Steve Jobs Was Right to Favor Small / A Headlong Drive to Miniaturize / The simple truth of intimacy / Where miniaturization is headed next / A bleak future or a Brave New World
Steve Jobs Was Right to Favor Small
Not too long ago, Steve Jobs stuck to his guns and insisted that the smaller iPhone screen was a benefit because he wanted people to dial and do everything else with the phone in one hand. To say he didn't have the vision to see that consumer behavior would change is perhaps a bit harsh, but he may have missed the fact that making phone calls with the device would eventually become a secondary function. As it turned out, the consumer would rather text, play games and watch movies with the device held sideways. For that, the consumer clamored for a larger screen, which Apple begrudgingly offered up. However, at the same time that it did so, Apple also gave the world their smallest screen to date in the Apple Watch, just a hair over two inches diagonally. Steve Jobs may have had the last laugh.
At GreenHiFi.com, small is a virtue – it means fewer resources to ship, power, and use the device. The Apple Watch may well be one of the greenest things to come out of Cupertino, provided Apple keeps its labor abuses in check and continues to minimize pollution, which the company seems to be keen on doing. This is all good, but there is a darker side to the Watch, one that is even bigger than Apple and more indicative of the whole wearables industry as it works hard to keep the consumer happy & purchasing ever smaller products? Could it be that this trend to miniaturize symbolizes, maybe even heralds, an end of hardware altogether? This is not just suggesting that as electronics become smaller they will actually physically disappear, but rather that at some point the small size will be easily replaced with better options. That is an interesting proposition and one that deserves a deeper look because it will impact the green movement and also the HiFi industry directly.
A Headlong Drive to Miniaturize
Much of HiFi is big, bold and ostentatious: big speakers, big TV screens, and big stiff garden-hose sized cables to connect them all together. There’s a good reason for all this macho sized gear: it looks and sounds better. There is no denying that - the physics pretty much dictate that big, bold sound cannot physically be extracted from a small, tiny plastic cabinet any more than the wonder of a 4K resolution can only bee seen when displayed on an ostentatious 60+ inch screen. Unfortunately, this is phenomenon diametrically opposed to convenience by the very fact that it is big and unruly. As such, it is not likely to survive the coming decades because consumers will demand more convenience.
It’s a harsh world. Manufacturers that refuse to change with the times just won't compete against those that do change and accept the world of smaller things as the future. Take for example the tablet-sized phones that everyone else laughs at or even the stalwart LP record, that large, cumbersome, and expensive format actually seeing a slight increase in sales, lately. Perhaps the LP's uptick is primarily due to nostalgia, but it is also being sold in new “packages” that include posters, vouchers, downloads, and streaming options… and anything, really, that will give it relevance to a consumer who seeks greater convenience. This is the consumer who says he listens to LPs, but it’s really more of a novelty to be pulled out at cocktail parties and “listening sessions,” and otherwise seldom used. The fact is, it’s simply not possible to take those LPs and a clunky record player along in the car or on a jog (however much it would be entertaining to see that). This is a world where new products need to adapt fast. Neil Young, take notice lest that klunky Pono player (review coming soon) with its huge loss-less digital files also falls into the dreaded “niche” category, niche being a French for “marginalized.”
Big, bold and ostentatious gear is like a dinosaur that is too blind to see the tiny rodent slipping lithely between its toes, the little mammal that will one day rule the planet. Perhaps a silly analogy, but fitting, and no less silly than slapping a tablet-sized phone to one’s ear or jogging with a record player. Consumers no longer need big, bold and ostentatious gear as much as they want, which in their own minds means "need," convenience. A good example of this "necessary" convenience how important texting has become. Being able to text friends in real-time what’s going to happen next in the evening’s showing of Mad Men or daring them in a game of Call Of Duty, this now takes precedence over seeing that show/game on a large screen with hi-res surround sound. Those texts scrolling over the screen are interruptions to older generations, but they are indispensable to the new generation – what was once an interruption has become another source of entertainment, a stream of entertainment, rather as it is continuous. So by having text conversations with multiple friends, this becomes multiple streams of entertainment appearing on the screen.
