What a load of... Debunking those great smart tech announcements

Illustration by Angela Keoghan
So Apple has done it's latest big reveal and treated us to our first look at...not much really. Shocking, right? So we thought it was a good time to revisit this 2015 poison pen piece from Idealog's technology-miserablist, Jonathan Cotton, about why he can't help but take these whiz-bang technology showcases with anything but a grain of salt.

We cover a fair bit of technology at Idealog and we’re usually among the first in line when it comes to product launches. 

So I watched Microsoft’s latest launch last month – the new HoloLens virtual-reality technology – with more than a little enthusiasm. 

Make no mistake: the HoloLens is a pretty big deal.  According to everyone, it is set to bring interactive, high-definition holograms to the real world. It’s very much the stuff of a sci-fi nerd’s wet dream. 

The presentation was, as to be expected, equal parts cringe-worthy and slick, and, as usual, it was impossible to come away from it not being impressed. 

“HoloLens,” said the presenter, “is the future of computing,” and for a moment I believed it. 

But hang on a minute. I get the feeling I’ve been here before. 

Why must these things always resort to the same hyperbole? And more to the point, why do I always believe it? 

Against my better instincts, I once again found myself in the same state of rapt, receptive and uncritical reception – someone get me a HoloLens now. I fall for it every time and I don’t think I’m the only one. 

As a species we have mastered the art of the tech announcement. 

Steve Jobs certainly knew how to work a crowd. He knew his audience and he knew how to build a mystery. When the ‘big’ reveal finally came – Look! It’s another iPhone! And this time it’s WHITE! – the crowd would only wait for its spasms of rapture to pass before clambering to the nearest iStore. 

Pavlov’s dogs had more self-possession. 

And while modern tech companies don’t always exhibit Jobs’ flair, they too have learned how to put on a hell of a show, one that projects a ludicrously confident, hyper-idealised reality that couldn’t possibly find its match in the day-to-day life of the products being flogged.

As I write this, the internet is taking some joy in dismantling Elon Musk’s Powerwall, a solar powered battery solution that can – if you believe the hype – power your whole house for a one-time payment of a couple of grand. 

The announcement felt like the beginning of a revolution. Screw you fossil fuels! Get bent, big power! Musk’s vision of the future – where we are all off the grid, never to return – is so bright, that there’s no way not to be swept away with it, at least a little. 

“Sorry Amazon, there's more to a well-lived life than an endless stream of well-managed domestic purchases.”

Trouble is, now the beans are being counted and numbers crunched, Powerwall turns out to be considerably more expensive, and considerably less grunty than current battery technology. It’s green alright, but hardly the revolution promised at the release.  “Another toy for rich green people,” scolded Forbes.  

Still, for me, none of this hype can hold a candle to the enchanting preposterousness of Amazon Dash.   

Though not a joke, April 1 saw Amazon release a slick YouTube promo for this USB-sized push-button auto-replenishment device you keep next to your coffee maker, washing machine or pantry. When you run out of a particular consumable, you activate Amazon Dash with the push of a button and boom, you’ve just ordered washing powder from Amazon.com. 

Great idea, right? The convenience! The cleverness! The sheer ‘internet of thingsness’ of it! The ad makes it all look so logical, so reasonable, the fact that we need never go shopping again. 

But once again, as the novelty wears off and the cold light of day sets in, any rational person can see that Amazon Dash is, in fact, outrageous in its horribleness at the very least, if not the first horseman of some sort of consumerist apocalypse itself.   

Yup, this is smart technology alright, technology that promises a utopian future in which we never, ever run out of certain everyday items ever again. 

But what of the benefits that come from actually considering purchases before making them? Things like: Do I need this? And do I need it couriered to my door now? Is there a cheaper, less wasteful, or environmentally friendlier option that I’m missing? Should personal convenience be my only point of reference when making a purchase? 

Sorry Amazon, there’s more to a well-lived life than an endless stream of well-managed domestic purchases. 

And it’s not that I’m a Luddite, I swear. I want my world to be filled with holograms, cheap power and ultra-convenience just as much as the next guy. But I know, as we all must, that the promise of the promo and the realities of real life just can’t match up. They never do. 

We’ve been here before.