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Traveling without Tech

In February and March I was in Mexico City for two weeks. I was then in Ireland for ten days in April. In both instances, I realized that I have become completely dependent on the ability to access voice and data networks anywhere and at any time. Why the revelation? Because I didn’t have access to the local mobile phone network in both places. All of a sudden, I didn’t have access to Google Maps on demand. I couldn’t communicate instantly with other people to meet up or change plans. If I saw something interesting, I couldn’t just call up Wikipedia or a web site to find out more. When I didn’t remember to check Yelp beforehand, I had to just guess at the quality of restaurants. It was as if I was suddenly transported to a digital version of the Middle Ages.

It also became apparent how both useful and unhealthy it was to live constantly connected. There was no doubt about the convenience of calling up information wherever I might be. On the other hand, constant checking to see if a place had open Wi-Fi no matter where I was or why I was there can’t be good psychologically or socially. There I was, looking out over the Cliffs of Mohar in western Ireland, one of the great natural wonders of the world, looking for an open Wi-Fi network. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to put away the stupid phone and just enjoy the moment. The fact that I was almost craving email was certainly not a good sign.

This is what we have become in less than fifteen years. We may not be physically jacked in like a protagonist in a Cyberpunk novel but we are psychologically addicted to constant connectivity. We are losing the skills to schedule events, meetup, or navigate a city without a networked device. In the future, losing connectivity will be like losing electricity; We will lack the ability to survive without a network.

It just shows that there is a dark side to the marvelous devices we have created – our reliance on them. Maybe this is what should frighten us the most about AI. We may become so dependent on software, devices, and networks that won’t be able to function without them.

Apple’s WWDC Keynote Was Strange To Me

I never bothered with Apple products, let alone the Worldwide Developer Conference. Seriously, in 32 years in the IT industry and 6+ years as an analyst, I regarded Apple as mostly a consumer business and spent very little time tracking them. My overall impression was that they were long on style (which is good) but short on real technological substance (which, to me, is not good). The best Apple products happened when they took someone else’s idea, such as the music player or smartphone, and made it palatable to the masses. Personally, I never saw the appeal of Apple. Sure the products were easy to use but that was because you had to do things the Apple way. With Linux, there is a dozen ways to do anything. With Microsoft Windows, you have a limited number of choices. With Apple, there is one and only one way of doing anything and you will like it, so help me Steve Jobs. So, I ignored them.

As I waited for my next gig to begin, I found myself with a bit of time on my hands and said “What the heck! I’ll watch the WWDC livestream.” I’ve been to hundreds of industry conferences and livestreamed many more. Apple’s WWDC was not very different. Lots of loud music, hyperbole, and unbridled enthusiasm for incremental feature enhancements. Seriously folks, do tech companies think we are “really going to love…” a different color or small increase in performance? Is it true that they “can’t be more excited…” about small changes over and over again? Judging by the insane applause at WWDC at the smallest announcement, that might be the case. I’ve seen more sedate crowds at rock concerts and religious gatherings.

Two things struck me about the WWDC keynote that was different than the many other conferences I’ve been to. First, there was almost no blockbuster announcements. The most interesting announcement, to me anyway, was the ability to cut and paste between Macs and iPads. That’s pretty useful and wish I had an easier way to do that in the Windows/Android world. However, that’s not exactly a life changing event. Other than that, everything seemed incremental or catch up. The fanbois went nuts over the idea of Siri for the Mac. Whoopee do da. Microsoft has had Cortana (basically an edgier Siri) on the PC for at least a year, as well as Windows and Android mobile devices. The Apple cognoscenti seemed to utterly lose their minds over the renaming of what is now watchOS. Come on people, watch devices are a tiny niche. Their big, expensive, and poorly duplicate some of the functionality of a smartphone. They are the equivalent of sports car for geeks. No more useful than a cheaper version but an object of desire just the same.

The second big difference between WWDC and other tech conferences is the level of weird. Suer, I’ve seen sad, aging rockers, trampoline artists, and other strange entertainment at conferences but that was just to warm up the crowd. Then it was all business. Apple, on the other hand, spent considerable time introducing a new app called Breathe. Yes, Breathe! As in inhale and exhale. I get controlled breathing and meditation are a way of reducing stress but this is a technology conference not a health or yoga event. If anything will elicit California/New Age/naval gazing jokes, Breathe will. Another popular announcement was the introduction of a Minnie Mouse watch face for the watchOS. Apple positioned it as some kind of feminist statement when it’s obviously the opposite. It is whimsical and cute but it’s still just Minnie Mouse. The speaker kept talking about how much their daughter was going to love this as if they were going to buy a $400 Apple Watch for a little girl. Personally, I would start with a $10 Minnie Mouse watch until they were in, oh, college! I can’t imagine a Google, Microsoft, or Dell conference keynote featuring Minnie Mouse and meditation as important parts of the opening keynote.

WWDC taught me that Apple developers and fans live in a different world than the rest of the development community. It’s a culture all its own, sort of a mashup of techno, geek, fashion, and religion. Technologically, Apple is a follower but from a design perspective it’s a leader. That seems to violate one of the basic precepts of IT culture which is to push the envelope technically and worry about making it pretty later. Yet, this seems okay for the Apple community. The want the sizzle more than the steak.

Listening in on WWDC was like visiting an alien culture. It wasn’t what I expected. I was sometimes delighted but much of the time simply confused. And like many places I’ve visited, I was glad to have done it once but have no plans to return. It’s simply not my tribe.