My technological awakening came early in life, though today I find it difficult to pin down precisely when. Growing up in an Ireland crushed by the weight of recession and emigration in the 1980s, my access to CDs, computers and other gadgets was limited at best but this only served to make technology all the more tantalising when it did cross my path.
My first real memory of being enthralled by tech was at the age of six, sometime around 1989, when I sat spellbound in front of a Nintendo Entertainment System at a school friend’s house, begging for another try at Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that we finally got our own home computer system – a Commodore 64 – but by then the bug had already bitten; my soul belonged to technology.
The Three S’s
Tech is such a fundamental part of who I am and what I do today that it’s extremely difficult to take a step back and choose a single product that I hold above all others. Almost every device I own has become integrated into the fabric of my life in one way or another, often displacing a less-advanced precursor and allowing me to do the same things better, faster and more easily.
A case in point is my Amazon Kindle e-reader which now serves to feed my voracious appetite for books, a love that precedes even my obsession with technology. While physical books will always hold a place in my affection, the ability to carry a small library in my pocket, search for and buy new books in just a few clicks and then share my thoughts on them with friends has transformed the way I read, not to mention making living in a small flat already crammed with books that little bit better.
So instead of choosing a single gadget to wax lyrical about, I’ve opted to write about three different pieces of technology that more than anything sum up my life as it is today. Perhaps surprisingly, none of these is a physical product; rather they are reliant on hardware produced by other (sometimes rival) companies. Without meaning to veer off on a tangent, that’s perhaps an interesting insight into how the new software and services-driven online ecosystem has encouraged platform agnosticism and greater accessibility to cutting edger products. But I digress.
The three technologies that arguably underpin my daily life are Steam, Spotify and Search. As a keen gamer since that first fleeting encounter with the original NES all those years ago, Steam for PC is my platform of choice today and has revolutionised how I spend a sizeable chunk of my leisure time. Music too holds an important place in my life and Spotify, while imperfect, is both an excellent piece of software for musos and one of the biggest challenges to the music industry’s traditional business model in generations. Finally, Search – as in Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest – is what pays the bills and keeps me awake at night while be an endlessly fascinating discipline,. underpinning everything from blogging to big business.
If I say that Steam may well herald the beginning of a new golden age of PC gaming, it’s only because I was lucky enough to live through the first. From around 1996 until 2002, the PC was the platform of choice for serious gamers. Sure, the consoles had their masterpieces too – Final Fantasy VII, GoldenEye, Tomb Raider, Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid to name but a few – but those seven heady years were simply an avalanche of riches for the PC faithful. Quake, Civilization II, Thief, Half Life, Deus Ex, Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 2, Unreal Tournament, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape, Freespace 2, Hidden and Dangerous, Diablo II, Starcraft, Warcraft 3… the list is almost endless. To own a top-of-the-line gaming machine back in those days – often maddeningly expensive thanks to the relentless advance of PC hardware – was to see beyond the veil of what was possible on the consoles of the time.
Much of the next decade saw PC gaming take a back-seat to console development, thanks in part to the need to recoup rising development costs, though owing in no small part to astronomical piracy rates following the rise of BitTorrent. While mostly characterised by general gloom around the platform, these years also saw the seeds sown for the revitalisation of PC gaming in the 2010s. World of Warcraft, Crysis and Half Life 2 were all phenomenal success stories in their own right but Valve‘s high anticipated first person shooter turned out to be a Trojan Horse for a truly revolutionary piece of technology – Steam.
It’s easy to forget today just how brave Valve’s introduction of Steam back in 2003 really was. At a time when broadband penetration was low and many gamers still relied on dial-up – if they even had an internet connection at all – inflicting online authentication, downloadable patches and non-physical software distribution was a supremely risky move. Things didn’t always work as intended and the release of Half Life 2 in 2004 saw much gnashing of teeth, with activation servers falling over as gamers rushed to dive into what was clearly one of the best games of all time. Over the next half decade Steam gradually added more and more features: friends lists, multiplayer infrastructure and a much expanded storefront that offered not only Valve titles but games from other publishers too. The period also saw the first wave of indie gems that has come to define the platform for many in more recent times.
Around the tail end of 2009, Steam finally reached critical mass with an explosion of lower budget and independent titles offering a real alternative to the increasingly iterative release cycles of the big publishers on consoles. With most of these self-same publishers now firmly invested in the platform, Steam’s now-legendary sales offered gamers the chance to snap up the classics of yesteryear at knock-down prices, encouraging a renewed interest in the past and offering hope for developers keen to try something a little bit different.
Thanks to Steam, I now own a catalogue of nearly 200 PC games spanning nearly two decades, including milestone releases I never got the chance to play first time around. Indie developers continue to thrive and Steam has allowed games that would never have received the green light from big-name publishers to go their own way and become phenomenally successful in the process. Steam’s revitalisation of PC gaming has led many publishers to put the platform at the forefront of their plans once more while the success of Valve’s business model has seen the likes of Electronic Arts launch their own rival service, Origin.
