The Impact of "Stuff"

Many Americans tend to think that all of the resources we consume magically appear from Earth’s resources.  And the wastes that we create seem to magically disappear.  In reality, of course, much of what we take for granted comes from non-renewable resources.  The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard is an entertaining and very informative view of the real costs of all of the material goods we use every day.  The video does a great job of examining the entire “life cycle” of products and what it takes to get them to rich consumers.  The video can do a much better job of explaining the details than I could hope to, so I’ll stop here. 🙂

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Happiness Through Annoyance (and other Thoughts)

I often find myself contemplating on the effects modern technology has had on society.  From putting up with text messages to low-quality cell phone connections to MP3 players, people have found so many new annoyances that the old ones (e.g., interacting with other human beings is all but a lost art). 

Cracked.com has a really insightful article entitled 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable.  From the introduction:

Scientists call it the Naked Photo Test, and it works like this: say a photo turns up of you nakedly doing something that would shame you and your family for generations. Bestiality, perhaps. Ask yourself how many people in your life you would trust with that photo. If you’re like the rest of us, you probably have at most two.

Even more depressing, studies show that about one out of four people have no one they can confide in.

The article makes some excellent points.  Part of existing in society involves putting up with annoyances, interruptions, and other such issues.  People have effectively isolated themselves from these things.  While it’s good to be able to use a laptop on a plane rather than chit-chatting with another annoying passenger, there is something that we’re losing.  Text messaging, to me (at least without a full keyboard) is perhaps one of the worst methods of communication ever invented.  I like e-mail as a primary contact method, but using a 9-digit input method leads to all kinds of misunderstandings and impersonal messages.  

In some ways, I miss the days of Seinfeld.  Life was annoying without cell phones (think of how many episodes would have to be rewritten entirely with today’s technology), but there were some benefits to it.  Rather than interacting online, people met in-person.  Personally, I’ve found that it’s like pulling teeth to get people to actually go out for a beer or a happy hour.

My hope: People will begin to realize that communicating via brief text messages and e-mail is a distant second choice to meeting face-to-face.  Human beings evolved to want, need, and benefit from social interaction.  In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was my inability to muster of intelligent conversations with people in the real world.  Strangely, all of this has made me less likely to seek out personal interactions.  So, what’s the solution?

Paramount: Reasons for Backing HD DVD

If you’ve been watching the horse race between the Sony-backed Blu-Ray standard and HD DVD (supported by Microsoft, Toshiba, and several other vendors), you know that recent statistics show that Blue-Ray has roughly a 2-to-1 lead over its rival.  Personally, I prefer the HD DVD standard for a variety of reasons.

Ars Technica reports on Reasons financial and technical lurk behind Paramount’s HD DVD coup.  It includes many of the things that I think are very important for the new standard.  Some of the capabilities included with the HD DVD standard are:

  • Standardized player requirements, including a network connection
  • A better overall interactivity system (HDi)
  • The ability to allow the creation of a backup copy (sure, software already available to do this on both platforms, but this is legal)
  • The ability to add content and features after the original media is released

If you remember the early days of DVD technology, menus often had bugs or ran inconsistently on various players.  Audio tracks were not properly formatted, and sometimes remote buttons didn’t do what was expected.  Making the addition of features foolproof is a high priority (there are a lot of fools out there, and they keep getting better at their jobs).

Judging based on history (e.g., CDs and DVDs), the new standard will be in place for decades.   Many of these features are vital to ensuring that hardware will keep pace with new technology features.  I’d hate to see multiple versions of players and force consumers to compare their hardware specifications with the requirements of a DVD.  Personally, I don’t trust Sony to deliver on a quality set of development tools and capabilities.  I have cast my vote (at least mentally).  Which do you prefer, and why?

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Demonstration

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization has the noble goal of creating affordable computers for children in less-privileged countries.  The goal for the device is for it to cost around $100.  Original versions included a hand-crank for powering the device, but newer models support other options.  Here’s a less-than-perfect video of the OLPC XO Prototype.  Some notes on the technology and its features:

  • Mesh networking: Wireless network access is important for modern users, but it’s hard to come by in most areas of the developing world.  The OLPC devices can communicate with each other to access other networks.  The visual display also includes icons for showing other network devices that are located nearby.
  • Multiple Power Options:  The device can be powered through the us of a standard electrical connection, but there’s also the possibility of using mechanical power (for example via a footswitch) or by using solar cells.
  • Applications: The OLPC operating system includes a word processor, an image editing program, a web browser, and other essential software.  Apart from functionality, learning how to use these applications will tremendously help educate users.
  • Durability: As the device is targeted towards children, all of the components are designed with protection for ports, the screen, and other components.
  • Color and monochrome display options:  The screen supports a black-and-white option for offering better text readability.  For other applications, the color display can be enabled.
  • Swivel display:  The display can be swiveled so that the user can more easily read text and other content when they keyboard is not being used.  Traditional notebook computers that offer this feature generally cost over $1,000.
  • Built-in Camera: The device includes a built-in video/still camera and software for capturing content.  Few “complete” notebook computers support these features.

The devices are available to governments with a minimum order size of 1 million units.  Better yet, the technology could help manufacturers in developed countries create more efficient and more usable designs.  I’m amazed at how much useful technology has been included in the device. 

Personally, I find it refreshing and inspirational that individuals would focus on this effort.  In the United States, profit incentives seem to be the driving force beyond just about everything we do.  And, consumerism has led to a marketplace for $400+ music players.  Apple desktop and notebook computers, for example, cost far more than he average annual income for a family of four.

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.