These text streams are then combined with texts from companies selling sodas and snacks, pop-up clips of related goods, tickers at the bottom of the screen from other events occurring at the same time, incoming phone calls, advertisement at the edges of the screen, the ever-present channel logos in the corners, not to mention a continuous barrage of product placement and subliminal messages in the video itself. On top of that, there is a continuous barrage of audio advertisements vying for the consumer's attention. All this "entertainment" is presented to the consumer by default and must be disabled in several steps if not desired, but who has time for that?
This preference for receiving multiple streams of entertainment is then billed as value-added, a feature, the new meaning of the word "convenience." It is understood to not only be better, but the norm, so much so that not having multiple streams of entertainment would be dull. This in-streaming of entertainment then further pushes the high quality picture and amazing sound further to the background, superseding the notion that an uncluttered picture and 9.2 channels of surround sound are even better. To this consumer they are not. That is a jagged pill to swallow for HiFi companies that spend hours, weeks, even years perfecting technology to provide greater performance and quality for the consumer's eyes and ears. This pill is even harder to swallow for those manufacturers, usually mom & pops, offering tweaks and upgrades that provide more marginal upgrades, which typically also take even more hard work to develop. To the consumer, what is the point of “blacker blacks” from a upgraded cable or a smidgen of greater “PRaT” (Pace Rhythm and Timing) from an outboard headphone amp, when the entertainment is being compressed, streamed, cluttered and consumed on a cell phone screen and cheap earbuds?
The simple truth of intimacy
So how did this deplorable situation get so far? Was it just the convenience of it?
There is actually more to it than that. It is an exchange of quantity over quality. For giving up better picture and sound, the consumer is given many more streams of entertainment coming together onto an increasingly smaller screen that can be enjoyed anywhere. That shrinking screen and the capacity to receive more streams with every upgrade, becomes a psychological crutch. Over the years, the consumer has been conditioned to prefer quantity over quality. Examples abound: the higher quantities of MP3 over higher qualities of WAV files, dozens upon dozens digital e-books over a single hardbound novel that can be held, and devices that multi-task between apps rather than single-tasking to take a call. In so doing the consumer has been socialized to accept quantity as the new norm and quality and outdated, boring, and inefficient way to consume entertainment. So why is so enticing? What is the drug, the high that comes from having so many more streams of entertainment piped into ever smaller packaging?
It is: intimacy.
Such a simple, disarming, and seemingly weak thing as intimacy is why it is such a powerfully surreptitious opiate. Intimacy brings a sense of smallness, nearness, and togetherness... and... it is the yin to the yang of miniaturization! Intimacy and miniaturization form a symbiotic gel that when brought together in the hands is incredibly comforting, soothing and precious. Consequently, what is the greatest anxiety almost every pundit bemoans about the current trend in technology? What is the one question that is asked repeatedly by researchers and echoed in the futurist nightmares of consumers? What is the single most common movie sub-plot for everything from Blade Runner to The Matrix? That's right: it is the fear that as people continue to depend on machines; the ability to connect with live people will wane. It is an almost primordial fear that humans will lose their ability to communicate at all. Their ability to be social, kind, loving, relational, and compassionate using all their senses developed over millennia of evolution, will fade. It is the fear that humans will loose that which sets them apart from animals, that which makes them human, their humanity.
To those reading this and dismissing it as too much hyperbole, consider that personal electronic devices are already used as substitutes for human interaction when people pull out their cell phones to avoid speaking in social situations. Everyone has done this. Everyone has replaced human interactions with digital ones. Their reliance on doing so increases demand for them. Conveniently, technology will help fill that void too because as technology advances, quantities can increase. More sophisticated solutions can be developed to compress and aggregate entertainment streams into even smaller packages so that in the process of avoiding social interactions, the consumer is able to have many more interactions with many more sources - the process is compounded. In so doing, the increasing number of sources become less meaningful but more plentiful, so their loss is not as important any more. Over time, this also serves to further alienate the consumer from human friends since they can so easily be replaced. How many Facebook “friends” do most people have? More than the number of live friends they've had their entire life? Case-in-point.
