Why the bleeding edge isn’t all that.

Posted on 09/07/2011

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Something, somewhere went terribly wrong.

Today I was reminded what a bubble we live in. I can walk from flat to work without losing wireless coverage. I never carry a map because I expect GPS and my phone to guide me everywhere. And I spend hours online each day trying to keep track of the next big trend, the next game changer. The problem is this is not how most people spend their time.

We’re in an age where news decays fast and we’re addicted to novelty. Popularity is so short-lived a person, story or video has a half-life of well under a week. It’s fast, it’s fun, I like it, but it’s not remotely what most people experience.

Over a year ago I wrote the first Antisofa blog post about living far from the bleeding edge. Since then I’ve propelled myself (and been pushed by my job) closer to that point. I’m not quite living at the bleeding edge of technology, but I can see it from my window, so to speak. It’s fun, but also hugely artificial.

Vintage mobile phone

Although I know plenty of people who are in the same situation, there are plenty who aren’t. I’ve a couple of friends who are staunchly against the invasion of computers into our lives and see them purely as productivity tools. They still own mobile phones but of the “vintage” variety. Being young doesn’t mean that you’re tech savvy.

"You don't know Spotify?!"

Then there’s my parents and my grandparents. What you do and how you do it can matter a surprising amount. Even though we share interests (politics, culture, old films) we indulge these in totally different ways. Our experiences of these are different. Theirs are more informed by newspapers, TV and books; mine are almost exclusively from the net (where would we be without IMDB?) We still speak the same language but it doesn make it harder to connect.

With old people 37% less likely to have internet access, there’s a risk they’ll become marginalised. There are also areas of the country that are broadband black spots and in rural areas mobile signals are still extremely patchy. I’d forgotten, and so have hundreds of others, that not everyone’s wired in 24 hours a day.

We’re never going to reach 100% penetration of a particular technology or social network. Any time we get close, one technology will probably be superseded by another. We’re also going to need more patience. For everyone.

A pile of gadgets

For each new piece of kit you adopt (I think it went something like: pc, 2G mobile, digital camera, laptop, iPod, SLR, smart phone, tablet), there will be someone who hasn’t got one. And when they do catch up, you’ll probably be two steps down the line already. There are two things we need to learn from this:

  1. Degrade gracefully. This is something good web developers have done for years to tackle incompatibilities between web browsers. If a website works in the latest version of Google chrome, it should also work in 2008’s Internet Explorer 7. Unfortunately things sometimes don’t and you end up building it twice, once for IE7 and once for everything else.If you always assume everyone is up to speed with you, then you’re going to have problems trying to communicate. High street banks still need telephone banking for people who don’t have access to the internet. And for people who prefer face to face operations they will still need retail branches. As much as we’d like to, we shouldn’t give up on traditional methods just yet, especially if we’re working with a mass market.
  2. Work backwards. We’re all in different places, technologically speaking. The first thing to do is make your service, communication, or product work for technophobes. Then build upwards, using the same simple idea with more and more digital inspiration each time. It’s not about going reverting to analogue methods; it’s about starting to build a service, product or communication from the ground up. Find the right level of “backwards” and then find your footing – it’ll be easier in the long run.
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