Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Balancing technological pessimism

Pessimists archive is a podcast that chronicles pessimistic reactions to emerging technology as it was becoming mainstream. Technology here is defined broadly, covering a broad range of topics: bikes, coffee, pinball machines, vaccines, recorded music. The podcast is very accessible, focused more on social and psychological issues and less on the tech itself.

In response to unreasonable technological enthusiasm ever present in my industry, I have myself tended towards pessimism. After we launched Cardboard, my small HCI team in Google Research became the de facto home of VR at Google. Once word got out, engineers and designers flocked to our ranks, self selecting for interest in VR. Suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of VR enthusiasts, while I was skeptical about the vision of VR as "the last platform" and concerned about the social implications of broad VR adoption.

I began to see myself as the tenth man, posing the question: what if VR isn't really a thing? I ended up much more excited about Spotlight Stories without a headset, thought a bunch about augmented reality through audio, and became increasingly alienated from my colleagues gushing with optimism, rushing home to play Vive games in their carefully instrumented basements. This podcast would sure have helped me put my VR pessimism into perspective.

One critique I had of the podcast concept is hindsight bias. All of the technologies covered by Pessimists Archive ended up being successful, and time has proven the doubters wrong. But how many emerging technologies were successfully booed out of existence, or simply rejected by the market? And how many market successes come at a significant cost that prescient pessimists warned us about? TV and smartphones come to mind.

That said, I highly recommend the podcast series. The episodes are short, entertaining, and informative. I feel better equipped to recognize and overcome the traps that ensnared previous generations of techno pessimists.