intercourse with biscuits
This site is a modern miscellany written by me, Mic Wright. I'm a journalist and writer and have contributed to Stuff, Q Magazine, The Times and Sunday Times, The Guardian and Wired. You can see some of my writing portfolio here, follow me on Twitter, find me on Facebook and email me.

Tech journalists, delusions and the hedonic treadmill

For a few years I was a tech journalist and nothing else. These days I have the luxury of writing about technology and music and pop culture and more complex stuff like state-sponsored cyber-terror.

My work is pretty eclectic now and I love that but I can’t say I wasn’t enthralled with being a pure gadget journalist when that was my job. But now I write tech news for Electricpig for two hours in the morning and then turn to other things, the problematic parts of being a gadget journalist are in sharper relief. 

To be a tech journalist is to comprehensively commit yourself to a life on what economists call the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the human desire to quickly return to a stable level of happiness regardless of major positive or negative events to the contrary. 

On the hedonic treadmill the latest mobile phone can be the pinnacle of technological achievement one day and a total piece of crap the next. It’s the treadmill that keeps the children of technology execs in expensive shoes and their dad’s in frameless specs. 

The life of a gadget journalist is about speeding up the hedonic treadmill. On a magazine like Stuff which is dedicated to fuelling gadget lust, your task is to press the fast forward button on the hedonic treadmill making your readers disgusted by their current kit and getting them craving the latest shiny slab of tech fluff.

And, of course, chief among the engineers tweaking the hedonic treadmill is Mr Steve Jobs, the king of stoking gadget desire. One year he will tell you the iPhone you are about to buy is the most wonderful piece of aluminium and plastic to ever bounce out of Cupertino, the next he’ll have you staring at your palm and openly laughing at how antiquated last year’s model is. 

I held on to the iPhone 3G for two years before finally upgrading to the iPhone 4 six months after it launched. It worked fine. Though the hardware was behind the models that followed it, it used the same OS and was a good phone for my purposes.

But when I used my iPhone 3G, other gadget writers looked at me as if I had just pulled a little bag of fresh faeces from my pocket: “You’re still using THAT?!” Living on the hedonic treadmill, you’re expected to keep running ahead of your readers. You need the newest phone, TV, laptop…whatever shiny slab of metal the corporations have just told the world it needs. 

I jumped off the hedonic treadmill for a while but it always ends up sucking me back in. My 13in Macbook Pro 2009 model is still a beautiful computer. I used it for about 6 hours a day and yet the 11in Macbook Air exists now and in the back of my mind I keep thinking: I should get one of those! I don’t need one. I want one.

The hedonic treadmill still has me running. And as you open your new iPad on Christmas morning, beware – the hedonic treadmill is getting ready to trip you up. The iPad 2 is coming in the new year and that sliver of the future you’ve just got will suddenly be written off as prehistoric.  

iPad 3/iPad HD disappoints? Unless you’ve got a time machine, you should give up tech writing

Today is the day Apple whips the covers off the iPad 3 or the iPad HD or as I like to think of it The Shiny Sexy Money Hole. There are already hundreds of articles predicting what Apple will/won’t/should do this afternoon. I’m not going to do that. It’ll be better. That’s about the sum of it. The problem is, an army of tech journalists are already predicting that it will be…cue portentous soundtrack…DISAPPOINTING. 

An unannounced, undefined product is going to be disappointing. They said it before the iPhone launched. Too expensive, not enough buttons etc etc etc blah blah blah. They said it before the launch of the first iPad. They said it before the iPad 2 emerged as if the huge sales of the first tablet were somehow a fluke. The iPad 2 sold in even larger numbers than its predecessor. 

And yet, professional tech journalists, people paid to know their onions about the future of technology and especially Apple which looms large over all others, are writing speculative pieces about why an unseen product will disappoint us.

