The end is nigh! December 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
In a few days, according to some interpretations of Mayan calendars, the world will come to an end. Or not. Assuming the Earth continues on, one part of it may come to an end in about six years, that being the switched telephone network. Have a listen to this interesting podcast by Steven Cherry of IEEE Spectrum.
As pointed out in the podcast, much telephone traffic is carried by networks operating on the Internet Protocol (IP) instead of your grandfather’s old circuit switching network. The circuit switching networks are technologically obsolete; that is, the IP network is more modular and efficient.
Nevertheless, telephone carriers maintain a substantial circuit switching network for several reasons. First, governmental regulations and international agreements require networks to be interoperable, based on the circuit switching technology. Moving to an entirely IP network would require new regulations and agreements among many players, something that can be difficult to organize. Second, the established regime is set up in an anti-competetive fashion, making it difficult for rival telephone carriers to cooperate on any change of regime.
However, making the changeover has become more attractive. A changeover to all-IP networks would allow telephone companies to offer new, digital telephony services, such as HD voice communication. Also, big telephone companies could sell off much of their physical plant: Circuit switched networks require thousand of regional facilities, whereas IP networks can be managed in a few, centralized locations.
Daniel Berninger, founder of the Voice Communication Exchange Committee, argues that the rewards to be had from the changeover now exceed the expenditure necessary to make it. The Committee has set a date of June 15, 2018 for the completion of the change. The six-year span of time was chosen on general grounds:
We picked six years as the duration of the project, because historically six years is enough to get quite a bit done. Both World Wars took less than six years. The Panama Canal was completed in six years. Six years is enough time to do pretty much anything humans can think of doing.
Still, it is an ambitious plan.
The persistance of switched circuit technology in the Internet era is an interesting instance of obsolescence. The old technology, even though technologically outmoded, hung on due to social factors, particularly through being embedded in regulations and standards, and through the inertia of the bodies that would have to change their networks.
If Berninger is correct, though, the rewards of phasing out the old networks have come to dominate the costs, making the end of circuit switched networks a paying proposition. That is, if an asteroid impact does not do the job first.
The future of the dumb car September 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
The IEEE predicts that, by 2040, people will no longer require drivers’ licenses. This is because their self-driving cars will be doing all the driving.
It would be easy to conclude, then, that the old-fashioned car with no autopilot will become obsolete and disappear. However, as we have noted before, obsolete technologies sometimes live on in new forms, perhaps as specialized goods or in specialized niches. Something like this could happen to the “dumb car”. In fact, the good old dumb car may find at least a couple of niches in the world of 2040.
One future I can imagine for non-smart cars is as a vehicle for off-beat recreation. In 2040, you may be able to spend the day at a Car Ranch, learning the old-fashioned art of driving a car. Think of horse transportation. Once, the horse was the workhorse of transportation, pulling riders and wagons along the dirt roads of the sepia-toned past. After the uptake of the car and the paved road, the usefulness of horses for everyday transportation waned. Nowadays, horse riding is done in special facilities, such as ranches and designated horse trails. Riders learn to handle the reins via special instruction.
In future, something similar may be the case with drivable cars. To experience the atavistic thrill of actually driving a car, customers will be taken by their robocars to special camps where they can ride in automobiles that are too stupid to drive themselves. Customers can learn what it was like to stop at a “stop sign”, flip on a turn indicator, and learn what a “blind spot” is on a car.
It is also possible that driving dumb cars may become a recreation for an elite group. In his book The theory of the leisure class, Thorstein Veblen pointed out that social elites sometimes affirm their high status through economically unproductive activities. While the working classes toil away in factories, the well-to-do indulge in cricket matches that last for days, or in spending the day betting on the ponies at a race track. In some cases, these leisure activities were survivals of previously productive ones, such as hunting or archery. In the Middle Ages, hunting and archery were survival skills for most of the population. However, in the industrial era, taking the time for a fox hunt or an archery tournament was a display of conspicuous leisure.
