Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Buying What We Think We Are


I'm having an existential crisis, and I'm having it under the bright white lights of a consumer electronics warehouse, surrounded by a thousand glittering tablets, laptops, netbooks, e-readers and headphones.

What sort of person am I?

In the past this would have been a question to contemplate in the grand spaces of a temple or the vaulted roof of a church. Now it's happening to me in the corrugated box of an out of town shopping centre. 

Do I consume or do I create?

After last year's holiday I decided I'd like something I could use as an electronic notepad; bigger than my smartphone but smaller than my 15" laptop. Something I can easily carry in a small rucksack and isn't so expensive that I spend all my time worrying about its safety.

"It's got a really nice trackpad, doesn't it?"

"Sorry. What? Oh, yes, you're right it does."

I'm brought out of my reverie by the shop assistant that's suddenly appeared as I was playing with Samsung's new Chromebook. He's right, it does have a nice trackpad. Actually the whole thing is nice. Small, sleek, decent battery life, satisfying keyboard, cheap, simple no hassle operating system, USB ports and a keyboard; all of which folds up nicely on itself for protection. 

I like to think that I don't just passively consume; that I also create, adapt and tinker with things to generate something new, mostly just for my own amusement. This self-image needs something with a keyboard, the most effective way of getting your thoughts or actions from your mind into digital form. I need this to interact, to communicate, to control and most importantly to create; not just to sit and absorb what's already there. I need USB ports to upload photos, control Arduino boards, a mouse or a tablet for drawing and a mini-jack for recording

But if I look more honestly at how much time I spend on 'creating' compared to consuming, well, it's not quite what my imagination thinks it is. 

In a year I read thousands of articles, look at thousands of photos and listen to thousands of hours of music. I watch hundreds of films and videos, read hundreds of e-mails and tens of books. In comparison I write a few hundred lines of hobby code, take a few hundred photos, create tens of pictures, write and record tens of songs and maybe write a blog post once a month. Looking at the balance; the vast majority is consumption. 

Yet I have difficulty accepting the black mirror of a tablet. The smooth impenetrable surface that seems more for machines than people; there's nothing tactile, it's just a cold flat slab. If you touch it you smudge the perfect glossy screen. Don't dirty it with your clumsy attempts to interact with it. Stay back and accept whatever colourful distraction is coming next. 

While I want to believe that I do more than just absorb, that I learn by doing and interacting, mostly I'm reading or watching. In the end the Chromebook is an anachronism; it's a laptop trying to be as limited as tablet while still keeping the old familiar forms. It runs apps like tablets do, has less storage than many tablets and can't stand alone, disconnected from the internet, any better than most tablets. The keyboard would be more a symbol of my false belief of what I do than providing me with an essential feature. 

For ease of carrying, size, cost, battery life and convenience while travelling a small tablet is a much better choice. I can still make digital notes at the speed I can hand write and use it to upload photos via a USB host app. All the other stuff my primary laptop can do on those occasions I need to. 

We all have our own image of who we are, and even if we don't behave in a way consistent with that image, we buy objects and brands that reflect who we think we are. I don't buy trousers from Marks & Spencer because I'm too young, too modern and too cool for that. The reality is that they're just trousers; they're little better or worse than trousers from any other shop and I am none of those adjectives above. But we judge others, and ourselves, by what we choose to buy and what that reveals about who we think we are. 

The trick is to make sure that we're not just buying what we want to believe we are, but what we actually need. Perhaps then we can more easily see who we really are.

"Are you looking for anything particular?"

"Yes, where are the tablets please?"