Evaluating "Advances" in Technology

It’s quite common to hear about how technology can increase our expectations and improve the quality of our lives. There’s probably little need for examples, but the imagine having to physically visit a store to get product information. Obviously, visiting a web site is far more efficient.

In some cases, however, “improvements” in technology can greatly decrease our expectations. In fact, it can make us put up with frustrations that were unimaginable in the past. Case in point: Mobile phones. Sure, it’s amazing that being able to make a call from just about anywhere is possible at all. But, limited bandwidth combined with high latency can generate a lot of, “What was that? Sorry, you’re cutting out…” You’d think more people would cut out – voluntarily. I’ve heard people say that they don’t mind the lack of quality. But, these are often the same people that unconsciously yell on these devices to be heard.

Another example (also related to audio) is that of compressed music. Never mind that the basic MP3 format is rather outdated, but most people seem to be unaware of the fact that even files with high bit rates result in a significant decrease of quality. Personally, I listen to compressed music all the time, primarily for the convenience. But, I can certainly tell the difference between an uncompressed cymbal crash and that from an MP3. Though many people will claim that they can’t tell the difference, I think there’s a subconscious trade-off that’s being ignored.

A similar idea is one presented by Alan Cooper in his book, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum“. While the book focuses on product design, Cooper uses the “dancing bearware”. The idea is that people are inclined to pay to see a bear dance. But, why? The bear’s actually not all that good of a dancer. In fact, it’s amazing that the bear can dance at all. And that’s the point. For many types of products, what they do overshadows how well they do it.
I used to think about this most when peer-sharing clients first hit the scene. The Napster client was amazingly popular, but it’s user interface was pretty lousy. Personally, I feel that even some the popular current-generation clients (LimeWire, eMule, BearShare), leave a lot to be desired. Of course, the software does tend to work. And, if you’re looking for a crowbar to break into a store, would you really question the quality of its design?

Now, back to the whole technology thing: My point is that people should be conscious of what they’re giving up when they rush to new technology. Personally, I’m OK with reduced sound quality if I can save a few bucks on a music player. I still use a landline as my primary phone. I prefer to meet people at a happy hour, rather than talk on a phone. But, the next time you find yourself yelling on your cell cell phone, consider pressuring manufacturers to focus on core features rather than selling you a digitized Britney Spears ring tone.

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