It’s a word the modern culture of technology has come to worship, and at that altar, startups and megacorporations alike pay their respects to the great simplifiers of our time, most notably one Steve Jobs.
I won’t go off on a huge Steve Jobs rant here, but let’s be clear: Jobs was a minimalist and a streamliner – he wanted everything his company made to be as easy possible to use while integrating seamlessly into your life and the other products in that life, which would preferably also be made or at least sold by Apple. He also took this mantra pretty literally, as anyone who’s read about the man even briefly will understand.
But when the iPhone, iPad, and the crazy-high-margin MacBook really started picking up steam in the marketplace and Apple became the world’s most valuable tech company in under a decade, suddenly everyone took notice of “simple.” Simplify, simplify, simplify: it is a word with a connotation so positive that its more archaic meanings have all but evaporated in common usage in our society. Simple is the “gentle” insult we used for those with learning disabilities, or as a way to look down upon or call someone gullible – a simpleton. Simple has not always been so simple.
Why are we obsessed with “simplifying” our tech lives? It’s a good question. The tech space has become so single-mindedly focused on the concept of simplicity that it has begun to dominate as the sole motivation behind many products and services. The very fact that “Yo” is a thing should make us actively question the mantra of simplicity in product – simple is limiting.
It is often said that you can have two of three things in abundance: cheap, good, or fast. I’d argue that, equally, you can have two of these: simple, good, or powerful. The problem with many mainstream consumer electronics today is that companies have begun to lean so heavily on the “simple” corner of the product triangle that goodness and power have both begun to suffer, and the architect of this shift is so clearly Apple it hurts.
I was prompted to write this after listening to stories from former Apple employees on a recent NPR program. These people were all “specialists” – the employees selling products and answering basic questions of prospective buyers and providing non-Genius-level support to customers with issues. When I hear one of these people saying they “didn’t know what a ‘gigahert’ [SIC] was” when they started working there, I sort of cringed. I don’t think salespeople need to be technical superstars – just look at any car salesman – but I do believe that holding up your ignorance of underlying concepts as a facet of your employment shows the very sad state American product consumerism is in right now.
The problem is not that American consumers are widely uninterested in how or why things work – I think that is a deeply pessimistic attitude that serves corporate interest in not training employees or customer support enough or paying them a living wage. It’s an excuse to spend less money, and to keep consumers from demanding more out of their products, or more variety or options. It’s also a way to get them to spend more money: holding up a product as so complicated that you “couldn’t” understand it makes people believe a salesperson knows more and better than they do or even could begin to know. It’s insulting.
This picture, to me, says a good deal about what is currently wrong with American tech consumerism in a weird way. Pop-tarts are actually pretty delicious. Do you know what’s in a Pop-tart? You probably have a basic idea that it’s a sweetened, vaguely naturally fruit-derived goop in a mass produced pastry crust with some frosting and preservatives. You know a Pop-tart isn’t particularly good for you, that it has a lot of sugar, and that sugar can be bad for your health, and that preservatives are a marker of mass-produced, refined food that is falling out of vogue in America. A whole lot of people could probably tell you about how this Pop-tart relates to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, even if they couldn’t get very technical. But they understand a lot about this very simple thing, and they’ve become very interested in understanding other foods, too – America is undergoing a food and health renaissance.
The iPhone 6 next to it? A lot of people wouldn’t even be able to tell you what operating system it runs, let alone explain what an operating system is in even a basic sense. RAM? Nope. Storage? Maybe. What a gigabyte is, though? No clue. A megapixel? Nuh-uh. To many of us, a smartphone or tablet, or any computer really, has become no different than a Toyota Camry. We don’t understand how it works (number of people under 30 in America who can explain internal combustion: I’m guessing like 5, and even as a car nut I still barely fucking understand it) because the companies who make the products have decided that’s not relevant to the things we do with them or the decisions we make when buying them.
And I think this fucking stinks. I think it’s a bad attitude, and it’s a disservice to people – there’s a reason America’s output of scientists and engineers isn’t so high lately, and in part it’s because the cult of simplicity has made it uncool to understand, to be weird, geeky, or take things apart. To really understand something is to be an oddity, and why would you care about what an API is when you could be at some shitty music festival or having a $6 latte frappuccino clusterfuck talking about how “you just need to find yourself.” The very sad thing is that technology, and in particular Apple, has begun to adapt to the “me culture” that is emblematic of the current generation of Americans by oversimplifying the universe instead of attempting to cultivate that sentiment into something useful.
Is there any way of stopping this trend, though? Honestly, I don’t know. The are things Americans are genuinely interested in understanding – food, the environment, and health are big ones, and the latter is how Apple is attempting to really bill the Apple Watch, as a health tool. Many of us are also interested in creating, and that’s somewhere I think technology can still make a lot of inroads in terms of engaging the average person on a more technical level. It’s very sad, though, to watch companies embrace the notion that you don’t need to understand a product because you’ve got better things to do.
It’s the same ignorant attitude in the auto industry that got a bunch of Americans into giant SUVs and pickup trucks they didn’t need – because no one was telling them any better, or really trying to engage them on a technical level. Fast forward 10 years from the heyday of the 7-passenger mega-SUV and people, it turns out, do care about buying cars that are better for the environment, get higher gas mileage, or have advanced connectivity features and technology. And, you know, look good. American cars are at their best since the 1960s right now – and people are actually kind of getting into them on a deeper level again.
The road that Apple is taking American consumers down, though, the road of maximum “simplicity,” is fraught with the danger of stagnation. When we decide something is “good enough,” we tend to start ignoring it, commoditizing it as something we “need” but don’t actually find all that interesting. For now, Apple does seem to be rolling along well enough, bringing its products forward to compete, giving users new software features, and promoting its strategy of strong product integration as a gateway to superior functionality and usefulness.
The problem is that for all the good Apple does, it tears down the vast majority of these achievements the moment a consumer walks into an Apple Store – the moment where engagement really matters. And that does make me a bit sad.
“Is that the 6?”
“Does it come in gold?”
“OK, I need the cheapest one for AT&T, ring me up.”