Innovation is fueled more by boredom than curiosity

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 5, 2013

From The News Desk

Phones are boringFacebook is mediocre, and Home is no different. Technology is dominated by mundane, un-sexy services and devices that serve hundreds of millions of users without exciting even a fraction of that population. Consumers squabble over slight differentiations between products like they've heard the one true gospel and anyone who buys or uses another product is an infidel. Welcome to technology.

There seems to be a direct relationship between how novel and, frankly, broken, a product is and how excited we are about its existence. A product's potential matters more than its actuality because we're bored with the present, damn it, and it's time for something new. Interest in technology goes hand-in-hand with an obsession with novelty.

The modern smartphone didn't spring forth, fully-developed, from Apple's Cupertino headquarters. Today we have displays named after the limits of human vision, ultra-fast data connections, and increasingly powerful processors to power it all; in 2007 we had a thick, aluminum-clad device with sluggish data connections, a much weaker processor, and a dimly-lit, low-resolution display.


The world's largest social network didn't grow to 1 billion users accessing its service on mobile devices as well as traditional computers overnight. Today we have Facebook, a place to share photos, chat with friends, and record our lives as they happen; in 2005 a few Ivy League universities had The Facebook, where (supposedly) one of the breakthrough features was letting your classmates know if you were single or in a relationship.


We could draw the same parallels with any once-nascent technology that has fallen into ubiquity. The original iPod was a technological marvel that, in many ways, pulled a flailing company away from the brink; now it's a throw-away category meant for people who want something they can use while running or who can't afford an iPhone.

Hell, take the telephone itself: When was the last time anyone was excited about using a clunky, wall-attached landline phone? Yet when the phone was introduced it was a breakthrough technology, and is directly responsible for many of today's devices.

Any technology that makes it past early adopters, struggles into the mainstream, and becomes part of daily life is "boring." Many are "mediocre," at least partly because they try to be so many things to so many people. No one gets excited about an updated iPod nano, or a new answering machine, or standalone GPS navigation system. These technologies changed the way we interact with the people and world around us, and their reward these days is a resounding "meh."

This phenomenon would be tragic if it weren't directly responsible for newer, better products and services.

Technological revolutions are built out of boredom. If someone had been content with the first version of the telephone we wouldn't have smartphones. Whoever it was who decided that humans could do better than a few pointy sticks, a fire, and a few animal pelts allowed us to advance to the point where you and I can complain about our wireless carriers and slow Internet connections. "Meh" is the motivative force behind modernity.

Being bored by smartphones and Facebook is perhaps the greatest sign that those technologies have made a lasting impact. It's leading to new products like Glass, which is still at the breakthrough stage. It's leading to Home, which, despite allegations of mediocrity, advances the smartphone interface beyond a grid of applications and widgets and introduces something new to a staid market.

Louis CK's "everything's amazing and nobody's happy" bit is often meant as an indictment against an entitled generation, but that attitude is a prerequisite to continued development. Everything is amazing, nobody is happy, and that's why tomorrow's technology might be just a little bit better.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]