Answers to questions nobody is asking

In the past couple of weeks, I've seen stories about a deodorising coat hanger, a night light that alerts you to incoming emails, a plastic foot booty dispenser, a bed fan (as in a fan that blows air between your sheets) and a robot salad maker. In this time, I have also buried my 98-year-old Grandad, come to know the joy of electronic salt and pepper grinders and felt utter despair reading the Guardian story on plastic bottles and their inevitable outnumbering of fish in the ocean. It has been a rollercoaster ride of contemplating life, death, waste, utility, excess, thriftiness and planetary destruction.

As I helped Dad pack up and clear out the small room Grandad has called his castle for the past few years, we were faced with decisions about what to do with some of his stuff. A TV, a toasted sandwich maker, an iron. We took boxes to the Sallies and I took the electronic salt and pepper grinders because I like novelty things. They light up when you use them and for people with arthritis, they take some pain out of seasoning your meals. For me, they’re just a sentimental novelty item that make me smile and think about Grandad and as it turned out, stuff.

Stuff. So much stuff. Stuff that inevitably ends up meaning nothing at the end of your life and yet we seem to be careening headlong into an era of peak stuff. Superfluous stuff. Things invented to grab headlines or a share of that sweet, sweet investor dollar like the much mocked $400 USD juicer, Juicero. More choice about which kind of sugar-free Coke we drink than ever before. Features added to assure shareholders something is still relevant or to temporarily prop up a falling stock price.

Necessity used to be the mother of invention but increasingly it just seems like there’s a lot of solutions being created for problems that don’t exist and a lot of reporting on those ‘solutions’ as if excess is a thing to be celebrated.

What was once confined to suitcases of travelling salesmen and disparaged as snake oil now seems rife among technology companies and brands looking to stay ahead or just in the headlines with ridiculous ideas that provide no real utility and solve no real problem. Augmented reality headsets on flight attendants, banking by Google Glass, salad-making robots; technology and culture website Mashable reads more and more like a Magnamail catalogue every day.

"We seem to be careening headlong into an era of peak stuff."

Snapchat introduced a new feature, SnapMaps, that lets you share your location with friends. You can zoom in and around a map and view ‘snaps’ (photos or videos) of friends or total strangers wherever they are. The launch video was full of young people sharing where they were at and heading off to hang with others who’d done the same at a cool gig.

Naturally it raised a bunch of concerns about privacy and safety and I am aware I sound 80 here but there doesn’t seem to be much of a trade-off for it. For all the supposed social utility it promises, it seems like yet another example of a solution looking for a problem. I tried it and ended up inside someone’s house in Devonport where there was a party going on. Vicariously peeking into the lives of total strangers all over the world is odd and intrusive.

It felt like a thing I didn’t need to do or should even have the ability to do - totally unnecessary and, ultimately, excessive but yet, here we are.

Perhaps it’s mean to single out Snapchat but its new extraneous feature landed around the same time as I was thinking about my grandfather’s life, a man who was known for thriftiness, being handy, and a sustainable lifestyle that while common for the time would probably be considered progressive by our standards of consumption and wastefulness. He wouldn’t have known what Snapchat was but I can guarantee he would have had thoughts about why people would waste their time being preoccupied by the lives of strangers.

People, bright people with access to great technology, spend time developing things which feel like a desperate last gasp or minor tweak to something that’s already perfectly okay rather than something that will change the way we do things for the better.

It is naïve to think that altruism could ever be at the core of all product or technological advancement, but utility and necessity used to be - so where has that drive gone? When we’re living in a world that is facing a problem as sizeable as one million plastic bottles being produced every minute, surely, it’s time to start asking how much we really need yet another social media app feature or deodorising coat hanger and instead concentrate on finding solutions to problems that actually exist.

Not ones that prop up a culture of excess and waste.

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