Perhaps a similar fate awaits the dumb car. The majority of the public will adopt the smart car and will spend the time freed up from having to pay attention to the road by paying attention to their iPhones or in-car entertainment systems. A well-to-do minority might, however, decide that actually driving a fancy car around would be a fun way to spend the afternoon, and to show off how well-to-do they actually are. Of course, the cars driven for this recreation will not be mere “dumb cars”. Instead, they will be curvaceous red sports-mobiles, or silver-colored luxury sedans.
In the year 2040, then, we may find dumb cars on the road confined not so much to the least wealthy drivers but to the most wealthy ones. As our roadways get redesigned for smart cars, it may be that the most significant resistance comes from the social elite, who desire to show off their rare rides and their leisure status on the public streets and highways. They may demand that the road system remain backwards compatible with user-driven cars. And, for rest of us, there is always Randy’s Retro Car Ranch.
Calling Dr. Pager July 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
Without meaning to, I seem to have started on a thread about obsolescence on this blog. Today’s addition concerns pagers, those little devices that beep when they receive a short message from a central source. As this piece from NPR points out, pagers were commonplace in North America in the 1980s. Many people, from rappers to Wall Street bankers, carried a pager. Carrying one meant that you were “on call”, that is, that your presence was critical to the functioning of some enterprise. Usually, the beeping of your pager meant that some crisis had erupted in your absence from work, and that your intervention was necessary to put the fires out. So, when someone received a page, they often had to run to a payphone in order to contact their colleagues and get the scoop on the problem.
If you are unfamiliar with pagers, that is because they are now mostly considered obsolete. Mostly, people use cell phones to perform the functions that pagers used to perform. However, pagers are still common in some niche settings. The NPR piece points out that pagers remain common in hospitals, where doctors and other staff often continue to carry them. When a crisis erupts, the paper beeps and the doctor has to drop everything and contact someone. According to the report, over 90% of American hospitals continue to use pagers.
The pager is now facing increasing competition from the smart phone. Not surprisingly, many doctors now own smart phones, which are able to provide essentially the same functionality as the pager, and more. Thus, many doctors would prefer to use their smart phones instead of pagers for communication purposes.
Although many hospitals are experimenting with smart phones, the pager is not dead yet. It still has key advantages: it is cheap and reliable, it is highly standardized, and it does not bring the data security issues that apply to data kept on smart phones. Although the report does not mention it, I would think that another problem would be that many hospitals prohibit cell phones from certain areas in order to prevent interference with medical equipment. In brief, pagers work and are safe and simple, which slows their slide into extinction.
The story of the pager illustrates a seeming conundrum of obsolescence. The pager survives in a niche setting because it is simple and its potential replacement, the smart phone, is what Bruce Sterling calls a gizmo:
“GIZMOS” are highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief life span. GIZMOS offer functionality so plentiful that it is cheaper to import features into the object than it is to simplify.
Because it is a gizmo, the smart phone can replace all the functionality of a pager. Yet, because it is a gizmo, the smart phone presents many challenges to designers looking to adapt them to the role of pagers. Eventually, the gizmo will win, especially if its advocates can find new and additional functions for it to fulfill. The increased utility would justify to hospital administrators the increased headaches that come with the transition.
Adieu, Minitel July 12, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
The French Minitel system has been taken offline, as of the end of June 2012. The system provided an Internet-like service to French subscribers, who received a text-based terminal connected to a network through a telephone modem. Minitel allowed subscribers to access phonebooks, government databases, make purchases such as air and train tickets, and participate in chat rooms.
(Deep silence/Wikimedia commons)
The system was created around 30 years ago and had as many as 25 million users in the mid 1990s, according to the New York Times. There were still 810,000 terminals in service in 2012, according to The Independent, but this is not adequate to justify the cost of the service. Minitel, it says, was antiquated by the Internet:
There are still 810,000 Minitel terminals in France, mostly used by older people who dislike computers. There are still 1,800 services available through Minitel, although most people these days contact them (final indignity) through the internet.
