Gord Hotchkiss and the Phenomenon of “WTF Tech”

Gord Hotchkiss

Occasionally I run across an opinion piece that’s absolutely letter-perfect in terms of what it’s communicating.

This time it’s a column by marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss that appeared this week in MediaPost … and he hits all the right notes in a piece he’s headlined simply: WTF Tech.

Here is Hotchkiss’ piece in full:

WTF Tech

By Gord Hotchkiss , Featured Contributor, MediaPost

Do you need a Kuvée?

Wait. Don’t answer yet. Let me first tell you what a Kuvée is: It’s a $178 wine bottle that connects to WiFi.

Ok, let’s try again. Do you need a Kuvée?

Don’t bother answering. You don’t need a Kuvée.

No one needs a Kuvée. The earth has 7.2 billion people on it. Not one of them needs a Kuvée. That’s probably why the company is packing up its high-tech bottles and calling it a day.

A Kuvée is an example of WTF Tech. Hold that thought, because we’ll get back to that in a minute.

So, we’ve established that you don’t need a Kuvée. “But that’s not the point,” you might say. “It’s not whether I need a Kuvée. It’s whether I want a Kuvée.” Fair point. In our world of ostentatious consumerism, it’s not really about need — it’s about desire. And lord knows many of the most pretentious and entitled a**holes in the world are wine snobs.

But I have to believe that, buried deep in our lizard brain, there is still a tenuous link between wanting something and needing something. Drench it as we might in the best wine technology can serve, there still might be spark of practicality glowing in the gathering dark of our souls. But like I said, I know some real dickhead wine drinkers. So, who knows? Maybe Kuvée was just ahead of the curve.

And that brings us back to WTF tech. This defines the application of tech to a problem that doesn’t exist — simply because it’s tech. There is no practical reason why this tech ever needs to exist.

Besides the Kuvée, here are some other examples of WTF tech:

The Kérastase Hair Coach

This is a hairbrush with an Internet connection. Seriously. It has a microphone that “listens” while you brush your “hear,” as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope and other sensors. It’s supposed to save you from bruising your hair while you’re brushing it. It retails for “under $200.”

The Hushme Mask

This tech actually does solve a problem, but in a really stupid way. The problem is obnoxious jerks that insist on carrying on their phone conversation at the top of their lungs while sitting next to you. That’s a real problem, right? But here’s the stupid part. In order for this thing to work, you have to convince the guilty party to wear this Hannibal Lecter-like mask while they’re on the phone. Go ahead, buy one for $189 and give it a shot next time you run into a really loud tele-jerk. Let me know how it works out for you.

Denso Vacuum Shoes

“These boots are made for sucking, and that’s just what they’ll do.”

Finally, an invention that lets you shoe-ver your carpet. That’s right, the Japanese company Denso is working on a prototype of a shoe that vacuums as you walk, storing the dirt in a tiny box in the shoe’s sole. As a special bonus, they look just like a pair of circa 1975 Elton John Pinball Wizard boots.

When You’re a Hammer

We live in a “tech for tech’s sake” time. When all the world is a high-tech hammer, everything begins to look like a low-tech nail. Each of these questionable gadgets had investors who believed in them. Both the Kuvée and the Hushme had successful crowd-funding campaigns. The Hair Coach and the Vacuum Shoes have corporate backing.

The dot-com bubble of 2000-2002 has just morphed into a bunch of broader-based — but no less ephemeral — bubbles.

Let me wrap up with a story. Some years ago, I was speaking at a conference and my panel was the last one of the day. After it wrapped, the moderator, a few of the other panelists and I decided to go out for dinner. One of my co-panelists suggested a restaurant he had done some programming work for.

When we got there, he showed us his brainchild. With much pomp and ceremony, our waiter delivered an iPad to the table. Our co-panelist took it and showed us how his company had set up the wine list as an app. Theoretically, you could scroll through descriptions and see what the suggested pairings were. I say theoretically, because none of that happened on this particular night.

Our moderator watched silently as the demonstration struggled through a series of glitches. Finally, he could stay silent no longer. “You know what else works, Dave? A sommelier,” he said. “When I’m paying this much for a dinner, I want to talk to a f*$@ng human.”

Sometimes, there’s just not an app for that.

_______________________

Does Gord Hotchkiss’ column resonate with you as it did me? Feel free to leave a comment for the benefit of other readers if you wish.

2 thoughts on “Gord Hotchkiss and the Phenomenon of “WTF Tech”

  1. A favorite chauvinistic query of mine for French visitors to San Francisco is to ask what they would think of placing a glass of red wine in the microwave. The response is always an immediate expression of horror! The unwillingness to do so, I then explain, points to the difference between a traditional society and our experimental one.

    I take heart in the fact that, if Americans were told the sun would disappear in a few years, we’d simply say, “Don’t worry, we’ll invent a substitute!” Meanwhile, one can chastise the French for 1,000 years of tradition having to do with cold wine cellars and an absence of central heating!

    If you read the very end of The Great Gatsby, you see that the young Gatsby’s diary contains an entry which says, “Study needed inventions.” There is nothing suggesting “Study unneeded ones!” The novel was written in 1925, and it’s clear we haven’t changed in the near-century since. But how the Japanese, who don’t wear footwear indoors, would react to a vacuum cleaner on their shoes boggles the mind!

    Some years ago an entrepreneurial friend, immensely fat and getting fatter, said he had figured out how to manufacture a pill with supposedly all the nutrition found in vegetables. “Why not just eat the vegetables?,” I inquired. Unneeded invention!

  2. With respect, I think Gord Hotchkiss has it wrong.

    First, his product examples convey the impression that “tech” (as in “WTF Tech”) is anything with a phone, WiFi or Internet connection (OK, maybe not the Denso Vacuum Shoes). I think this is a rather narrow view. According to Wikipedia, tech (shorthand for “technology”) is “the collection of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives.”

    Technology advances over time through a heuristic process known as “innovation”. “Heuristic” in this context means problem-solving by trial and error. This is not “tech for tech’s sake.” It is the very essence of a market economy which provides opportunities to profit from successful advances in the state of the art, and it rewards investors in fair proportion to the risks they take — including the risk of product “fails.”

    I have found a drawing supporting a patent application for a portable rotary hair brushing machine, submitted to the British government’s Designs Registry by James Beckett in 1864. It advertises, “Such a brush may be applied for the purpose of Hair brushing or any other purpose to which such a brush may be applied, viz flesh or clothes brushing, obtaining a greater velocity for the brush than has heretofore been obtained by such hand machines.”

    Would Mr. Hotchkiss consider this “WTF Tech” too? If he doesn’t, then his “WTF Tech” piece can be dismissed as a screed against present-day product “fails”. But if he does, he should justify why innovation is such a bad thing that it needs to be curtailed; or, if innovation is good, propose improvements to the innovation process that eliminate those pesky and wasteful heuristic outcomes.

    For those who think innovation is bad, what is the prescription for all the waste it generates in the form of “WTF Tech”? (In academic circles these would be known as “negative externalities”.)

    Perhaps more government regulation to block entrepreneurs from innovating? Those regulations would be fairly straightforward to implement. Make it a criminal offense to market any innovation without a patent, and then create so much bureaucratic red tape that patents become impossible to get.

    But regulatory intervention is subject to the law of unintended consequences, too. Perhaps that extra brush velocity invented by Beckett in 1864 was causing people to bruise their hair, creating such a need for the Kérastase Hair Coach that the product received corporate backing …

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