Waking Up from the 'Nightmare on Tech Street'

Reading Om Malik’s Nightmare on Tech Street piece, I wonder if we’re actually just waking up from the nightmare. Yes, the abrupt collapse of demand for consumer electronics and their ilk will hurt tech companies–I’m bracing my own for the slowdown–but the icy bath that brings down a killing fever trades pain for gain.

In a recent conversation with my daughter Arwen and son-in-law Saul Griffith, Matt Webb remarked that he’d like 2008 to be remembered as the year of “peak consumption.” Saul pointed out, though, that the term “peak waste” is perhaps more accurate. In an analogy to peak oil, he suggested that maybe we’ve reached the pinnacle of waste in our consumer culture. I do wonder if we will look back at the past few decades as a kind of sick aberration rather than a golden age, with good times we want to get back to. Like Saul, I’m hopeful that we can get rid of the waste, and get back to creating things of lasting value.

I’ve so often been struck by the incongruity of vast Chinese factories producing millions of truly useless goods, from tourist tchotchkes to marketing gimmickry. (I’ve often wondered: “What do they think of us, so rich that we can afford to spend money on so much that is useless!” And now we find that perhaps our wealth too was rooted in illusion.) And even when it comes to consumer electronics, we’ve built a throwaway culture rooted in waste. As Saul likes to say, you can’t imagine handing down “your grandfather’s iPod” the way you could your grandmother’s watch, or tools, or furniture, or books. It doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, technology improves and old devices get left behind, but there are so many innovations that could reduce waste, improve usability and create lasting value, things like standardized power adapters, open source hardware that is re-usable, modifiable, and repairable, as well as technology that is simple and robust enough to pass the test of time.

We’ve had a shock, yes, with more to come. But let’s hope it wakes us up. Let’s not lament it. Let’s embrace it, and use it to change our priorities. As I’ve said before, the best response to the downturn is to work on stuff that matters!