The New York Times suggests that many of these stubborn Minitel users are farmers in Brittany, who use the service to access agricultural service and find PCs to be too fragile for their liking.
Yesterday, I discussed the obsolescence of shortwave radio or, rather, how it has become more and more specialized. It is interesting to compare the two cases to understand why Minitel is now dead whereas shortwave is not, even though both have been marginalized by the ‘net. One difference, I suspect, is that shortwave has a much broader reach. Although the French government did try to export Minitel, the attempt was not successful:
Early on, the French authorities had hoped to export their invention, but they insisted that the Minitel be sold as an “all inclusive” system, said Valérie Schafer, a telecommunications historian. That inflexibility helped make the Minitel a commercial failure outside France, Ms. Schafer said, especially given the varied telecommunications norms in Europe and elsewhere.
It seems that Minitel was too tied to the French way of organizing online activity. You might argue, correctly, that the Internet is tied to the American way of doing so, but that way proved to be more flexible (and maybe sexier) and, therefore, adaptable. Being limited to France meant that Minitel’s niche could shrink quickly once it faced competition from the Internet.
Perhaps other factors played a role. Since Minitel came to duplicate a set of Internet services, it would be hard to justify supporting both networks in today’s straitened economic times. The very centralization of Minitel meant that the whole system could fall to the budget axe in one blow. No one government could terminate the pocket calculator, even if it decided that this category of device is obsolete.
Undoubtedly, the causes of the demise of Minitel are complex. However, it is interesting to contrast the fate of Minitel with that of other obsolete technologies like the shortwave radio.
Shortwave radio: The end of an era? July 11, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
The recent edition of The Economist has an interesting little piece on the increasing silence of shortwave radio. It notes, for example, that Radio Canada International recently ceased shortwave transmission, a result of Government cuts to the CBC and other services.
Shortwave radio consists of broadcasts in relatively high frequencies. One of the key advantages of these frequencies is that radio waves broadcast in them tend to “bounce off” the ionosphere and reflect back to Earth. Thus, shortwave broadcasts can be sent worldwide from a small number of sources. Also, shortwave radio sets are relatively cheap, so that people almost anywhere in the world can afford a radio that is able to receive the broadcasts. The main downside is that broadcasts are sensitive to atmospheric conditions, so that signals arriving at a given location can vary quite a bit in strength over time.
The article describes shortwave radio as largely a creature of the cold war: Shortwave provided countries, both capitalist and communist, with a means of getting out their message when other channels, such as newspapers, were blocked. In the post cold-war era, it seems, this need is less compelling.
Furthermore, notes the article, shortwave broadcasts have been superceded by the Internet. That is, instead of using a shortwave radio to listen to news, people worldwide can simply download their favorite podcasts. Thus, as the reach of the Internet increases, the utility of shortwave as a broadcasting medium decreases.
Of course, this tale of obsolescence is not so simple, as the article notes. The end of the cold war has indeed lessened the interest in countries on either side of the East/West divide to propagandize the other’s population. However, Internet access is not yet as cheap or widely available as are shortwave radio sets. Many millions of people in poor and remote regions still rely on shortwave to stay in touch with world events, for example. As such, the article notes, the Chinese government is expanding its shortwave offerings, and the Voice of America has no intentions of cutting back on its services.
Perhaps the moral of this story is that shortwave radio, like the pocket calculator, is not as obsolete as it might seem. Certainly, new technologies like the Internet have shouldered shortwave out of some of its old niches. Yet, the penetration of shortwave into some niches will not be equalled by the ‘net for some time. Also, long experience has enabled designers to make shortwave sets very cheap and reasonably robust, which is not true of Internet access technologies, certainly in remote areas. Thus, in spite of the demise of the cold war and the advent of the Internet, shortwave is not ready for relegation to the museum just yet.
