Our future: More fun, less clutter

Our Future Without Clutter

It’s a fresh, clean, uncluttered new year, so I thought it would be a great time to look ahead to the future. If you’ve ever watched any sci-fi shows or movies, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of the non-post-apocalyptic ones have something in common. They show a future that is clean and tidy and free of clutter. Apparently, our collective hope and dream is that technology will free us from a tide of physical things that constantly washes up in our homes and offices. Well, the tide has begun to turn, and while we may not get to the state of an empty room with 3 buttons that materialize anything we need, there’s a lot of clutter that is on its way out.

So what types of clutter is technology clearing out for us? Here are some of the main ones I see (both now and in the near future):

Books & Magazines
Probably the most noticeable change (from a cultural standpoint) is the rise of eReading. While the idea of digital content rather than paper has been growing along with the Internet, it was obviously the arrival of the iPad, Kindle, Nook and others that made 2010 a watershed year for this concept. Books made the leap first, and almost every new release now has an eBook option. Magazine publishers, struggling with dropping circulation numbers, are rapidly retooling their models to embrace digital distribution on the iPad and other forthcoming tablet devices.

Don’t get me wrong, there will still be paper books and magazines available in the future, but the only time we will add those to our environment is when we feel that the particular physical book gives us an enhanced experience over the 0.0oz, clutter-free digital version. Beyond that, there’s something magical about being able to have an entire library in your pocket wherever you go.

CDs and Cassettes
Yes, I know that Cassettes are already largely gone, and CD’s are close to joining them, so I won’t dwell on this one. I’ll just suggest you take a moment to think about how much physical space your music collection used to take up.

VHS and DVD
The VHS to DVD transition yielded about a 50% size reduction (for a DVD in a case, vs a VHS tape), but that’s just a start. Blu-Ray helped DVDs extend their existence, but its inevitable that a large portion of distribution (and our own consumption) will become digital, and streamed, thereby freeing us from another packed bookcase.

Computer Equipment
It’s not going away, but it’s getting smaller. For most of us, there’s less and less need for a desktop tower, with all of its wires, separate keyboard, mouse and monitor. Even for those of us who still use an external monitor, think about the size difference between a 20” flat panel and an old 20” CRT! And the more that can be accomplished wirelessly and over the network, the fewer wires, ports, hubs and adapters we need.

A/V Equipment
Remember those huge stacks of A/V components that people used to brag about? The dual cassette deck? The gargantuan 300-disc CD changer? They’re almost gone. All you really need for a nice A/V setup right now is a big TV, a small Blu-Ray player, a receiver and speakers. All the other functionality has converged and digitized. There’s more of that to come as well.

Expect that big tray full of remote controls to go away and be replaced with downloadable control templates for your smartphone or iPad. Blu-Ray has already converged with next-gen gaming consoles, and HD-streaming will reduce its importance as well. Speakers keep shrinking and getting thinner, and cables are consolidating or disappearing altogether. Look at the newer HDMI standard. One thin cable carrying a high quality video and multichannel audio signal, replacing what used to be a bundle of 5 cables.

At the same time, we can do more and more with less equipment. We can watch in HD and 3D. We can pause, rewind and record anything we want instantly. We can schedule our recordings from across the world. We can stream on-demand and catch up on entire seasons of shows we missed. We can even bounce our own media around the living room with ease, from computer to TV screen, from iPad to stereo.

Bills and Personal Documents
The “paperless” future is taking its sweet time getting here, but the combination of online billpay, rising snail-mail costs, and the “green” movement have given it a big jolt over the few years. As we all get more comfortable with eco-friendly documentation, those big home filing cabinets will disappear, along with the piles of paper on our desks, coffee tables and kitchen counters. We’re also gaining the benefits of desktop search, so we can let the massive brains of our computers sort through everything to find that one bill from last July, rather than having to dig through our piles of paper.

Photo Albums
Those boxes full of negatives, prints and doubles (as many bad shots as good ones) and huge flopping albums that we swear we’re going to organize someday, have all already gone away, along with the canisters of film and the trips to the pharmacy or photo shop to get them developed. Taking their place (in less space and with a lot more fun) are custom storybooks created from our own photos and narrative, constructed quickly and easily, ordered online and delivered to our doors and to our loved ones.

Junk Mail and Catalogs
This is the final frontier for clutter reduction. From a marketing standpoint, there is still positive value and ROI to shoving a physical piece of mail into your mailbox. There are only three things that can stop the flow of paper into our house (and then our trash cans). The first is if the cost of production and mailing rises too high. I don’t see that happening, because the postal service depends on bulk mail too much. The USPS could scale back delivery to once per week and the bulk mailers would be fine with it. The second is if the government were to implement a “do not mail” registry. I don’t see that one happening either, for more reasons than I’ll go into in this post.

The third potential cure is also the most interesting. If someone can come up with an alternate, digital delivery mechanism for “printed” mailings that offers the advertisers better value, then they’ll drop the actual printing. From the advertisers side, it would probably have to incorporate things like tracking of actual views, and never ever have a “Delete All” button, but if you look at changes that have swept other industries, it’s not too far-fetched to think that this could happen.

The boon of technology is about efficiency. If you look at each of these items, the technology is enhancing the utility we get from them and removing the need to shift unnecessary physical items into and out of our lives. That’s my vision of a bright, clean, uncluttered future.

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