Why humans love technology that does literally only one thing
In the world of gaming, it's always big news when new consoles are announced. So this week, when Sony hinted at the specs for its forthcoming PlayStation, there was the usual oohing and aahing. But along with excitement and speculation, there came a lingering sense of surprise. After all, this was never supposed to happen.
For years, we heard that just as the smartphone made point-and-shoot cameras and PDAs obsolete, so too would mobile gaming kill consoles under TVs. PlayStations and Xboxes were supposed join Betamax tapes as relics of the past.
In fact, quite the opposite occurred. This latest generation of consoles — which included the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch — has arguably been the most successful and lucrative ever.
But the refrain that new, multipurpose technology will kill older, dedicated devices is something that extends far beyond gaming. Digital media was going to destroy physical media like records and tapes, e-books were going to kill print, and home theater was going to end the cinema. Those common predictions haven't come to pass — not exactly, anyway. Instead, it seems there is still a place for technology that does just one thing.
The resilience of purpose-built devices suggests they fulfill some deeper need than mere practicality. In gaming, for example, the mobile experience often doesn't replicate what many gamers actually find satisfying about traditional hardware: precision, tactile response, and the ability to steadily improve in skill and demonstrated expertise.
While gaming is undoubtedly changing as it moves toward streaming and the cloud, and mobile continues to grow with changes like Apple's Arcade service, the purpose-built nature of consoles or expensive gaming PCs satisfies a need that mobile doesn't. That doesn't make mobile gaming irrelevant — quite to contrary, it can be both lucrative and massively influential — but it does mean there are different ways to play and they each require different approaches.
So, purpose-built devices can offer something that multifunction devices just don't. Consider the e-book. It was supposed to obliterate the print book just as, say, the CD made the cassette obsolete. But e-book sales have dropped while print sales have increased. While there are numerous factors at work here, not least the perception that e-books should cost less, this reality points to the usefulness of a book in the contemporary era. It doesn't beep at you, it doesn't have a battery that needs charging, and there's something very satisfying about being able to see how many pages you've already read. No matter what, physical books just work.
That last point sheds light on another reason we love single-function technology: While we're swimming in a sea of devices that do hundreds of complicated tasks, having one device that does literally one thing only feels like sweet relief.
Think about your smartphone: Not only is it a thing you use to communicate, but it is also the portal through which you read the news, do your banking, listen to music, take photographs, order food, find a date, and do hundreds of other tasks. That's all very useful but it also means we are rapidly ping-ponging between tasks, distracted by push alerts and barely taking the time to actually think about what we're doing and appreciate the process of doing it.
Think about vinyl records, which have seen a resurgence in popularity and sales during the digital era. The act of having to place them on a turntable and flip them when one side is done encourages more focused, sustained listening. In an era that sees us doing multiple things at once, the simplicity of single-use devices can sometimes be incredibly enjoyable.
That's not to say that specialized tools are necessarily the future. For one, it costs a lot more to have a bunch of dedicated things. There is also the obvious risk of snobbery and conspicuous consumption — a kind of expansion on the idea of a hipster taking a typewriter to a Brooklyn coffee shop. Some people will always fetishize the specialized and old, and those with more money will always have more stuff than those with less.
But perhaps that last part isn't exactly true. After all, the recent flood of chatter about Marie Kondo and her Shinto-inspired philosophy of getting rid of things was itself a response to an era of excess. There is, too, the broader trend of minimalism in design — like, say, the white-walled and sparse style of many modern coffee shops or furniture stores.
Simplicity, as a design trend in our homes and in our technology, is an anxious response to the overly-complicated digital era. It speaks to a need deep within us for focus, connection with an object or activity, and perhaps a little relief from the paralyzing reality that our devices can seemingly do it all.