That’s me wearing my new iPod headphones. Strangely, I caught a fair bit of stick for wearing them today – including a relatively sarcastic ‘nice retro look’. I thought this was particularly interesting in light of a nice post I read this morning called The Myth of Evolutionary Ascent (found via John Wilkins’ blog). The post makes a few key points – that in evolutionary biology, there is no inevitable march towards increasing complexity (contra Kevin Kelly!); “The evolutionary ‘ladder’ may be a valid model for one thing: the history of a single lineage, with height representing nothing more than simply the time axis. Complexity has nothing to do with it”; and that a lot of evolutionary complexity is non-adaptive in that it is discovered as organisms experiment within the design space available to them.
After seeing links to about 10,000 words of blog posts, you may well be ready to ask me what does this have to do with headphones and innovation? And it’s this: even though a lot of technology becomes intentionally more complex, this isn’t necessarily always progress, nor does all the increased complexity always lead to increased functionality. For the second point, just think of word processing software – how many of the extra features that have been added over the past 15+ years do you actually use? There’s a lot of extra complexity there, but the vast majority of us still just type…
So….. headphones. A lot of the recent advances in mobile headphones have been pretty good. The quality of sound in even fairly cheap ones now is pretty good. But not all of the changes are progress – a lot of them are just explorations across all of the available headphone design space. So even though we can get smaller, good-sounding headphones now, they are not ‘higher’ up the headphone hierarchy. They’re just a different design. And even though I can see the appeal of wearing white headphones to signal to everyone that I’ve got a genuine Apple product in my pocket – wait, no, actually I can’t see the appeal to that. The other problem with those headphones is that they won’t stay in my ears – which, for me at least, is one of the key features that I’m looking for in headphones. I don’t hear very much when my slick new iPod headphones are constantly sliding out of my ears. So I’ve travelled across the design space to older-looking headphones, which actually stay on. And I end up listening to my iPod a lot more that way.
So the main point today is that new and more complex products are not always better, nor do they necessarily show progress. The only thing we know for sure is that they are new, and more complex. There are plenty of older designs that may be just as good, if not better. Innovation is important, but new is not by definition better. We judge that by how well the new things meet our needs.