The trivialisation of tech and the agglomeration of small things

We got an Amazon Echo in our house yesterday. It’s not for sale in the UK and geo-restricted to the US, so it was a bit of a struggle to get it working and there are still lots of things that don’t work as well as they could. It won’t play our UK Spotify account, for example. Despite this, the kids have taken to it. They have an appropriate dose of scepticism when I bring home new gadgets, most of which don’t work, but the Echo is easy and natural to use and they were quickly using it to play radio stations and tell jokes. When the geo-restrictions get lifted and the functionality expands out I think there’s a good chance our Amazon Echo will get a lot of use and maybe even feel part of the family…

I love that, but I’m reminded of the meme Peter Thiel started last year when he said:

We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters

He was complaining that technology and the startup ecosystem in particular was focused on trivial problems and that we should be trying to solve the deeper problems in society.

The Amazon Echo is definitely at the trivial end. There’s nothing the Echo does which I can’t do myself with a small amount of extra effort. I can walk across the room and press buttons to turn our kitchen radio on and I can find the same jokes on Bing on my smartphone.

But those few saved seconds feel great. There was a real ‘eyes light up’ moment when we were rushing out of the door and turned the radio off at a distance of 5m by saying “Alexa stop”.

SmartWatches are the same. They don’t really do anything that you can’t do directly on your smartphone, but they save you from getting it in and out of your pocket.

Indeed, I could make the same point about many recent startup successes. Just Eat allows you to order takeaway online saving you from making a phone call. FarFetch makes it easier to buy a wider range of fashion. Spotify allows you to listen to music without downloading it first.

I agree with Peter Thiel that deeper problems like wealth inequality and malaria need addressing, but I think Amazon’s Echo, smart watches, and all the Just Eat’s, FarFetch’s and Spotfy’s  in the world are also doing a good thing. They bring a little joy into the world with their ‘eyes light up’ moments, but more importantly all these little time savings add up and allow us to spend meaningfully larger amounts of time doing the things we love.

It’s a common refrain that startup success comes from doing thousands of little things right. It’s the same with life in general, and it’s new technologies that are helping get us there.