The death of the pocket calculator March 5, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100 , comments closed
New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn bids farewell to the pocket calculator. The device first came into vogue in the 1970s, in the form of devices such as the Sinclair Executive and reached its epitome with the Braun ET44 introduced in 1977.
Rawsthorn notes that the decline of the pocket calculator has coincided first with rise of the microcomputer and finally the computerized cell phone. For the most part, those who still possess pocket calculators do so for nostalgic or aesthetic reasons:
Some of these imperiled objects may survive, generally because they are deemed to have such special sensual or aesthetic qualities that we form sentimental attachments to them. Beautifully bound books fall into that category, as do ingeniously designed watches. But the pocket calculator?
I recall some of my own glee in the early 1980s as I bought my first calculator for high school math class. It was a Casio with a fold-over faux leather wallet and had lots of tiny, chicklet buttons that provided over 100 functions, most of which I never used. However, it was moderately programmable, so it was fun for me to figure out how to program it to play simple games, for example, given that it provided only mathematical functions and 32 program steps.
I no longer have that calculator, although its successor is still kicking around my house. And it still works! In fact, my daughter has a (much less complicated) calculator that she uses fairly often at school. Many of her friends also have their own little calculators, used for similar purposes. That makes me wonder if the obituary is a little premature. Schools are reluctant to allow students to use the cell phones in class because of the danger of distraction from the phone’s calling and, especially, texting features. Thus, students here tend to have little cheapies that they use for school. The Staples store sells them for less than $4. You cannot get a computer or cell phone for anything like that price! Also, I notice that Staples sells high-end graphing calculators for around $200. It seems as though the pocket calculator is neither completely dead nor merely a collector’s item. Instead, it appears to be specializing into niches where smart phones are not yet welcome.
This does raise another interesting question: Why did the cell phone become the platform on which mobile computing appeared, instead of the pocket calculator? The calculator had quite a head start and it was already a modest computing platform. Yet, it seems never to have transmuted into a generalized gadget the way that cell phones have. Perhaps the difference in histories is conceptual. That is, pocket calculators have been viewed as devices that people use in isolation whereas phones have always been about communication, and communication was simply the greater value proposition for people. Or perhaps it is that calculators have been associated with boring or nerdy tasks whereas cell phones were adopted early on by movie stars and other, more enviable people.
Can you bronze an e-book? June 17, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
So, what happens to old technologies when new technologies show up and take over? They become obsolete and fall from use, right? Well, it’s not always that simple.
It rarely the case that the old technology disappears overnight. There is an uptake curve and a discard curve, as different groups discover the new technology and set aside the old. The process can take years or decades or more. For example, while the idea of steam engines as the driving force of the Industrial Revolution is a popular notion, the use and influence of steam was varied. Indeed, in many industries water wheels remained a significant power source into the late 19th century, just as muscle (human or animal) was not replaced by mechanization on the typical farm well into the 20th century. Living in the Waterloo Region we are reminded by the local Old Order Mennonites that some technologies may never be discarded and others never accepted; there are farms five minutes from where I’m sitting without connections to the electrical grid.
And so, as I was listening to an In Our Time podcast about the Iron Age, the host rightly did not begin with iron, but its antecedent bronze. Interestingly, the Bronze Age required a remarkable and complex set of trading networks: copper and tin often did not appear in the same spot, but archeologists have found bronze artifacts everywhere across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The raw materials were being traded, the final products were, or both. In any case, working with iron was simpler in the sense that it can be found much more readily but harder in that it was physically much harder to work. Nonetheless, it proved to have a superior utility for many objects, taking a much better edge than bronze knives or weapons, for example. Thus bronze became obsolete and disappeared. Not so fast, said one of the guests. First of all, it took decades, even centuries for the transition to occur as different groups discovered or otherwise acquired the techniques. Additionally, bronze metallurgy didn’t really disappear, it just shifted towards the smaller production of cultural objects and artisanal work. Statues, medallions, jewellery, and the like.
