Technology and the knowledge of dissatisfaction

Sometimes it feels like our technical knowledge has smeared us, like a palette knife, across an unfortunate expanse of time.

When broadcast radio first arrived in people's homes in the early 1920s, astonished listeners, we are told, exclaimed: "Well what do you think of that, Martha! It's just like the orchestra is right here in the parlour!" Or, words to that effect. 

Of course, that wasn't true. What they heard was a thin broth compared to the orchestral stew of the distant concert hall. But that weak acoustic consommé, beamed into their homes by grudging, noisy transmitters, was enhanced by both their imaginations and naïveté. They wanted the magic of radio to be far more than the virgin ether could bear, and so, to them, it was. No one said, "I'm going to wait until the bass response improves, there's a better signal-to-noise ratio and the components take up less space."

In the early '60s I first saw the NBC peacock fan its tail feathers on a neighbour's colour TV.  The rainbow at the end of the peacock was pale, the tiny picture a soggy smudge squeezed through wildly angled rabbit ears. But to me, and to other viewers at the time, it was a bird of wonder. 

We did not -- could not -- imagine wafer-thin televisions that produce vivid 4K images on vibrant 85-inch screens. 

In the mid-'80s, millions of families owned a Commodore 64. It had 64K of RAM and displayed 16 colours in 320x200 resolution on a TV screen. It was driven by a 1 Mhz processor. We all joyfully played M.U.L.E., Breakout or Asteroids on it. We were delighted we could actually interact with the blocky, fuzzy characters on the screen. We had heard of higher resolution screens and faster processors. Some of us opted for an Apple II. But there was, as I recall, little lusting after the next big thing, because the big thing we had now sucked all of our attention.

Back then, every advance in technology seemed like an end in itself. It was astonishing and grand in the moment. It was, in that snapshot of time, the best it could ever be.

Of course in hindsight we know the first radios, TVs and computers were flawed and rudimentary. We have the luxury of looking back on those devices as just early data points on an accelerating, soaring arc of improvement.

And, we are jaded by our knowledge. We are dissatisfied with the world's music waiting to be plucked from the sky. We want to hear it for free through flawless, wireless headphones. We watch HDTV and anticipate 4K or even HDR 8K. We talk to our remarkable digital assistants that know George Clooney's birthday and which planes are overhead right now, and wish they were more like Iron Man's Jarvis. We hold the latest smartphone in our hands and use it to read about the next thinner one, the one with a brighter display, a faster processor or a power supply that pulls electricity from the air we breathe.

We have all become perverse Cassandras. Our curse is not that no one believes our prophecies. It's that everyone does and it only leaves them dissatisfied in the moment. Marxist media studies folks see this as the inexorable poison of capitalism, the taint of intentional obsolescence. And, it is that. But there is more than just market forces at play. 

We have become unmoored from the moment, not only by corporate greed, but also by our own awareness of what will be. 

Some of us live in the present and can hardly wait for the future we envision. So, we anxiously buy the early versions of the next thing hoping to live the future now. Some of us hold off buying in the present because the next thing is so near. And some have no interest in the technology of the present and are quite happy with what came before. Technologically we are spread across a spectrum of time, each with our own dissatisfactions. 

But, we all know this: there is no orchestra behind the sofa. The peacock is pale. The asteroids and spaceships are as blocky as Lego. All that magic of imagination and singular frozen moments of enraptured satisfaction are gone -- or are at least as transient as the next unboxing. 

And, one wonders, what Martha would think of that.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Crystal radio ad/Wikimedia Commons

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