I'm currently a graduate student in Transportation Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. I have my BS is Molecular Biology and Math, and before starting grad school I worked at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and then at startups in the area. This blog is about my musings and thoughts. I hope you find it useful, at most, and entertaing, at least.
I often find myself looking at how we, as a society use technology, and wondering “Why?”. I find our insistence on integrating electronics, specifically, into everything to be absurd and counter productive. This doesn’t mean I’m against all improvements and uses of technology; I just feel that sometimes technology doesn’t actually make things better.
MONOPOLY Brand Electronic Banking Edition is one of the prime examples of the use of technology where I feel that the use decreases the value of the item. Disregarding how having credit cards and no cash changes the game-play and player-interaction, I just don’t see the advantage. Some people say its cleaner, but I’ve never had any issue with the game being messy. In the real-world, credit cards are useful in allowing one not to have to carry cash, but in the game this isn’t a problem. I also don’t believe that it speeds up the game, and in some cases it seems to slow it down. Introducing the credit cards introduces moving parts that can break (cards can’t be read, buttons stop working, batteries need changed, &c).
Refrigerator with Twitter is one of those applications of technology that is interesting. I initially was skeptical, but doing a little more research (as I haven’t used one), I find that there is a little more utility than just Twitter. Pandora, Epicurious, and Weather I can see being fairly useful and have obvious advantages over their older counter-parts: space, speed, variety, and non-locality. CDs and Radio could be used to replace Pandora, but Pandora has the advantage of tailoring what is played to what you like (which may or may not be good thing depending on your point of view). Epicurious could be replaced by cookbooks, but has the obvious advantage of space, breath, and searchability. Weather can’t really be replaced by a barometer and thermometer as the Weather app can tell you forecasts and weather elsewhere. An Almanac can do that to a certain extent, but isn’t as precise or accurate for the here and now. The obvious downside to this refrigerator is that it requires both WiFi and power to function (of course it needs power, but they are designed to stay cool for a good while if the door isn’t opened if the power goes out). My internet is pretty flaky, so relying on it 100% isn’t as good call for me. Additionally in an emergency, NOAA and local radio can’t be pulled up on it like they can on a normal radio. This all said, these functions on a refrigerator are redundant to those on a smartphone.
LeapFrog is a line of electronic children’s toys, with Apps for math, reading, science, &c. The biggest question I have is if these toys, and their added expense and complexity, are better than Duplo blocks and having parents spend time with their child reading and doing math. (The last part being more of a judgement call on my part because there is nothing that inherently separates the parent and child with the LeapFrog games, but the parents that I see that buy them tend to use them as babysitters, just as TV is criticized about.) Sure, parental or human interaction is more time consuming, but I would really like to know what the advantages and disadvantages to both heavy use of electronic toys, especially at a young age, vs heavy interaction are (while acknowledging that they don’t necessarily have to be orthogonal). I will say though, that when I have kids, until they are older I will have a “batteries not allowed” rule.
That said, I know there are advantages, especially for older kids, to having some computerized instruction. Programs designed to can continue to adjust to a child’s level and competency in order to make rote topics (arithmetic, reading and answering questions, grammar, vocabulary, &c) more challenging and less boring for the student.
Self Checkouts are also a mixed bag for me. The obvious advantage is not having to pay a clerk to check you out in what is more often than not a rote job. The disadvantage is theft management and just how annoying, I, find the devices to use. I find them to slow down the entire process and clunky to use, but I’m probably in the minority. I also don’t like how they talk. I don’t need verbal instructions or an announcement to the world of what I just bought or what my total is. If there was a mute button, I could be much more easily convinced to do things its way (put the item in the bag instead of next to the checkout). With the advent of RFID checkouts in theory and practice, it’ll be interesting to see how that will change the process; ideally you’d walk up to the device and it’ll just figure it all out, no swiping, scanning, &c.
Slide Rules are analog calculators. Their digital brothers have a plethora of advantages to them beyond accuracy, speed, and ease of use: built-in unit conversion, built in constants (though most slide rulers mark off e and π), more operations, conversions between display formats, and keeping track of that dang decimal for you. So why am I even bringing this up then? I think it’s a useful exercise to see what we lose whenever we move between technologies. A slide ruler gives a more intuitive understanding over the operations being executed and they don’t require power (though many calculators are solar powered now).
eInk ereaders are another device where I do believe that advantages out-weigh what we loose. First, what do we loose? The ability to read a book without power, and under many current schemes the ability to share and resell books. Also, the look and feel of the book and bookcase is now dramatically different. Now, what do we gain? An enormous library of books at your fingertips at any time and enormous paper and shipping savings, as well as index and searchability. Especially with the advent of eInk displays and devices like the (now defunct) iLiad which have eInk screens you can write on, the advantages of ink on paper are diminishing.
LCD and LED displays everywhere is another use of technology where I feel that cost isn’t justified by the returns. I’ve seen them in restaurants and billboards and just can’t fathom the amount of energy they are using. eInk would be much better suited to the task. Additionally, I don’t think that having these super-bright displays everywhere is actually the best way to go. I find them distracting and harmful at night, even when properly calibrated, and find the ability for restaurant menus to change and cycle as you’re looking at them distracting, off-putting, and confusing.
Mass production is another area where I find it great that we, as humans, can make almost anything efficient. The question is: should we? Do we need that many Barbie dolls? Do we need that many cars? Do we need that many Happy Meal toys? Do we need that many computers and phones? Do we need a new music player every time one comes out? Do we need a TV in every room? I find that we often just produce a ton of waste for no particular reason at all. I need to get a picture of my aunt’s basement: it’s piled ceiling-high with toys their kids never play with. To a similar point, the snack and soda aisles in supermarkets bother me. All of that is stuff that we just don’t need (for reasons beyond the obesity problem in the US).
The use of video and flash instead of text to describe processes or navigate a website. Wiping Disks Using the DaRT is a perfect example of this. There is no text describing what’s going on. What’s even more annoying is that this isn’t useful for someone with a braille display or screen reader. No one seems to care much for those with disabilities when it comes to current web design, through no fault of the base technology or recommendations
Video games only bother me to the extent that parents don’t push their children to play outside more. Ignoring the violent video game debate, I find them to be fun and a way to entertain and exercise logical thought in not-so-obvious ways. I just wish so many people wouldn’t use them as a substitute for real life interaction. Although, this same qualm applies to most social networking as well: Twitter, Facebook, and email are fine, but going bowling yesterday and going out to play DnD (Actually, we play Pathfinder) today with the actual people is much more enjoyable.
None of this is meant to detract from the tinkerer who will put a computer in his refrigerator just because. Maybe he’ll find a really new and useful reason to do it, but I just don’t see the point in adopting it. The electronic games I railed against earlier are a good thing in a situation where an adult cannot be around, for example orphanages and day cares are often under-staffed. I just feel that we like to throw technology at things and hope it creates an amazing revolution, when in actuality we’re wasting resources and making things more difficult to use, especially for those with disabilities.
As we apply technology in new ways we have to ask what the costs are and what we are losing. New technology, even old technology being used in new ways, never comes without some cost. Often the cost is reasonable, sometimes it’s not. But this is a topic with which we should constantly be thinking about and evaluating our world.