As the line differentiating streams of entertainment from friends becomes blurred, the madness continues. More and more friends are no longer live people at all, but machines, computer algorithms that are tailored to the consumer’s desires. From there it becomes trivial to see that creating new artificial e-friends becomes necessary, common, and eventually the norm. This turns into a new pastime and helps further fill the void from alienation. These new e-friends can be made to be just as social, kind, loving, relational, and compassionate, as the humans they replace, but also beautiful, strong, ideal, maybe even sexual? And why not? They multiply to fill the void, to bring pleasure, and to entertain; and it is all happening inside personal, intimate, and quiet little devices - a private, secret, little corner of digital reality that slowly becomes an extension of the mind.
Now today's consumer knows that artificial friends are still a poor substitute for real, live ones, but what does that matter when he can have so many more of them? He can keep them in a folder on his device, chose the ones he want to play with today, kill off a few, file the rest away for later, and pull them back out tomorrow. He can build whole collections numbering thousands of artificial friends for every mood and whim, all on that little tiny device. Of course, technology will also move on and this is just version 1. Version 2 will be even better. Who knows what version 8, 23, or 59 will be like? Who knows what will be possible in the future as the software and the hardware improves exponentially? This ability to create is incredibly empowering, especially for the ever more alienated consumer in this virtual world where his own friends have “unfriended” him as quickly as he has. Even the most insecure, vain, miscreant of a recluse can now play god to his heart’s content, all on a little tiny screen in the palm of his hand, on his coveted "precious."
Where miniaturization is headed next
Today, all these entertainment streams come together on a cell phone. Yesteryear they were on a computer screen in 30+ tabs of a web browser, a few decades ago on a TV screen with just 13 channels, and a half century ago in concerts and movie theaters. Why not ask where this is headed tomorrow, when this new reality will come to consumers on their wrists: the Apple Watch becoming that new medium. When it does become more popular than the lowly cell phone, there will be even more sources of entertainment that will come together on that tiny screen, far more than today - the demand of this drug will drive this. In a few short years, streams will also come on necklaces and mounted on glasses to pipe entertainment straight into the consumer's retina. Over IoT, the Internet of Things, the streams will come to consumers over multiple devices at the same time such as via contact lenses, tiny wireless earplugs, and even sex toys (yes, all that loneliness will be addressed). In a very near Kafkaesque future, not only will the number of sources of entertainment have multiplied, but they will likely plug directly into consumer's body, if not from data ports on the back of the head, than sent wirelessly straight into the brain.
As for HiFi companies, there will be opportunities too, even to infuse some high quality into the mix as well. First there will likely be an arms-race-like competition towards miniaturization of all hardware. This has already started and is occurring today, but it will escalate. As limits of physics are reached, this race will gradually, but also exponentially, evolve into a mad dash towards a completely virtualized reality, devoid of any hardware at all, an experience piped right into the amygdala. On a positive note, this will be where HiFi will be able to insert itself and inject a completely immersive sound and video experience, based on its many years of experience offering this in the physical world. Eventually, the most competitive and enterprising HiFi companies can take this consumption of entertainment to its logical conclusion and connect this whole network right into the consumer’s digital payment source. Forget any and all layers of middle-men and just withdraw the payment as the brain requests the entertainment: whims converted into sales instantaneously - a drug dealer with no fixer between the cash and the vein.
A bleak future or a Brave New World
So, what is the point of bringing all this to GreenHiFi.com? The point is that the Apple Watch and the miniaturization that it symbolizes hits at the core of what this being green is also about: to encourage the move away from big, bold and ostentatious HiFi into smaller, simpler, cleaner, and more personally empowering electronics. For better or for worse, GreenHiFi.com walks lockstep along with Apple into the future.
As a symbol of miniaturization, the Apple Watch is a harbinger of a future that could become quite bleak. Yes, Samsung and a few others had their smartwatches out there first, but they didn’t make a dent in the market and their first attempts flopped, perhaps because the world was waiting on Apple. Now that Apple has jumped into wearables, it has the consumer mind-share to make the wrist-borne interface a standard rather than a niche. With its years of experience in simplicity, convenience and miniaturization, Apple can redefine the endpoint for entertainment. This is a paradigm shift that will likely change the way consumers consume their entertainment from this point forward. It offers the world a miniaturized, but also a personal, intimate, and maybe even deviant window into a new digital virtual space. Though small, its wake will easily sweep away big, bold and ostentatious electronics, including much of today's HiFi.
So is this future truly green?
That remains to be seen.