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The Tech World’s Weirdly Myopic View of Government

Whenever the government gets involved in something they understand, techies turn quite libertarian. “We need to stop the FBI from creating dangerous precedent by forcing Apple to unlock an iPhone.” Or, “Regulators will just screw up Uber and Airbnb, because they don’t understand what they’re doing and, anyway, they’re just going to regulate in favor of the dinosaur firms.”

But the moment we talk about something outside the domain knowledge of techies, they settle back into progressive shibboleths. “Government ought to run the health care industry.” Or, “Of course the state should be able to take away everyone’s guns. What could go wrong?”

A good rule of thumb: If you notice that the government works remarkably poorly whenever it gets involved with an issue you know a ton about, you should probably assume it’ll work just as poorly — with just as many errors and bad incentives — when it gets involved in an issue you’re largely ignorant of.

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“It’s not about the features — it’s about the experience.”

I love this Phil Schiller line. Apple’s senior VP of worldwide product marketing was asked by visitor Stephen Fry about the standard “problems” with the iPad, namely, it’s

neither small enough to be truly portable nor big enough to be called a proper computer. Everything, I point out, is under Apple’s control, as usual. No Adobe Flash capability, no multitasking, no camera.

Shiller’s response is perfect and to the point and speaks to a truth often lost on the self-appointed prognosticators of technology cool.

[I]t’s not about the features — it’s about the experience. You just have to try it to see what I mean.

Each time Apple announces a new product, there’s excitement, yes, but also derision within the technology blogosphere because it lacks feature X or is underwhelming when it comes to feature Y. Remember when the iPod was supposed to die out because it lacked an FM tuner? Remember when the iMac was going to be a bust because it didn’t include a floppy drive? Of course, the easy way to look at this is aversion to change coupled with a readiness to bash anything other people are enthusiastic about. But Schiller’s quote reveals a more interesting understanding of what might be termed the “Geeks vs. Simplicity of Features” problem.

Geeks (and by “geek” I mean specifically the Slashdot, open-source, IT administrator sort) think they can derive experience from a list of features. This mathematical world view is perhaps why so many of them are engineers. They can imagine the usefulness of a floppy drive or an FM receiver and then imagine that a product lacking those will not be as good as one that includes them. This is why technology companies include long feature lists on their webpages. They want the geeks to look over the bullet points and say, “Yeah, that adds up to something great.”

To see why this thinking is often flawed, however, apply it to something outside of technology — like books. We can look at the “features” of a novel, such as page count, binding type, language, level of vocabulary, genre, etc. We can then add up those features and let the sum determine how cool or great or informative the book will be. But 99 times out of 100, such calculus would lead us astray. Books aren’t the sum of their parts — and ice cream that has all the awesome flavors mixed together would taste like crap.

The problem is that a certain sort of person equates enumeration of features with the experience of use. Options are great, so the more options, the greater using a product will be. But products only exist to produce an experience. Everything we interact with we only experience as… well, as an experience. Geeks may think they know that, given features A, B, and C, we can expect experience D, but what matters is experience D — how good it is, how easy, how helpful, how fun — and not the fact that it is comprised of features A, B, and C. In fact, if a product only features A and B, creating experience E, and E is better than D, then feature C is a hindrance.

Most consumers who interact with technology products are never aware of those enumerated features. How many users of the Playstation 3 know the clock speed of the processor? If they did, would they care? I’d venture to say no. What matters to most buyers of a PS3 is the gaming experience it produces. Even if its processor is slower than the competitor, if the games are “better” (better in experience, remember, not in number of polygons pushed), then the PS3 itself is “better.” Geeks, I think, forget this in their fetishization of features.

At the end of the day, people want to buy and use a great product, not a list of features.