New technology: a koan


There’s a buddhist koan that goes something like this:

A monk is being chased by a tiger, so he grabs a vine and swings himself over the edge of a cliff. Looking down, he sees another tiger prowling below, waiting to eat him. Two mice start knawing away the vine. Seeing a wild strawberry growing beside him, he eats it. How sweet it tasted!

And you thought you had bad luck. There are a hundred different interpretations and complications of this koan. Here’s a koan set in modern times:

A man owns an iPhone. It has many different applications on it. He particularly likes using one application that lets him post fart jokes on Twitter. One day, a new version of the app is released which costs $2.99. He opens the original app and considers the design. How beautiful and useful it is!

Every time a new gadget comes out my twitter stream screams the same thing for a couple of days: WANT WANT WANT WANT. It’s an insidious pull that I’m not immune to, and it’s almost constant: there’s always something new to desire.

Yesterday, the Coin was released. It’s a cool idea, and well-marketed. It’s also something that no one on planet earth really needs. Twitter was awash with referral links. WANT WANT WANT WANT.

The new super iPad retina Air mini debuted on Tuesday. It was all anyone could talk about. WANT WANT WANT WANT.

What you have right now — why isn’t that sufficient? The existence of something better doesn’t negate the usefulness of what you already own. I don’t have a philosophical objection to these things, and far be it from me to moralize. I’m no luddite, nor am I even particularly ascetic. The thing that concerns me — especially when I detect it in myself — is the false belief that these things will really revolutionize our lives.

There’s a piece of Apple marketing that proclaims: this changes everything. I’ve seen versions of that same sentiment more times than I can count. We actually buy into the idea — on whatever dim, subconscious level — that this is true. This marketing wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t successful.

Guess what, “this” doesn’t even come close to changing an infinitesimal portion of everything. “Everything” is a pretty large sample size. A more honest slogan would be:

The new iPad. This changes something.

Wherever you go (and whatever you own!) there you are. There’s no software upgrade coming that’ll change that — you’re going to have to write your own patch, I’m afraid.