Which made me wonder about more modern examples. What came to mind was the book. Yes, it appears that the paper-based Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device once known as the codex may be obsolete. At least, it seems to be in trouble, given the shuttering of publishers and bookstores. Although Amazon will not disclose sales figures for the Kindle, its e-book reader first released in 2007, as of May 2011 it admitted that e-book sales exceeded all paper book sales. After only four years! Well, only four if we conveniently ignore that electronic texts have existed for decades: the Oxford English Dictionary was digitized at uWaterloo in the 1980s, Project Gutenberg began in 1971, and automated language translation projects were launched in the 1950s, only a few years after the first computers was built. Oops.
But what strikes me is that the book isn’t going away or likely to disappear, at least not any time in the next four years. Instead, I would expect a greater emphasis on artisanal publications: small print runs, artistically-driven choices in paper, bindings and covers. Hand stitched, no doubt, and handmade paper. There’ll be a premium of some kind but that will create that much more exclusivity.
Last fall, when the Giller Prize for Canadian Fiction was announced, the demand for copies of the the winning book, The Sentimentalists, was enormous. Unfortunately for the tens of thousands of eager readers the publisher, Gaspereau Press, could produce only one thousand copies a week. To wit:
Employing a wide range of modern and antiquated production techniques and technologies, Gaspereau Press creates books that marry function and form. From limited-edition letterpress projects to Smyth-sewn trade paperbacks with handprinted jackets, every project carries some trace of the human mind, eye and hand. The result is a unique publishing list of award-winning books – affordable, beautiful, and designed to endure.
Eventually, a deal was reached for another publisher to produce a mass-market copy and e-book, but from what I’ve been told by my local bookseller, there is still a backlist for the Gaspereau edition. And why not? They are, as described, beautifully designed and made. You just have to wait. The mass market edition looks and feels like it came from a indifferent machine, never touched by a human, and one can hardly describe the e-book version any different.
Clearly, e-books and readers have many advantages over paper editions, but they will never win in terms of the “feel” or exclusivity. Just as first editions or signed copies are prized by bibliophiles, so to will be the paper copy in the electronic age. I fully expect they will benefit from greater attention and emphasis on the form as publishers and designers continue to explore (and rediscover) the book with a much more narrow audience in mind.
Bell Labs and Beehives, but no more Kodachrome. January 5, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
A set of old computer photos has been showing up on a few blogs recently. The photos are the property of Lawrence Luckham, who worked at the famous Bell Labs in the late 1960s, and captured a few of his colleagues and computers on film. The rest of my post will probably make more sense if you take a quick look at his photo gallery.
As you can see, there is a wide variety of hardware: big mainframes, like an IBM 360; much smaller minicomputers, like the Honeywell DDP-516; some experimental data terminals and the vast tape library.
What is more striking however is that the women clearly outnumber the men. This could be a product of Mr. Luckham’s photographic preferences, but it does offer some reassuring visual evidence that women really have been involved in the history of computing. Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the word “computer” likely referred to a person who job involving manual computation, and a significant percentage were women. When the modern era of computing began in the 1940s many of the first programmers were women, including the famous Grace Hopper, and the less famous Canadian Beatrice “Trixie” Worsley. Unfortunately, the number of women involved in computer science and the computing industry is declining, for a variety of reasons (UW has an excellent summer program for high-school girls that is trying to reverse this trend).
The brilliant colours in the photos are also impressive — and not just because it proves the 1960s weren’t in black and white! What they brought to my mind was the news from last week that the last role of Kodachrome film was just processed a year after Kodak stopped producing the film and related developing chemicals.
