A reader writes:
I can pick up my smart phone and within two minutes order flowers for my Mom, give money to a charity, make a dinner reservation, and start downloading a movie. While I am "facilitating my own personal mirth," there is no doubt that my burst of economic activity reached far beyond me as the end-user of the technology.
Your reader who commented that "over the past 20 years, much of our technology has been focused on facilitating our personal mirth via iPods, Facebook, widescreens, etc." is really just demonstrating that he or she is neither expert in technology nor business.
Of course, the past 20 years would be 1991-2010, which includes the rise of the Internet (rather significant for worldwide productivity), but let's be kind and assume that only since 2000 was meant. The greatest development, and the one which Facebook's success is a consequence of, is the wireless and mobile Internet. And the business power of the mobile Internet surely is represented by the Blackberry rather than the iPod - but it's present elsewhere too: in the capability for streamlined inventory management and shipping, in the flexibility to both simultaneously wait for a plane in an airport and work as if one were in the office, and, yes, to use one's social network to promote products and services via word of mouth. All of these applications are good for consumers and business alike.
The idea that we're in some late-Roman decadent epoch where we have simply turned our technological prowess to onanistic ends is laughable.
Take the widescreen. The benefits of advances in display technologies are well beyond entertainment. For many industries, their workforces are more productive because cheap, large, bright, and easily re-positioned display screens have replaced what was once a single, monochromatic, bulky and heavy tube monitor taking up a lot of space and almost impossible to move. For anyone who works with computers, this is a tangible improvement that has improved many different things, from carpal tunnel to the use of office space. There's no doubt that larger and sharper screens improve productivity for a variety of computer tasks. In public spaces such as airports and train stations, where these flat-screens have become ubiquitous, the flow of information and passengers has greatly improved. When it comes to computing, the smallest increase in productivity may not even be noticed by the individual, but it has a large impact in the aggregate.
I worked for Apple in New York City for a little over a year. Does the company want to push product? Yes. Does it want to make a profit? Of course. BUT it also has created life-changing technologies, particularly for those with disabilities.
There are voice-over features for those with vision issues, notepads and video communication features for those with hearing disabilities. I remember selling an iPhone to a woman who was blind and teaching her how to use the voice-over features and it was extraordinary. She is now able to be a part of this new wave of communication and inter-connectedness. I also remember a group of deaf men looking to upgrade their iPhones as well. Their fingers were flying across the screen as they were using the Notepad app to communicate with me (as someone not fluent in ASL). For many people these aren't just frivolous technologies, they truly change the way people are able to connect within our able-centric society. They create simple linkages where before there was frustrations, disadvantages, and impossibilities.