“How has technology changed your life in the last couple of decades? Has your life improved? Are you more stressed out?”
It wasn’t the opening question in an episode of Modern Marvels where the Top 10 Innovations of the last two decades was showcased, but it was the statement that stuck with me throughout the entire episode. I can remember when most of the innovations they covered took place, and the impact that it had. However, I feel that sometimes the “before” was more favorable than the “after”.
I have taken Modern Marvel’s top ten, and shown them in order below, along with my thoughts on each topic:
1. The Internet. I agree that the impact of the Internet is probably one of the biggest changes to happen in my lifetime. The Internet is information. It has taken specialty knowledge that one had to pay for prior, and made it available to the masses. Think about encyclopedias, dictionaries, travel agencies, auto repair, legal procedures, and doctors. While the author of a topic on the Internet may be a non-authoritative figure, it has certainly allowed people access to more general information for less than before. I support this movement, and I am using it right now to voice my opinion.
2. Cellphones. I can remember the tethered land-line phone at our house when I was a kid. I never had a pager, and I didn’t have a cellphone for a while after other people had them. Now, I have replaced my land line with a cellphone. The costs for equivalent functionality have gone up – not down which is contra to most other innovations. I don’t care for the impact this has caused for us. People are very selfish with them. They cause traffic accidents, they hold up checkout lines, and the ruin movies in the theater. This is more the fault of the people using them, than of the technology itself – but the device does allow one to externalize their situation. By picking up that device, you are taken out of your current context and entered into another, and people seem to have a hard time with that.
3. Credit Cards. This is a terrible idea. People should not need a credit card. Its a security nightmare, and its a debt collector’s wet dream. Cancel them, and go back to debit cards, checks, and good old cash. I don’t think I can emphasize enough about the ways that credit has ruined peoples lives, again by externalizing what is in this case, a literal cost. People live beyond their means, and its unfortunate that young people are an exceptionally easy target.
4. Renewable Energy. I feel that while favorable to fossil fuels, I am not sure that renewable energy is as “green” as we are asked to believe. By erecting a wind turbine, we are creating turbulence in the wind patterns, and slowing it down. If many plants reproduce by spreading pollen via wind, wouldn’t a 20 mile per hour wind that is reduced to 10 mph after going through a wind farm be less beneficial to plant life? If our solar collectors steal the light that would otherwise hit the ground, wouldn’t microorganism that depend on that heat suffer as a result? When we dam a river for water power, don’t we alter the reproduction patterns of fish that swim upstream? I suppose that our environmental footprint will never be zero, and this is certainly less of a footprint than burning fuel.
5. Robotics Its hard to not think of robotics as taking away jobs. They may not be a job that you want, but its a job nonetheless. When 10% of the population in this country can’t find work, why are we building robots to do jobs people can do? Some might argue reliability, or the boredom of repetition, and in some cases I agree. If robots are consuming the more menial tasks, why is the displaced workforce not moving up the chain to higher levels of work? I think that robotics are incredible, but I don’t believe that they are a good decision in every situation where they can be implemented. Perhaps if robotic construction becomes cheaper than outsourcing we will see manufacturing come back to this country?
6. Digital systems (CD, DVD, Nintendo Wii, Camera) These items are all categorically in the pursuit of leisure. While fun, they detract from the social nature of people. A digital device can never replace the social needs of a human being. The result is that after spending so much time and money on these things, we still feel separated, and alone.
7. Lithium Ion Battery Portable power. This allows me to power all the devices I don’t need such as cellphones, laptop computers, GPS units, PSPs, right? I support the medical, and “green” applications of Lithium Ion batteries. If it can improve the health of someone by powering a pacemaker, or a hearing aid then I feel this is worthwhile. If it can make a vehicle use renewable energy instead of burning fossil fuels, then this should be a smaller impact to the environment. Power is a necessity when living in a world of digital devices. Now, is living in a world of digital devices a necessity?
8. GPS Having owned a GPS, I think its more useful on long trips, than it is on short distances. Its nice just heading West to go to Texas, but the accuracy seems to be sub par over human planning. More often than not, I will look at a destination, route my own path, then just use the GPS to anticipate when turns are coming. This may be a limitation of technology, but I just don’t find them all that useful in their current state. I think that better applications are finding people that are stranded, or helping people navigate otherwise impossible terrains. I don’t think the military pursuit of this technology is in the interests of anything more efficient at killing. If a GPS guided munition hits a military target rather than the civilian building next to it, then I suppose this is a worthwhile innovation.
9. Time shifting (programs on the TV) Another leisure application. It certainly is something that I can live without. It just allows me to record the few applications out of the mountain of crap that make owning a television worth it. Commercials seem to be invasive, especially after I pay $50 a month to watch a program. I enjoy cutting themout via time shifting.
10. Barcodes / RFID This allows for all the benefits that come with digitizing an inventory. Giving everything a unique identifier allows for quick totaling of purchases in a location, and faster restocking, and changes to economic conditions. This is an innovation that’s consequences come down to its implementation. On the negative side, self-service checkouts have been implemented as a result. This takes away cashier positions, and it provides a sub-par customer service experience for the same price. If a company moves to this model, the customer will never see trickle down effect of the savings the company makes. RFIDs can be applied in quick passes for toll booths. Again, this application allows for easier payments from individuals at less costs to the company. As a result of RFID toll booth passes, are the roads paid for any sooner? Again, where is the trickle down effect?
Do you think that your life is improved as a result of these innovations? I suppose it depends on your definition of improvement.