Gadget Reductivism

Eliot Van Buskirk has a piece in Wired today contemplating the future of devices for the mobile content and music industries: will we adopt a single device that “does everything” (music and communicating), or will we continue to use iPods for music and telephones for communicating? From the article, his advice to businesses contemplating this burning question:

It seems clear that carriers for now will see music cell phones as a failure if people end up using them like iPods. But that’s exactly the experience they’ll have to offer if they want music fans to make the switch. It’s a contradictory situation. But if they’re smart, they’ll keep the lesson of the iPod’s simplicity in mind, even at the expense of ad- and music-sales revenue in the short term. If they miss a trick, Apple Computer’s rumored to be waiting in the wings with its iPhone, and probably wouldn’t mind repeating the lesson.

It’s a good question, but with so much ‘function convergence’ going into mobile handsets – replacing keys, wallet, iPod, camera, and so on – a much larger problem (or opportunity, depending on where you’re positioned) appears to be looming: gadget reductivism.

I’ve ruminated previously on the implications for music in an increasingly gadget-reduced, mobilized social world, so I’m not going to muse further on that topic at present. I’m also going to leave the problems that gadget reductivism poses in business to people who have a greater interest in that than I have. Instead, I’d like to discuss the wider social and intellectual implications of the idealized networked, omnifunctional handset that promises to replace all other gadgets.

Gadget reductivism is good in some ways for citizens, in that it means less stuff to lug around. It’s eminently convenient to have one’s keys, wallet, music, and tricorder all in one handheld piece of whatever. Even better if it’s wearable. Nothing new here.

But it’s a dangerous prospect, as well. The more reliance we have on a single device for so many important functions, the more painful it is when it disappears or is stolen – attacking so many different spheres of a person’s lifeworld all at once. Imagine finding yourself suddenly with no ATM access, no identification, no keys to your home, no music to console you for your loss, and, worst of all, no way to phone anyone to help you out? Again, nothing new here, as these ideas have surfaced before.

But there are more serious problems. I rely on my phone’s one-touch, username-assigned address book so much that I wouldn’t know how to call about 90% of my contacts without it. I’d be simply lost. OK, you say, I can back up my data somewhere else, on some server or flash drive. So I’m safe, as long as I can access a backup network device to retrieve my information.

But where is my mind? Memory functions are already being seduced away from us by our handsets, and we are now risking other potential intellectual casualties with the furious development of intelligent software and web applications – intellectual labour saving software (for example, something as simple, effective, and seductive as Google search) that has the potential to relieve us of the burdens of answer-seeking, problem solving and critical thought.

Undoubtedly, some of us will never let go of our books, our vinyl records, our digital cameras, our fax machines, and so on. But the convenience and power of search is difficult to resist, and from the moment we become connected to universal knowledge repositories wherever we go, our world will have changed in a dramatic, fundamental way. Borges’ Labyrinth springs to life.


Gadget reductivism has greater implications than merely whether or not we use the same device to listen to music and talk on the telephone. But it’s striking how this example illustrates how societal upheavals are prefigured by musical upheavals (see Jacques Attali, whose theory I’m embellishing slightly here). Maybe what we do with our tunes now will have some bearing on what we do with our selves later.

One thought on “Gadget Reductivism”

  1. I can see a resistance movement to all this. The person who doesn’t use ATMs (I know some). The person who just likes to keep things separate. Alternatively, you have the backup device.

    A tv sitcom from a long time ago featured two guys living in an apartment, one fastidious and the other slovenly. The fastidious guy, in one episode, puts everything into a daytimer (this was before palm pilots, but the analogy holds…). The other guy, in frustration, one day throws the daytimer out the window. The fastidious guy looks pained, and then pulls out his backup daytimer. “Get new backup daytimer…” he writes. Badump tsch.

    If something is really a companion technology (and Roman has a great little description of this, ranging from the here and now to the star trek vision) then it will contemplate its own demise and how to cushion you from that blow. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a good companion, then, would it.

    Our danger comes from committing to a premature technology. Like when I lost my Palm Pilot (original version!) on the train in Toronto station. Not backed up, not password protected. Bad Palm Pilot. You never warned me I was going to lose you!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.