When choosing a product that captures how I approach music today, it’s a very close fought thing between music streaming service Spotify and wireless hi-fi system Sonos. But while Sonos has undoubtedly changed the way I listen to music at home, Spotify has had a deeply profound impact on how I find, listen to and share new music. Perhaps even more impressively, it has thrown a lifeline to a music industry in desperate need of reinvention after its failure to come to terms with the new digital world.
I’ve been a militant supporter of Spotify from the very first time I used it at the start of 2009. Much like Steam, Spotify was – and still is – a paradigm shift in how millions of people viewed music consumption. Although digital distribution channels like iTunes had been around for years and streaming services such as LastFM and Pandora were nothing new either, nobody else had really thought to offer a searchable, on-demand database of millions of albums that you could listen to gratis. Granted, there were holes in the original business model and in its early years Spotify was crippled by poor support from many labels but once the train started moving, there was simply no stopping it. The big labels and some artists grumble about the revenue it generates (not enough, apparently) but despite setbacks – like greatly curtailing free use for non-subscribers – Spotify has gone from strength to strength.
In the two years that I have been a subscriber to Spotify, only once have I been tempted to walk away. Last summer record label Century Media pulled their entire catalogue from the service, a massive blow to metal fans like myself. Overnight some of the world’s very best metal acts disappeared off Spotify, decimating playlists and leaving the genre under-represented. As I wrote last year in a piece called “Is Spotify Bad News for Independent Record Labels?“, I decided to keep my subscription partly in protest at how record labels were trying to dictate the way I listen to music but also because Spotify offers an absolutely fantastic service that’s a proper legal alternative to illicitly downloading mp3 files.
In the last year the tide seems to have turned in favour of Spotify and more labels seem to be getting behind the platform. During this time, the company has worked on various improvements and additional features, including advanced Facebook integration and support for various apps, both of which have helped to address its only one real failing, music discovery. It’s still not perfect but with apps now able to serve up customised playlists on demand and the ability to see what my friends are listening to, it has never been easier to discover and listen to new bands. Better still, I can access it from home, on my work computer, on my phone, on my tablet and through my Sonos system, allowing me to access new music wherever I go.
I’ve already touched on my love of reading in this post but I was perhaps unusual in that until the age of around nine when I finally discovered the joys of fiction, I would happily lose myself in an encyclopaedia or atlas for hours. I’ve always had a thirst to know how things work, to find out more about them and where they came from and in a pre-internet age, a set of encyclopaedias was perhaps the best way to do this short of a full library and a stack of index cards. A few years later, Microsoft Encarta on CD-ROM became a mainstay of school project work but it was really the internet that allowed me to fully indulge my odd desire to know the most trivial and useless facts on any given subject. Even today I’m partial to late night Wikipedia trawling a la XKCD.
Perhaps it is fitting then that I have ended up working in SEO – Search Engine Optimisation, for the uninitiated. At its most simple, SEO is the art of optimising on-page content and trying to build links and social mentions to improve a website’s ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs). These days that mostly means Google in English-speaking countries, though Bing isn’t to be forgotten and there are plenty of giants in other markets, like Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China. Of course, SEO is a broad church and my particularly specialism sees me doing lots of work with blogs, content management systems and community sites, allowing me to indulge both my technical and writing/editorial skills.
One of the most fascinating things about search today is how it has grown to reflect the diversity of the web today. Google in its present state incorporates everything from news to maps (a real joy for someone who used to pore over atlases as a child, wondering how all the different countries and borders came to be) to video to images to blogs and more. While Google+ may be struggling to establish itself as a bona fide social network, it’s exciting to see Google using it to help improve search rankings, feeding data on what people really find interesting or cool and turning the tide against spammy link practices and other black arts.
I still find it remarkable that I can find out virtually anything I want to know - or at least somebody’s considered opinion on it – with just a few keystrokes and a couple of mouse clicks. Google is a remarkably powerful tool and while there are certainly ethical concerns over how it handles data and user privacy, it is my belief that the company acts as it does with an altruistic as much as a commercial motive. Not only do I make my living from observing and predicting how search engines work and how users behave, modern search greatly enriches my online life and leads me to content I would never have discovered otherwise.
Technology has become perhaps the central fixture of my daily life, governing everything from my day job to my leisure time. While the three tech innovations I’ve written about in this post – Steam, Spotify and Search – are amongst the most important, they are by no means the only ones. Apps on my iPhone help me stay fit and eat healthily, games consoles under my TV double as movie players and platforms for catch-up television and programs on my computer enable a myriad of activities, from making music to writing blog posts such as this one. Rather than thinking of myself as debilitated by my reliance on tech to live my day-to-day existence, I feel privileged to live in a time when gadgets put the world at my fingertips.