Thursday, November 19, 2015

Better-Than-Nothing Technology

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column propounds the theory that the Internet "sucks" because we prefer it that way:

The Internet Will Always Suck

A strange claim, but Doctorow's explanation for it makes sense. We constantly tend to push new technologies "to the brink of uselessness," not because we like struggling with useless products, but because "something is usually better than nothing." Two of his examples: As an alternative to paying high long distance phone bills, people talk through voice-over-Internet even if it's unreliable. Someone facing a deadline crunch will download a huge file on a cell phone en route rather than waiting until he or she gets to the office, where the same operation can be done with much greater ease but perhaps too late.

He makes the point that as costs fall and technologies become more reliable, fringe applications that were hard or impossible become doable—and slightly better than useless. When these uses or products move into the mainstream, the next fringe technologies spring up. I understand this process from the viewpoint of a consumer with no desire to explore the fringe. As a non-early-adopter, when VCRs first came on the market I wondered why anybody would pay to own a commercial movie. That was when films on tape were expensive. When they became as cheap as books, buying them made sense to me.

On the other hand, we have on occasion bought into not-quite-useless innovations of which I have not-so-fond memories. The first "car phone," for instance, a brick-size device carried in a case. A far cry from the handheld STAR-TREK-communicator-size phones we carry in our purses, those early portable phones had to lie around in plain sight and acted as theft bait. (We had at least two stolen.) And their accounts didn't include hundreds of free minutes. Then there was our first computer, an Apple II Plus, which of course had no hard drive. The floppy disk with the word processor software had to be inserted, loaded, and removed, then a writable disk inserted for saving files. Its word processing program subjected the user's eyes to white print on a dark background. We had to pay extra to get a shift key added to the keyboard to switch between caps and lower-case without inputting a code. As for operations such as underlining, I didn't see those features on the screen. All I saw were the starting and ending codes. I couldn't be sure I'd done it right until I printed the file. Which, by the way, was limited in length by a restriction on how many words the screen could display at one time. As for printing, remember dot matrix? With a continuous roll of pages that had to be torn apart on the perforations? Yet this clunky system seemed like a miracle at the time. Never again would I have to retype a document!

No wonder the Internet, which we depend on for so many applications that have become vital to our lives, relentlessly pushes the boundaries of its technological capability. As Doctorow puts it, "Whatever improvements are made to the network will be swallowed by a tolerance for instability as an alternative to noth­ing at all." Although I'm a stick-in-the-mud with little tolerance for instability, I grok where he's coming from. Take the iPad: I view reading e-mail on a pad the way Samuel Johnson (I think) viewed a dog walking on its hind legs. You don't expect it to be done well; you're just surprised to see it done at all. Still, as tedious and frustrating as I find the experience, I check e-mail on my husband's iPad while traveling in preference to letting the messages pile up.

Where technological innovations are concerned, there are probably two kinds of people, cautious devotees of the time-tested and adventurers pushing the boundaries of usefulness.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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