Painful Truth: Stability elusive in home tech


If you’re reading this on dead trees, there’s a good chance you were born sometime between 1930 and 1980. If you were, you also remember that, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a standard set of stuff that pretty much every middle-class household possessed. The always-present pieces of technology were: a stove and oven, a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, a television, and a phone. In your garage was an internal combustion car. Maybe you had a rotary phone or one of those fancy keypad numbers, maybe your TV was black-and-white or colour, but the basics were the same.

Other technology came creeping in starting the 1970s – microwave ovens, VCRs, game consoles, and so forth – but they were optional. Plenty of homes still don’t have much more than a DVD player on top of the ISO Standard Home Technology Package.

Compared to the late 20th century, the early 20th century was a time of mad upheaval. Iceboxes turned into crude refrigerators. Phones changed their shape and user interface radically. Washboards and buckets started to vanish. Cars went from rich man’s toy to suburban necessity.

So try this – pick up a book, especially a children’s book with a domestic setting, written sometime between the late 1950s and the early 1990s. Don’t look at the cover or the publication date. Try to figure out what year it was written by paying attention to the technology.

It’s pretty hard. Does the TV have a remote, or knobs? Are the car’s tires whitewalls? How much cable television is available? 

That standardized suite of stuff lasted for, in technological terms, a really long time, about 40 years. 

Now pick up a book written sometime between about 1990 and the present. You can probably guess the year it was written to within one or two. Is the computer a 486? Is the game system an Super NES or XBox 360? Does anyone own a Prius? Flip-phone or smart phone? MySpace or Twitter?

Change in the stuff we use on a daily basis is getting faster, and we might be heading towards a big shakeup in the kinds of things we think of as “standard” for our homes. 

Are we going to have a lot of domestic robots to do the housework? The Roomba is 12 years old now, but it became popular without ever becoming truly mainstream. Smarter, more versatile robots are being invented all the time, and like most new technologies, they’re coming to us mainly via military surplus and toy companies.

You can also pick up a 3D printer for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. They’re expensive hobbies for most people, used to make anything from action figures to custom picture frames. If the price drops enough, maybe they’ll be handy to have around for printing new clothes, dishes, or furniture?

How about self-driving cars? That seems pretty plausible, if Google can figure out how to get the darned things to drive in snow. Otherwise, their main market will be Florida and Arizona, not so much Winnipeg.

Virtual reality? It seemed like a pipe dream for years, but now there’s the Oculus Rift, fully funded and worth billions, apparently.

The most likely answer is “something no one can foresee.” No one in the 1960s saw video games coming, no one in the 1970s saw mobile phones becoming ubiquitous, no one in the 1980s realized that the internet would become a near-essential utility.

I’d love to know what’s coming next, but what I really want to know is, how long will everything be in flux? Will there ever be a generations-long period in which get some stability, or is that as dead and buried as rotary dial phones?

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