Why would they stop, after 75 years of making the most popular colour photographic film? Digital cameras, of course, have made analog film obsolete. And what is inside a digital camera instead of film? Computers orders of magnitude smaller than the big iron in Luckham’s photos. More specifically, a special semiconductor sensor known as a CCD (Charged Couple Device) that captures the image and a specialized microchip known as a DSP (Digital Signal Processor) that processes the image. And where were these two technologies invented? Bell Labs, of course. (The inventors of the CCD were recognized for their work with the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics)
If the floppy disk fits? November 22, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
I’m not going to take credit for the initial observation for this one. Look closely at the “save” button at the bottom.
Clearly, using a 3.5″ floppy disk to represent ’save’ is out of place on a smart phone. More so since Sony has stopped selling the once-ubiquitous-now-obsolete storage technology.
Out of curiosity, I went looking for other obsolete icons and quickly found the awkward floppy in the OpenOffice.org for OSX toolbar.
There is is, third from the left. I don’t use Microsoft Office, but it looks like Word 2010 is no better (look way up in the top left).
Fourth from the left on my toolbar is an envelope to represent “email document”, which might be another obsolete problem. In the US, first-class mail volume is below 1964 levels. Then again, Gmail, Google’s mail service, seems to be doing okay and cleverly co-opted the envelop for their logo.
They famously crowdsourced a promotional video a few years ago, using the “m-velope” as the star of a video.
Going back to that toolbar, you’ll also notice that second from the right is an icon that represents “print document”:
The only problem, of course, is that the printer in the icon is ejecting paper on the top, like some obsolete tractor-feed dot-matrix printer from the 1980s. Look around the internet or the average consumer electronics store, and you won’t see many top-eject printers left that resemble that icon.
Computer icons change all the time, and evolve for various reasons. Presumably, usability enters into the designers criteria, which is why we can get stuck with the familiar to represent abstractions of activities that are technologically obsolete.
All of which reminds me of Marshall McLuhan, who once said:
If it works, it’s obsolete.
Which was his way of pointing out that we live and work with obsolete technologies all the time: they are the technologies which we’re comfortable with that aren’t disruptive or altering the status quo. Which is no excuse for lazy design, of course. Not changing something simply to avoid change might be as bad a change for the sake of change.
Would you like a plastic bag? March 25, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
In 2007, the Ontario government announced that a “greener, healthier province” ought to consume fewer plastic bags and created incentives for its citizens to choose reusable bags. There were grumbles about having to remember reusable bags for each trip to the store and reminders to keep them clean, but evidence suggests that far fewer customers are choosing plastic bags, particularly after the carrot became a stick, and each bag cost an extra 5 cents. Most stores sell reusable bags for a dollar.
Last week, one of our reusable bags tore in half after cramming in too many library books. Now what? Recycle it? Throw it out? Some duct tape? It came from a store that offers a life-time guarantee to replace bags that wear out, but it isn’t clear at all what will become of the torn bag after I turn it in for a replacement.
I was reminded of this minor personal dilemma as I watched the beautiful (and maybe a little silly) “Plastic Bag“, a short film by American director Ramin Bahrani, which
Traces the epic, existential journey of a plastic bag (voiced by Werner Herzog) searching for its lost maker, the woman who took it home from the store and eventually discarded it. Along the way, it encounters strange creatures, experiences love in the sky, grieves the loss of its beloved maker, and tries to grasp its purpose in the world.
It’s a bit of a fairy tale as well as a morality tale. The final line is poignant, and certainly made me reflect on a film I show in STV100, Shipbreakers, a very compelling NFB documentary about the ship breaking yards of Alang, India. There (and elsewhere around the globe), hundreds of ocean-going ships are recycled each year, but under terrible occupational and environmental conditions: “a death a day” goes one refrain. Recycling is not always green, it seems. The paradox is that these ventures create thousands of jobs, bring millions of tons of steel to regions without an indigenous steel industry, and create wealth and opportunity where none existed before.
My two children (both under five) are fascinated when the garbage truck comes by each week and clamor for a good spot at the window. It’s too bad that our interest in waste often drops when the truck drives away, but such films help.