Smartphones have arguably revolutionised the nature of human existence. We’ve had all of the component parts for quite some time now: a means of communication, a camera, a way to interact with the internet. It’s the bundling of these aspects in to one handy device which has changed us.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up? For many it is to curse, and question the rising of the sun in the East, and attempt to force the day to retreat in to the comfort of the deep deep sleep which we have found interrupted. For others it is a shower, a shit and a shave. Different strokes.
For millions it is to pick up their smartphone; whether to check the time, the news or their emails, the phone is the gateway to all human knowledge. And that knowledge is changing by the phone.
I love to watch food videos. They’ve made a great impact on my morning routine now that Facebook has become utterly swamped with them. My daughter and I could easily while away entire mornings watching people deep frying things which have no earthly right to be deep fried; adding powdered sugar to savoury things; layering salads. Then we remember school and work, and the panic kicks in.
These food videos are clever little snippets of business. Some of them started out as clips from TV shows, being used by their networks to advertise their shows on social media. If they were shared, then they would constitute a very cheap form of advertising. So far so lazy. Food vloggers put a lot more effort in, crafting videos to establish a brand and to garner a following; they became exciting.
Then digital content producers became interested, and the game started to change. Exciting became slick, and recipes had little to do with creating a brand for an individual, but focussed on grabbing views for a platform. Increasing brand penetration. But what do you do with penetration? Like the oldest profession, you sell it. Once the food video established its toe-hold in our lives, it had to be monetised. Adverts started to elbow their way in. But that’s not their most disturbing feature.
In most food videos everything starts off well: a clean pair of hands, a lot of wholesome ingredients; an oddly phrased title. And then it hits; something utterly incongruous to pull us out of the reverie: a shop-bought cake mix gets dumped in. Out of the clear blue sky a pre-packaged bag of a suspicious looking pale dust falls in to a bowl, and the whole conceit is ruined. This is no longer a food video.
It doesn’t have to be cake mix; it could be a can of “biscuit dough” or “cinnamon rolls” or “crescent dough”. This is not cooking; this is half-arsery. This is the catering equivalent of a burger franchise.
I understand the desire to make cooking faster for those with very little time to cook from scratch; making cooking easier for those who with very little skill; making cooking friendly for those with a genuine fear of burning down the house by boiling a pan of water. Jamie, Delia and the Hairies have made very enjoyable livings doing precisely that. This isn’t that. You do not need to buy cake mix.
We already have supermarket aisles full of overly convenient foodstuffs: pastry and dumpling mixes are literally flour and fat – just add water. Cake mixes are just flour, sugar and occasionally dried egg.
These are things which we should be able to live without, especially in the days of the smartphone. Every time I want to boil an egg, I need to pick up my phone to look up the timings, and whether to use hot or cold water. It varies. But I look it up: I do not buy pre-boiled eggs; that would be offensive.
The smartphone lets us do research constantly. Pre mixed cake, pastry or dumpling mixes snuck in in a gap before that. They offered the convenience of not needing a recipe book, minutes before recipe books became reduced to décor. They allowed us to forget how to cook these incredibly simple, but remembered as complicated, things before we allowed ourselves to forget everything wholesale. The smartphone allows us to do that. We need no memory but that which is shared on the internet.
If we are surrounded by information from birth to death, where is the need to retain any of it? We seem collectively to rely on this abundant wellspring of information; however, we do not regard it as advancement, or as benefit to us as a civilisation. We see information, like so much else we garland our little lives with, as entertainment. Hence the reduction of cookery to little videos to wake up to.
The value of something is not intrinsic; it depends wholly on how much someone is willing to pay for it. In the case of the videos we watch online, this value is precisely zero. Not only are we not willing to reach in to our pockets to buy these things, we switch off or scroll somewhere else as soon as the hint of an advert shows sign of rearing its ugly head. Such is the new definition of worthlessness.
Make no mistake, this is a bubble. It may feel fresh and exciting and permanent, but so did the dot com bubble at its height. The value of ideas can go down as well as up. This whole boom predicates on the notion of the smartphone, and our willing reliance on it. Nothing is ever permanent in tech.
We are already looking beyond the demise of the smartphone, and to the strides we will make next. Futurologists look at wearable reality augmenters in the middle term; and mind-altering neural laces in the much longer term. These are big ideas, but perfectly feasible. My view is that progress is both made in increments and in shocks. The iPhone, when it launched, was a simple step up from the tech we already had; on the other hand, who expected it and its clones to take over the world? I didn’t
Designing a business plan on what has been around for a decade or more is folly in the extreme. The abundance of digital platforms right now feels very much like the abundance of search engines and internet service providers we had before. It storms, it norms, then it forms. Once the bubble bursts, will those videos of hot dogs wrapped in crescent dough look as antiquated as an AOL cd does now?