If the iPad 3 ONLY has better battery life and an impressive new screen, it will be enough to power massive sales. Unless the needlessly negative tech writers have Delorians idling in their garages, they are indulging in the worst kind of linkbait bullshit.  

Apple needs to be criticised. A lot of reviews and news pieces are essentially hum jobs given to its powerful PR machine but the simple fact is: Apple makes better products than its rivals.

The iPad is a runaway success because it is lightyears ahead of its rivals. Samsung can’t shift its tablets because they aren’t good enough. The only true competitor is the Kindle Fire which although technically lesser has Amazon integration and a killer price point. 

The iPad 3 won’t disappoint the rational people and the consumers who crave it. Anyone who mithers that it is “disappointing” tonight without first getting their hands on one, is a terrible journalist and should quit the game. The opinions of knee jerking idiots are not needed in the already crowded market of people muttering ill-thought out rubbish. 

The iPad joins comics and the spinning top as a ruiner of childhood: more tales of total bollocks

Every new technological development in history has been greeted by worried folk flinging their hands up in horror and suggesting that it will destroy the very fabric of society. From self-interested monks mithering about the printing press to radio stars getting uppity about the television’s bright open face, they’ve all come to look foolish in time as the technology they feared has become woven into the fabric of society. 

This morning, I fired up my iPhone to read an article from Beverley Turner of The Telegraph explaining how the awful, evil of the iPad is laying waste to children’s imaginations, a dreadful drug dealer getting them hooked on short bursts of gratification and denying them a future painting the next Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

Let’s take a look at Beverley’s first paragraph and consider the tone it sets for her argument: 

“The technology behemoth Apple is rejoicing after the sale of its 25-billionth app. The Disney game, Where’s My Water?, was, it says downloaded by a Chinese child who can now swipe one finger across a screen to release water onto a subterranean alligator.” 

It’s very balanced isn’t it? That image of nasty old Apple, Godzilla-like, stomping through the streets of the cities it has conquered in a kind of app-themed Nuremberg rally, all in celebration that it now controls the mind of a feckless Chinese child who is hooked on the unquestionable charms of drenching a naughty alligator. 

You could use the same censorious language about a book publisher celebrating the 10-millionth sale of a popular book: “The publishing giant is rejoicing after the sale of its 10-millionth book. The title, Harry The Unfeasibly Happy Hippo, was purchased by a British child who can now use one finger to move pages and looks at pictures of Harry doing happy hippo stuff.” 

Turner seems aghast that Disney has created the protagonist of Where’s My Water?, Swampy, entirely for mobile platforms. It’s a scar thought for her that the character hasn’t graduated from apps from ‘traditional’ media such as movies or TV and instead leapt to the iPad first: “Apparently, this is a cause for celebration (surely there’s an app to help us look happy).” 

There’s probably also an app for Turner to cream out her hysterical fear-mongering if she searches through the app store for long enough. She quotes Disney vice-president Bart Decrem, who told the Today programme: “A whole generation of kids is growing up with…[iPads and iPhones] as their ‘first screen’.” Now, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Turner: “Fewer phrases could be more chilling…” I can think of many more chilling phrases. Here’s one: “Beverley Turner, formerly of The Telegraph, has been appointed Education Tsar.”

It’s at this point of the article that we get to the real reason Turner is so aggrieved by apps: they’re becoming a problem in her own parenting –

“I must confess to being recently bowled over by a Times Tables app that kept two energetic eight-year-olds entertained on a long train journey. However, it can feel as though the sole purpose of a 21st-century parent is to negotiate ‘screen’ time. Despite the diversions of piano, swimming and Cubs, my eight-year-old would always choose the solitary world of the Wii. And we are regularly woken up the opening bars of the Peppa Pig theme tune escaping from the iPad that out two-year-old has swiped from my office…” 

See, I have yet to expose the world to the horror of my own progeny but I’m pretty certain that parenting has always been about some negotiation, that there have always been horrifying diversions for children that adults have felt uncomfortable about. Comic books or spinning tops would take the place of the iPad and apps in an earlier incarnation of this tale. 

