Why Boring Technologies Are Exciting

Photo by Alex McCarthy on Unsplash

There’s a cacophony of noise around Artificial Intelligence (AI), crypto, Web3, the metaverse, genetic engineering, DNA technologies. All clamouring to be seen as the one that will change the world and usher in a new age of utopia. Thing is, the hyped technologies only really become interesting when they become boring.

And most of the biggest innovative outcomes from hyped technologies in the coming decade or two will be in rather boring sectors of economies. Manufacturing, transportation, energy grids, pharmaceutical manufacturing, transportation. In places that are as mundane as we can possibly make them; business and industrial parks.

Behind these bland, uninspiring edifices built not for aesthetics, but for economic efficiency is where the really exciting innovations will happen. They will change our lives, often in subtle ways that we don’t think about because they just make life better. Quietly.

Few of the originating companies that ride on the tsunami of the tech world hype machine will last over the long haul. Google followed Yahoo! in the world of search and Yahoo! today is a secondary player. Blockchain would change everything, today it languishes in a swamp of sunken technologies along with Web3 and the metaverse. Someday, they may resurface. Perhaps when they become boring.

The companies that invent and then sell or acquire and sell these technologies need hype at the start of the cycle. This creates market awareness and they hope, inspires innovators who find ways to use the technology to drive new business models and that shows shareholders and the market that they’re not yet boring.

It is when the heady vapours of the hype machine have washed away that the tech companies and the industry that lives off them, start to make more meaningful advances and more serious money. Part of the value of the hype acts like a wind vane to the companies that put them out. A sort of experiment to test the deeper sociocultural and market waters.

An example of this is Virtual Reality (VR) devices and applications. VR did get a little boost from the now all but lost idea of the metaverse and then Apple’s launch of Vision Pro earlier in 2023. But overall, VR has failed to gain any serious mass consumer market traction. This doesn’t mean that VR isn’t valuable or interesting.

Where VR is finding it’s place is in niche markets. Useful for training surgeons and medical students to perform surgeries. For mechanics to repair vehicles and engineers to work on giant equipment in manufacturing facilities. For police and military training. To help in mental health. These are quiet applications of a technology that is viable and fairly advanced, but doesn’t get a huge amount of public attention. Augmented Reality (AR) is in a similar situation.

There’s a sort of common belief in today’s society that a technology is only useful, truly viable and valuable if the mass consumer market adopts it. This is and never has been, the reality.

Apple, Microsoft, Nvidia, Intel, often hype their latest chips and the amazing things they can do. Chips themselves are also a geopolitical pawn today. But most of the chips in the market do boring behind the scenes things. Like make your coffee in the morning.

Our sociocultural systems can only handle so many significant technologies at a time. For the typical developed world consumer this starts with the smartphone and usually includes a tablet or laptop. Maybe a smartwatch. A TV at home and a streaming device like Roku or Apple TV. Fewer have smarthome speakers. Even fewer have connected smarthome devices.

The technologies that we rely on and use far more than we realize, are the ones sitting, humming, blinking, quietly in the background. Doing boring things that we tacitly know are there but don’t feel we really need to think about.

And this is where the most interesting innovations will likely happen, in unobtrusive ways. The only ones to get really excited will be chemical engineers in factories, plumbers, electricians, doctors, nurses, building engineers.

The newest A7890T4 H2O thingywidgy that makes water usage more efficient in a factory isn’t likely to be on the cover of Wired Magazine. Yet it reduces mass water consumption contributing to better water resource management (it doesn’t exist, I’m giving an example.) A contribution to society, but hardly worthy of a TikTok video.

If you really want to see which technologies are benefitting our world, you have to go to boring, mundane, every day places. Peel back the layers and go deep under the hood. It’s when the hype dies down and the technology is just, well, so yesterday, that it becomes interesting.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.