It’s now almost official: we are heading full-throttle into the post-PC era, an age that will see the decline of traditional computers and the ascendance of tablets and phones. As for why, it’s outlined in a fascinating presentation by analyst Benedict Evans called “Mobile is Eating the World.” The primary reason PC sales are slowing and tablets’ are rising? Simply, mobile devices can now do so much, they’ve taken over for most people’s computing needs.
But as we charge ahead into the Tablet Age, in which the iPad in our pockets almost does more than our already multi-functional laptops, a nagging, counter-intuitive question lingers in my mind: Are their new places for devices that do just one thing?
It seems absurd to think so. Think of the average tablet: not only does it surf the Web, but it can also play Netflix and games, be an e-reader, a newspaper or magazine, organize your calendar, be a banking terminal, an astronomy guide and so on toward infinity. If the PC was once the multi-purpose device par excellence, it’s now the tablet that best exemplifies the trend of “one gadget for every need.”
Why, then, would anyone want a device that, instead of these many purposes, was best suited for only one? One potential answer is “distraction.” It’s a tricky assertion to prove, and often, it’s an argument meant to emphasize some kinds of activity, like work or reading, over others. But at a more individual level, the multi-purpose nature of a tablet or phone can sometimes exacerbate one’s compulsions. You pick up your phone or tablet planning to do something you cherish, but instead find yourself checking your work e-mail or playing that addictive but not-very-good game.
In the face of so much choice of activity, it seems worth pondering: would tech objects that do one thing could usefully act as a kind of limit or filter on how we behave?
E-readers like the Kindle or Kobo are probably the most obvious examples of these function-specific devices. If you find yourself reading less than you’d like, purchasing an e-reader can be a way of creating a habitual link between a single activity and a device. Toss your Kindle into your bag rather than your tablet and you’ve made it that much more likely you’ll read on the subway.
It’s possible that reading is a unique case because of the kind of focus and attention certain material can require. But as one goes through the list of other potential single-function technologies – from hand-held game consoles to printed cookbooks to classic iPods – another idea emerges. In considering their benefits and drawbacks compared to fancier things, maybe choosing to use technology that does less rather than more is not a question of focus vs. distraction, or single- vs. multi-function, as it is something quite different: love.
Life is very often filled with tension between one’s loves, one’s obligations and one’s vices. Many of us feel like we should really dig into a hobby, read a bit more literature, or really catch up on those old films – but find ourselves pulled away by other, perhaps broader distractions.
In that light, maybe there’s a small place for modern technology that resists multifunctionality and just does one thing. Faced with almost limitless digital choice, maybe buying an e-reader, a gaming device, or Blu-Ray player – or simply not buying those things and sticking to the book or the DVD or your old Gameboy – might not be about being backwards or fetishizing one form of tech over another, but is instead an act of love: a symbolic way of marking out to ourselves what is meaningful to us. And perhaps it’s less a question of the negative emphasis of distraction, than it is thinking of a single-purpose object as akin to a simple act of making a commitment – of saying to oneself “this is what is important to me,” and then doing one’s best to stick to that.
I wouldn’t want to push the idea too far. I think there’s a real loss in cutting oneself off from some of the latest technologies and the myriad things they enable. That said, in an age of abundance, where the problem has shifted from “not enough” to “too much,” perhaps we need to keep a space for technology with a singular vision – so that we, in our projects of self-betterment, can find a similarly singular focus.