Sky Views: Time to get excited about gadgets again

Tom Cheshire, Technology Correspondent

The iPhone X costs £999 and honestly the best thing about it is how shiny its sides are.

FaceID works well, sure, the new OLED screen is a delight, but the silvery sides gleam and entrance me, just as, Sir David Attenborough tells us, the cuttlefish hypnotises the crab before devouring it.

Behold, the gadget is back. Amazon has brought out a new range of its voice-activated Echo speakers, making them cheaper and sleeker.

Electric cars, rather big gadgets but gadgets nonetheless, are proliferating. Virtual and augmented reality headsets abound.

After a blissful few years of being left alone, my friends are now bothering me for gadget recommendations for Christmas gifts.

The new iPhone fits into that: I was actually excited unboxing it, for the first time in a few years. The joy had returned.

Recent Apple devices have been excellent phones, but each new version only refined an already well-defined product. This was new.

The same goes for other manufacturers: the Google Pixel 2 is trying new things (and a different design); the recent Samsungs too. After years of homogeneity, tech companies are trying to find a point of differentiation. .

Image:People queued all night outside an Apple store in Singapore for the new device

Some of these products have their problems, the iPhone X included.

It's a bit dorky, apart from the sides: the slightly ungainly notch, for instance, or the new touch-and-swipe gestures you have to learn in the absence of the home button.

Animojis – where you use cutting-edge AI and facial recognition to map your face onto a cartoon poo – are a case in point.

Among other gadgets, Amazon's Echo, for all its progress with its AI assistant Alexa, can still be clunky. And Samsung's push for longer battery life led to the novel user feature of exploding.

But that's the fun of consumer technology: when companies stretch what's possible, sometimes it doesn't work too well or it's just weird.

Technology that simply works becomes boring, like phones were during the last five years. Possibility disappears.

This latest crop of gadgets, though, are exciting for what they will become over the next few years. Much like the original iPhone was at its introduction 10 years ago.

Perhaps it's the unfathomable, immaterial and intimidating digital world offered by the internet giants which has prompted a return to the optimistic delight of holding a new, techy, actual thing.Tom Cheshire

This renaissance needs some explaining. When I worked as an editor in the early days of WIRED magazine in the UK, which is celebrating its 100th issue this month, "gadget" was a banned phrase.

Our job was to explain an unfamiliar world of innovation, of the important changes that technology was about to bring to our economy, society and culture. Gizmos were verboten and that made sense.

Those changes proved sweeping – and they are ongoing. Recent reports on Russian interference in elections here and in the US prove that.

Interference certainly happened, and requires more of the journalism exposing it that we've seen so far. But the wider point is maybe more important. Interference in the EU referendum seems fairly minimal.

Our report yesterday showed for the first time the tweets Russian trolls put out ahead of and during the referendum itself.

The research, from Lin Lin Yu at the Oxford Internet Institute, found that only 412 tweets were sent during three months. More will come to light.

Today's front page of The Times details research that links thousands of pro-Russian accounts to Brexit tweets.

But whatever the number, there's a bigger tale: first, how much influence a few social media companies have on our lives and second, how that influence can be hijacked by bad actors.

We have not had the final reckoning on that; it will only come when the tech giants are much more frank.

Apple unveils the iPhone X
Image:The iPhone X, particularly notable for its shiny sides, says Tom Cheshire

Perhaps it's the unfathomable, immaterial and intimidating digital world offered by the internet giants which has prompted a return to the optimistic delight of holding a new, techy, actual thing.

Physical gadgets resurrect tech's early promise, recalling a time before bots, misinformation and fake news, when optimism about technology didn't seem ridiculous.

We haven't quite matched the heyday of the gadget, though.

That wasn't actually in 2007, although according to Google search trends, that was the high point of "gadget", before its recent upsurge.

The word itself dates back to the 19th century, and quickly came to mean any technical thingamebob whose proper name you might not immediately recall.

But if you search through the corpus of books digitised by Google for mentions of the term, its popularity spikes from the 1920s to 1940s and peaks in 1946.

Those were particularly terrible years. But the gadgets researched and invented during that period ushered in the information age to come, and the relative peace and prosperity that accompanied it.

Hopefully the return of the gadget points to brighter days ahead for us too.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Katie Stallard – Democracy cannot be built on Rohingya bones


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