Hyperbole kills: Tech advertising limits ability to solve problems

Random juxtaposition of ideas is often, for me, the Web’s most useful gift. Consider this: last night I watched this satirical video about Apple’s iPad mini:

and then 20 minutes later read this really insightful article from MIT Technology Review about “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems”.

You should enjoy both for yourself. The idea that sparked for me was the false expectation that each generation of Apple stuff be revolutionary, innovative or game-changing. We should place a moratorium on these words when talking about technology.

A faster processor is not revolutionary unless it allows us to do something we couldn’t even think about before.

Better screen resolution isn’t innovative unless it makes things visible that were not visible before. It just makes things look prettier. Prettier is good. Prettier is worth paying for. Prettier isn’t necessarily innovative.

If I were a person who carried things in a purse, I might be tempted to consider a smaller iPad as being game-changing. But only if it meant I could use my iPad in novel situations where I could not previously use it.

I love my iStuff. Desperately and truly. I just happen to believe that Apple is guilty of the kind of advertising hyperbole that diminishes our collective ability to imagine the ways great technology might help actually solve huge, intractable problems.

I’m am so glad to have smartphones, Twitter and streaming video service enriching my daily life. Where are we with world hunger, climate change and space exploration?

Would the Buddha use an iPad?

Interesting fact about me: I follow dozens of blogs about iPad, iOS and other Apple¬†accouterments¬†and yet remain relatively uninformed about the actual workplace conditions of the factory workers in China who assemble these miracle devices. There have been many recent stories, of varying credibility, about the work conditions in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing units.

I hear stories about dust explosions, blindness and suicide nets. And yet, somehow, I never can find my way to read the entire story. I hear a whisper of something ill afoot and my mind grays out.

I don’t have this problem when reading about the latest iOS upgrade features, the comparison points of new iPad vs. iPad2 or keeping track of the best new free apps.

This is called practiced avoidance. Some call it compassion fatigue. It is, undoubtedly, a kind of moral disconnect.

And yet, I feel oddly relieved to read that the recent “This American Life” story about the deplorable conditions at FoxConn were made up. As if, somehow, I can simultaneously credit myself for being more informed about the working conditions of the people who make iStuff and yet also feel absolved of some of my own complicity in the horror since this one story wasn’t properly fact-checked.

I think Erik Sherman has this one right:

Too many people will use This American’s retraction to smooth over their momentary discomfort at using products that require harsh working conditions to maintain cheaper prices and corporate margins. But the problems remain — not just for iPads and iPhones, but also for all those Android devices, many TV sets, radios, GPS units, just about every other electronic wonder of modern life. Daisey’s reporting may be phony, but when you look at the bigger picture of most consumer electronics manufacturing, he was right. The biggest shame will be if people use this episode as an excuse to go happily back to dreamland.

He’s right. I’m not throwing away my iStuff, but I’ve got to sit with this one for a while. Everything and everyone is interconnected. That’s a Noble Truth. Suffering is inescapable and happens to everyone. That’s another Noble Truth. Attachments (like to iStuff) create suffering. Yet another Noble Truth.

I’m going to continue using my iStuff knowing that the creation process harms others and probably harms the environment. Where’s the mindfulness in that?

Would the Buddha use an iPad? I don’t know. Probably not. But if he did, he wouldn’t let himself pretend that his iPad appeared magically on a lotus petal one morning. That iPhone came from somewhere. Somebody made it. Making it might have cost them something. It might have cost them a lot. It almost certainly cost them more to make it than it does for me to use it.

Sit with that. That’s mindfulness for you.