January 28, 2023

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I apologize for sounding like a grumpy old man. But I’m going to take Andy Rooney to extremes, complaining about gadgets and technology that, well-meant, seem to be forgotten by the average person.

I grumpily ask myself: Who is the technology made for? Tech is no longer just for nerds; companies often pretend they are.

A few weeks ago, Amazon and Apple argued about “lossless” audio files. I didn’t know what they were either. They are high quality digital songs that most people cannot tell apart from regular versions. Likewise, the latest features in smartphone software sound smart, but I wonder how many people are using them and customizing iMessage notifications for their boss. One of the newest features from Apple is for the 18 or so people who want to use the same keyboard to control an iPad and a Mac at the same time.

Please don’t yell at me! I know some people are passionate about these things and it makes sense for tech companies to care about them. Companies are also constantly improving their products in ways that are relevant to both the tech-savvy 1 percent and everyone else.

But I can’t help but think that tech companies and us would be better off if they focused their energy and marketing muscles on what is important to the 99 percent of the people who use technology.

Smartphones are one of the most mass-produced products ever made. What do many people want from their cell phones? A cool look, simplicity, longer battery life, low cost of the device and internet surfing, and better resistance to our clumsiness.

But the hottest smartphone marketing pitch in the United States has been their ability to connect to 5G cellular networks, which most Americans don’t have access to and which they may not need at all for a long time.

If Apple uses all of its TV commercials to drop its phones in toilets, then you know the industry thinks of 99 percent. (Yes, I know many phones have been made more water resistant, including bathroom dunks.)

I loved this list from The Verge in 2019 for all the things the tech industry thinks everyone knows but most people don’t. Ordinary people don’t know how Facebook ads target them, why bluetooth is so flaky (or what bluetooth is) or whether they need to buy extra storage on their phones as Apple nags them all the time.

“It’s a crucial reminder of an important fact that I think the entire tech industry is constantly forgetting,” wrote Nilay Patel in this 2019 article. “Most people have, and are, no clue about how something really works already hopelessly confused by the technology they have. “

Most people don’t have the time and space to attend to anything other than the basics of using their phone, computer, TV, or other necessary things and apps. And that’s perfectly fine and normal. What’s wrong is that the world’s largest and richest companies often fail to meet these needs.

Technology companies should continue to come up with innovative advances. But the balance doesn’t seem right between the new wow stuff and what most people actually need.

Tech companies should also stop pretending that ordinary people are intruding on complex privacy controls. That could mean baby monitors shouldn’t contain passwords that criminals can easily find online, and Amazon shouldn’t automatically turn people’s home devices into a shared internet network.

I don’t have an easy solution. Perhaps tech companies should hire chief normality officers to make sure that gadgets, apps, and software are needed and usable by the 99 percent.

It’s really hard to make things simple and meet the needs of millions or billions of people. The first step is to remember that technology should be there for everyone.