Turner seems to believe boredom is a magic bullet to create imagination: “The problem is this: our children do not know how to be bored. It’s a time-bomb because, let’s face it, rather a lot of real life is quite dull.” Boredom can force you to be imaginative, to “make your own fun” but being stimulated can foster your imagination far better.

My mum read to me lots and I was given plenty of action figures that I made up stories about. An iPad would have thrilled me. It is a creation device, not just a consumption machine. Turner’s own lack of imagination about the power of apps is the problem here. 

Turner concludes her article: “No matter how loveable Disney makes its app characters, looking silently at a handheld screen teaches our children nothing about language, empathy or relationships.” This is rubbish. 

Does Sesame Street, delivered through a television, teach children nothing about language, empathy or relationships? Does any child truly interact with an iPad ‘silently’? Not if the app they’re playing with is any good and their parents are also interacting with them. The iPad is no different to the television before it, it’s a tool in the arsenal of interesting diversions available to children. Parents have to offer it up wisely but telling you child that apps are awful is a way to put them behind the pack. 

Why cabbies are the best trendspotters and the guy in Carphone Warehouse knows more than any tech analyst

Who do you talk to to find out which new mobile phone is going to sell well? If you said: “analysts”, you’re probably an analyst. If you said: “my friends and family”, you’re a smart consumer. If you said: “tech journalists”, you’re doing it wrong. Finally, if you said: “by talking to salespeople in a few phone shops”, you’re on the right track.

Follow the money or, in this case, follow the commission. Tech reporters and analysts – myself included – can burble on all we like about which phone you should get or which one we liked quite a lot but our analysis is based on hunches and “inside baseball” takes on what Apple/Google/Samsung/Microsoft are trying to do.

The salesperson in the shop doesn’t care about that. He or she cares about what will sell and what will end in some commission. Sales people know what sold before, to whom and why. So I in the past month, I have visited 17 phone stores in London and Dublin. It wasn’t even slightly scientific or a statistically valid sample size but it gave me some rough insights:

People love Samsung’s Galaxy S4 if they’re into Android, more people than you think are into the Nokia Lumia Windows Phone devices and out of the two new iPhones it’s the iPhone 5C that’s being snapped up in huge numbers. Why? It’s a bit cheaper and people who loved their colourful iPod touch now love the colourful iPhone 5C.

An analyst would give you that insight wrapped in some heavy flimflam about the Chinese market and why Apple needs a cheaper iPhone to something something blah blah blah. Tech journalists will coat those ideas in some complex argument that lets them use contrived metaphors (yep, guilty as charged).

The sales person doesn’t do any of that. They just want to sell phones and get commission, so, when you get them chatting, with the right questions, you get the truth. It’s the truth through the prism of economic interest. You can expand the approach out to almost any issue.

Want to know more about how the hotel business works and what it’ll take for you to get a better room? Talk to front-of-house people and doormen. Find out what they look for in a hotel. Need to know how the economy of a city is going and where the hot restaurants, bars and areas in general are? Talk to the cabbies. They know.

Not applying this approach is one of the biggest problems with today’s politicians. They socialise with the rich. They are advised by bumfluff-faced kids who are smart on macro-economics but haven’t got a clue about X Factor, Eastenders or what the best thing to order in Nandos is. Politicians shouldn’t pretend to like Arctic Monkeys – hello Gordon Brown – or know the price of a loaf of bread off the top of their head (who really does?).

Whatever our jobs, whatever we’re doing, we need intelligence to make decent decisions. Politicians are obsessed with getting political intelligence but they need pop culture intelligence, they need to take the pulse of the council estate as much as they do the “elite”. Listening to people is about more than polling. Our head-in-the-sand hack politicos don’t get that. The next person who does will win big.