators. The sound you got depended on how you configured the generators to either sound independently or modulate each other, and what output levels, frequencies, amplitude envelopes, and other attributes you assigned to each generator. The number of possible combinations made a tremendous range of sounds possible, but the synthesizer had several obvious limitations: a relatively small keyboard (not full piano range), an inability to produce the very complex waveforms of natural instruments, and no onboard effects. It also used 12-bit signal processing, so it couldn't produce sounds at full fidelity. Although it was a wonderful instrument, and its limitations inspired a lot of edge-pushing exploration, it was easy to imagine what a better instrument might be like. In other words, there was still more demand than supply.

The synthesizer I have today is capable of full fidelity output, has a full weighted keyboard, contains a massive library of both sampled natural instruments and synthetic ones, and has an onboard sequencer, mixer, and effects. If the sound you want isn't in the built-in library, it also has sampling capabilities so you can add your own. You can dissect a sound to its essential waveforms and edit them to your heart's content, making it possible to both tweak existing sounds and come up with entirely new ones. It's so capable that it's hard for me to see, from a musical perspective, how it could be improved on. In this case, supply is exceeding demand, because I haven't come close to any of its limits, and I probably never will.

So what happens? In my case, there's no compelling reason to explore the limits of the machine any more, so my music has become more focused on the composition than on the sounds. And I think that this may become a common reaction as supply surpasses demand.

Consider movie special effects, for example. Over the past thirty years or so, special effects have played a prominent role in driving movie development and audience interest. People would flock to movies with awe-inspiring special effects and stunts. Now, however, we're reaching the point where an average audience can't distinguish between effect and reality, and effects that used to inspire awe are now routine. Again, supply is starting to exceed demand. Is it possible that, when special effects are no longer special, movies will have to re-focus on compelling stories and characters?

I think this is a universal phenomenon. Digital cameras are reaching the resolution of film. Web access is becoming ubiquitous. Video games and TV are reaching naturalistic fidelity. Social networking and wireless technologies are dissolving the separation of geographic distance. So, again, what happens next?

First, I think we'll see more and more evidence that people don't know how to make the most effective use of the technology supply. The TV coverage of last week's Super Tuesday primaries provided at least two wonderful examples: CNN's Anderson Cooper holding a platter with a mark that allowed the network to super-impose a standing pie chart that moved with the platter, and Fox News showing a collection of bar graphs that stood on a rotating platter like salt shakers on a lazy Susan. In both cases, the technology was clearly an unnecessary distraction; not only did it add nothing of value, it actually made it harder to interpret the information that was supposedly being presented. I'm sure it made Edward Tufte's head spin.

More seriously, I wonder if we may see a slow-down in the technology market within the next five years or so. I've written before about feature saturation - what incentive do people have to buy new products when they don't use all the features of the ones they already own? We may be at that point, with technology supply exceeding demand, where new product improvements aren't compelling enough to drive sales any more.

This is less true, though, of wireless technology. I think that's the one place where the limitations of today's technology are still so visible, and where improvements are still so easy to imagine and their benefits so apparent, that demand still exceeds supply. I think this is intensified by the growing awareness of technology and its benefits in the general population - with more users becoming more interested in technology in general, demand for improvements in wireless devices will continue to increase rapidly, so it may be many years before supply catches up to demand.

There are two other places where opportunities for improvements still exist: reliability and usability. Again, I've written about usability as a market discriminator before, and the iPhone is clearly demonstrating that theme. The less obvious one, though, is reliability. As technology becomes more complex, its potential failure modes become more numerous and more obscure. Couple that with the security vulnerabilities of networked devices, and the potential for technology to become more of a hindrance than a help is clear. Perhaps this suggests a maturity path for technology: features, then usability, then reliability. With the exception of wireless technologies, I think we're almost through the features stage and partway through the usability phase for most technologies. Someday, I hope that everything I might buy will be both usable and reliable. At that point, supply will truly meet demand.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Shooting Yourself in the Foot in the Middle of a Class War

I've decided to broaden the content of my blog to include thoughts in areas beyond human factors and user centered design. Politics, for example. Actually, you could make a case that politics are very closely related to the user experience of living in, and interfacing with, society at large.

I've noticed that most of the people I know who work in this area tend to be either liberal or moderate, and I wonder if it's because at the very heart of human factors is the recognition that people, in all their varieties, need to be accommodated by systems. It seems to me that liberalism and human factors both put people first, to borrow a phrase, the former in terms of societal priorities and the latter in terms of systems and product design.

So here's a first contribution to this area: an assertion that the subprime mortgage mess was based on a large bet that the upper classes put on the financial health of the lower and middle classes. And that the bet was essentially illogical because of all that's been done to weaken those latter classes over the past decade or so.

Here's a short list of ways the lower and middle classes have suffered in that time:
  • falling real wages
  • less access to health insurance
  • bankruptcy "reform"
  • welfare reform
  • outsourcing
  • the growing wealth gap
  • rising education costs
  • fewer social services
  • the Iraq war, whose direct participants are disproportionately from these classes.
In all of these cases, the benefits of these changes have gone to the wealthy, but the lower and middle classes have bought into them. Why? I suggest that it's because the notion of trickle-down economics is basically designed to convince the lower classes that they have a stake in the health of the upper classes. The better off the latter are, the better off the former will be because of trickle-down effects.

So the lower and middle classes believe they have a stake in the health of the upper classes. What does this have to do with the subprime mortgage mess? Because, after reaping the benefits of a weakening lower- and middle-class, the upper classes placed a huge, unsecured bet that all the people in those classes could pay off any mortgage they signed up for, and bought billions of dollars' worth of securities derived from these mortgages. In essence, they placed a big bet on the health of those classes after doing whatever they could, in the preceding years, to weaken them.

I suspect that people in the financial industries won't recognize this tacit investment. I suspect that many of the conservatives in those classes will continue to advocate policies that continue to weaken the lower and middle classes. Ironically, though, this would further erode the value of their own investments in those classes.

If they did recognize this tacit investment, I think it would be a good thing. Just as, I believe, trickle-down economics has given the lower and middle classes an illusory stake in the health of the upper classes, mortgage-derived securities give the upper classes a real stake in the health of the lower and middle classes. I would love to see them recognize this stake, and start taking an interest in the real health of those classes. Perhaps then we would start to see better schools, better social safety nets, and other mechanisms that would benefit the lower and middle classes directly. Because they would also indirectly benefit the upper classes by protecting their investments.