Liberation from drudgery isn’t what it used to be. It’s now mostly become a matter of upgrading our masters.
Imagine you’re an HR staffer at a temp agency. In the course of a workday you take a lot of meetings and in them lots of notes. Sick of transcribing your scribbles, you decide to buy a Qwyl smartpen. It’s a bit bulkier than the average writing instrument but writes smoothly, has a responsive grip, is nicely balanced, and its ballpoint ink holds fast to almost anything. What makes your Qwyl really special is that it can beam letterforms to an app on your mobile device that, once you train it properly, parses your glyphs into words it can insert into memos, emails and text messages.
That’s not all your Qwyl does, or you wouldn’t have paid $179 for it. A display running along the barrel indicates whether the pen is connected, and can tell you time, date, and temperature. It can also display text messages that you can respond to in longhand.
Your phone or tablet would have to work overtime to provide all this cool functionality that promises to add precious minutes to your productive day. Thus, to make Qwyl work in real time, the handwriting recognition part gets done in the cloud and beamed back to the app.
The little darling is almost retro in the way it lets you conduct correspondence, reminiscent of sending postcards, except that delivery is instantaneous with no stamp required (postage paid via your data plan). But there’s nothing retro about Qwyl’s seamless technology that integrates sophisticated chips, machine learning, Bluetooth connectivity, personalization, and cloud processing. It’s a seamless bundle of electric joy that before too long everybody who’s anybody will be using.
Qwyl is a made-up product, but very similar instruments are out there. And despite how amazing they are, critics dump on them. (Remember the butt of jokes that was Apple’s Newton PDA? Yet it was the shape of things to come, 15 years ahead of its time.) Why are we never satisfied? It seems that whatever we’ve been provided with is over saturated with unneeded functionality yet perpetually deficient.
Hawking the New and Improved has gotten a makeover. Ad copy now tells us that our possessions are too stupid to survive. And nowhere is this out-with-the-old instrumental mentality more virulent than in high tech, where innovation has always been king. That Moore’s Law has consequences and victims was driven home to me when, at the turn of the millennium, I found work at a big-name IT research firm. My lot there was to churn out a free weekly e-letter hyping tech trends for about 60,000 avid readers. This was in the era when Windows XP, MS Office, and Lotus Notes reigned supreme, minicomputers were sliding into oblivion, AI was for boffins only, and Blackberries were as smart as phones got. Our analysts loved to soberly diss deficiencies in products and business strategies in their hi-tech bailiwicks and make predictions, such as how PCs would inevitably go the way of the horse and buggy; but here we are, still horsing around with them and Windows is still buggy.
By then the Newton was history and the buzz was about innovations like fiber optic cable, storage networks, Smartphones, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, RFID tags, and XML markup would do for us. It fell to me to enunciate all this trending with zippy leads and bold charts and graphs of year-over-year growth rates, shifting price points, and market segmentation—until, in 2000 (AKA Y2K) the tech bubble burst. No more freebie pubs, our management decreed as they sent me packing. It had been more than apparent to me that given how many nothingburger products and services were being peddled by startups with absurd valuations that the dot-com frenzy wouldn’t end well, but the computer industry has never been one to accommodate skeptics, especially among its mouthpieces.
But as we know, high tech bounced back, this time to rule us all, burying us in a landslide of must-have conveniences that we must forever keep up to date, unlike physical media like books, newspapers, and vinyl records. We are now obliged to buy vehicles studded with software that spies on us, have dozens of innovative failure modes, and must be periodically updated at a dealership. We are forced to consider and consume whatever industries deem good for us, bedazzling and befuddling us with marginally useful features we never knew we needed.
The huckstering and planned obsolescence was brought home to me a few months after being laid off, when I purchased an Apple iPod Touch. I synced the player with my iMac G5, a pretty serviceable computer and the last Apple model to run on PowerPC processors. One day I made the mistake of buying a game from iTunes for my iPod. Only when I went to install the game was I informed that the iPod needed a new version of iOS to run it. “Fine,” I said, “I’ll do that,” but iTunes nixed that too, admonishing that first, I must upgrade my iMac’s OS from Tiger to Leopard. When I surfed over to apple.com to get the OS update, I learned my computer was ineligible for it because Leopard only supports Intel-based Macs, not PowerPC. Clearly, my nice G5 was doomed to be a glass brick with orphaned apps and a torpid game. Fighting for survival, I bought an iMac along with new applications. After iTunes said it was okay to sync my new box with the iPod, I successfully installed that game, only to soon become bored with it. And the kicker is that I’m now on my third iMac and even it won’t run the latest OS X.
Whom should we blame for this treadmill? I was piqued at Apple, but its business model simply reflects the rules of the game that all chartered public corps must obey; bylaws that mandate continual maximal growth, as my newsletter’s cheery charts tended to portray until they didn’t. And so, to make sure that investors and consumers get the best of everything, established companies and startups alike put the pedal to the metal to innovate at warp speed, customer satisfaction be damned.
And now, every possible appurtenance must incorporate AI and voice technology. Marketers essay to make us ashamed to own appliances that don’t have the smarts to talk to us and each other, pushing devices that network, conspire, and psych us out. For them, human agency is an object of study that they hope to trend toward redundancy. Don’t say you weren’t warned, but perhaps you missed Woody Allen’s prescient stand-up routine in which his appliances conspire against him, laid down half a century ago:
A full generation after Woody first performed that bit, I bought my first personal computer, a stubby little 128K fishbowl Mac with a nine-inch screen. What hooked me was Apple’s unforgettable commercial at the 1984 Super Bowl, lauded as one of the greatest TV ads of all time. In it, a female athlete pursued by riot police charges up to an auditorium full of proles in drab, baggy work clothes. She whirls and hurls a sledgehammer at the image of a Big-Brother-like demagogue chanting at them from a giant video screen:
Her hammer’s impact shatters the big screen with a huge flash. Over swirling smoke crawls the pitch: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.”
No record exists of how the production’s prole population took that liberating moment, but I can tell you that acquiring that measly Mac felt life changing to me. I stowed my typewriter and stopped reading to devote all my spare time to my new best friend, joining a computer club and attending Macworld Expo, returning with a fistful of diskettes full of mostly useless and often buggy apps and cute pet tricks. One of those hacks cracked me up every time. Whenever the Mac booted up, out came a rapping-on-glass sound, then a tiny muffled voice shouting, “Help! Let me out of here!” —like Woody Allen trapped in a talking elevator—that quite startled the uninitiated.
But the joke’s on us. Now we’re the proles being held hostage by remote control. Instead of short-circuiting the oppressive panopticon of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems that Apple simply managed to postpone it for two generations. Now our computers and phones—even our cars and TVs—chat with us like intimate companions, dutifully monitoring our behavior and phoning home on behalf of corps, spooks, and criminals. Woody’s conspiracy of possessions is upon us, only this time it isn’t funny.
 Here’s what their leader is telling them: “Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!”
A version of this article appears in CounterPunch.