Not All Technological Discoveries Are Advances.

Why High-Tech Often Means Low Functionality October 30, 2002

I’m in love with technology – let’s get that strait right off the bat.

I shop on the internet: for gifts, clothes, entertainment, food, and everything else you can think of. Our house is fully networked so that the computers in our two home offices can transfer files in a blink over a high-speed cable connection, and we have just installed digital cable television which is also networked to feed two televisions. I am a music fanatic, but I have not listened to a CD in over a year. Everything I listen to now is in MP3 format, or even better, OGG or WAV. When I buy a CD, I quickly rip it onto my computer so that I can listen to it when I choose. I buy music online when I can, and I’m pleased at the extra benefit of not wasting resources on CDs and plastic cases. My once-loved stereo is collecting dust. I even watch DVD and internet movies on my computer, and I use spreadsheets to keep track of everything in my life: course marks, degree program requirements, mortgage payments, budgets, bills that I have paid, and the cost of my weekly milk order.

So, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m some sort of modern disciple of Ludd, fearful of technology and the changes it brings to our lives. I embrace those changes, and often I’m one of the first to incorporate them into my life. I embrace new technology when it is useful, that is, but not for the sake of technology itself.

Novelty has lead to a plethora of new uses for technology that are of dubious merit. Devices are being created to take care of chores that can be accomplished more easily, and certainly more cheaply, by human power.

It started when everyone had to have contraptions like gas and electric-powered lawn mowers, which for the average family lawn, perform little better than the old push type with the rotating blades. The sound of the engine makes it SEEM like it’s working better, though. Soon, electrical and battery operated devices popped up to take care of all manner of mundane tasks. Some of the most ludicrous include battery operated pepper grinders and salad spinners. If you can’t turn the handle on a salad spinner five or six times on your own, you have issues.

My objections to these devices are not just that the people who use them are lazy, but that they are a needless waste of energy, they created unwelcome noise, and often they lead to increased pollution while providing no real benefit. Yard tools are still the worst offenders. My neighbors have every modern weed-whacking, leaf-sucking, mulch-grinding, power-washing, hedge-snipping, cacophony making tool on the market. None of them do anything that you could not accomplish with a sturdy broom and some snippers, although they do put out a truly impressive racket. I bet the noise makes them feel like they are really working.

At least these tools have some ostensible claim to making life easier for the user. But what of all the innovations in home technology?

Novelty is the driving force behind these innovations – certainly not practicality. Once a new technology is developed, it seems that it must be applied to every known device, in every manner possible. Once new technologies are available, the older ones are automatically downgraded in value, despite the fact that many of the older methods work better! No one ever asks if the new methods really work – all that matters is that they look neat.

One of the biggest trends of the 2000’s is home theatre. No longer are people satisfied with 21-inch TV sets and built in TV speakers. Today’s movie-lovers want more: 50-inch screens, multi-speaker surround systems with subwoofers, digital comb filters, picture-in-picture, and full digital display capability. The goal is to make the movie experience as realistic as possible, and to transport the viewer into the realm of the film.

Perhaps someone can explain, then, why all of the new, high-tech television sets come equipped with on-screen programming, on-screen volume and channel indicators, and on-screen-picture adjustment controls? If the goal is to provide the best picture possible, then why are we cluttering up the spectacular view with all of this information?

What videophiles need is a TV that has some sort of digital display to indicate the volume level and channel below the picture, perhaps with an LED type display. As for adjusting the picture, this should be able to be performed on the fly with a minimum of viewing interruption. Maybe if the new TV sets could be fitted with some sort of dedicated tuning mechanism that could be adjusted in any direction quickly and easily. Perhaps a set of knobs on the side or bottom of the set: hmmm.

I think I have a 20-year-old set in the basement that does all of that. So why the obsession with onscreen controls? Because they are modern. They may not work any better, but to go back to the old style would just be so: analog.

Analog. A 21st-century epithet. Ozzy and his family can spew the F word freely on television, but I bet they couldn’t get away with “analog.”

Years ago, when I was driving my car and had to quickly turn down the radio volume because I heard a siren, or some other important noise, I would grasp the little volume knob and twist it to the left – just a fraction of a second and the volume was down. I had total control. Today I push the minus button and wait, and wait, while the volume scales down at a pre-set rate.

I used to listen to the stereo late at night while my husband slept, at a very low volume. My new stereo [and it’s really not that new – going on 20 years-old now] has digital controls, and the volume is raised and lowered by steps. The lowest level is just a little too high for nighttime quiet listening. My speakers can play music at any volume, and surely my amplifier can as well, but there is no way to set the volume any lower, as the next step down is to have no sound at all. Modern technology – pretty buttons, and only the illusion of control. I was excited to see a new amplifier with a volume knob at a store recently, but dismayed when I learned that the knob is simply another form of digital button, subject to the same preset volume levels.

I miss the brightness knob on my computer monitor. Every game seems to require a different light level, and I used to make little adjustments by turning – you guessed it – a little knob below the display. Now I have to press the menu button, press the down arrow to select contrast/brightness, press the select button, press button “1” or “2” to toggle between brightness and contrast, use the up/down arrows to adjust the brightness level, and then press exit.


Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.