Pi Attitude Zone: Material Status

Progress In Reverse

One of the consumer insight values and attitudes that Pi tracks is “Tech/Novelty”.  Some of us obsess about always having the newest thing, the latest techno-gizmo-doodad.  This desire to stay ahead of the curve goes beyond futurism.  It is rooted in a profound belief in the concept of perpetual material progress, and the ascendency of science over nature.

Back in the mid-20th century, idealized futurism inspired a wave of science-fiction novels, comic books, movies and TV shows which tried to predict what life would be like after fifty more years of progress.  Back then they imagined us all living in spindly high-rise dome-buildings, riding around in shiny silver space suits in our transparent bubble hover-cars, and enjoying three-course turkey dinners in the form of a pill the size of a shirt-button. 

Alas, the 21st century turned out to be more prosaic than that.  Look around you, and you will see plentiful evidence of old technology’s staying power.  The dead hand of inertia keeps things pretty much the same as ever. 

This depressing thought was eloquently expounded by Lebanese-American scholar and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in a sobering piece called The Future Will Not Be Cool.  He pointed out that we still eat out in restaurants and wine bars (tavernas first appeared 2,500 years ago), eat ham (cured the same way as in Roman times) and cheese (fundamentally unchanged for centuries) using knives (first introduced in ancient Mesopotamia) and forks (common in the Eastern Roman Empire in early Christian days).  We wash it all down with wine (a six-thousand-year-old product) from glasses (invented by the ancient Phoenicians), sitting in chairs (which first appeared in pharaonic Egypt) and wearing shoes (whose form turns out to be largely unchanged since a stone-age hunter called Öetzi the Iceman got himself deep-frozen in an Alpine glacier).  So... what’s new? 

Yet prevailing realities don’t prevent a new generation of ‘Neomaniacs’ postulating that, just because everything could change dramatically... that it necessarily will.  It’s the spirit (some would call it a delusion) that drives much of the development effort in consumer electronics, a product sector that has recently given the world electronic beeping forks for dieters, submersible cellphones, sweat-detecting electronic socks and singing toothbrushes.  Hmmm... Progress, anyone...?

It’s worth remembering that the whole concept of progress is a relative novelty in human thinking. The Greeks and Romans believed the opposite, that there had been a Golden Age in the mists of pre-history, and that each generation would fall further below its standards in a pattern of perpetual decline.  Looking around today, it’s tempting to think the Ancients had a point.

Pi says: the future won’t be all that different.  Get used to it.

Zone: Material Status Country: Multiple Geographies Product –