No calls please!

For most people, most of the time, technology is a benefit. As a reader of this blog, it is fair to assume that you embrace technology to at least some extent. Technologies have a finite lifetime. This lifetime may be very long – the wheel seems to have stood the test of time – but may also be quite short – vinyl records lasted less than a century.

The life-cycle of technologies is an interesting study topic and, in particular, it is curious how we are prone to hanging on to technology long after its time has passed …

Looking around me, I can see various areas where technology has advanced drastically in my lifetime. In some cases, an old technology has gone entirely; in others a new one has arrived and expired; in others there are people who yearn for a revival of an obsolete technology. Here are some examples:

  • Electronics – For many years, vacuum tubes were the prime active component of electronic circuits. They were expensive, used high voltages and needed warming up time, so the arrival of the transistor about 60 years ago was welcome. That resulted in the solid-state electronics that dominates our world today. There are still people who are of the opinion that vacuum tubes are in some way better. I cannot see it myself, though I do like the fact that I can actually understand how a vacuum tube works.
  • Audio – I recall the time when CDs first appeared. I was very quick to buy a player and loved it. No more jumping, scratches and crackles. But now we are in age of MP3s and Internet streaming, which I think is even better. With my Sonos system and Spotify subscription, my audio needs are covered. However, there is something of a come-back for vinyl amongst young people. Why?
  • Still images – I enjoy photography and “went digital” 11 years ago and have not touched a roll of film since. For some years, film had a few technical advantages over digital in terms of resolution and color rendition. Those days are passed. Film had a good run of over a 100 years – time to let it go. Interestingly, monochrome images are still popular. They were a technological limitation in the early days; now they are an artistic choice.
  • Video – Moving images dominate our life. Cinema used to be the main medium, now it is TV of course. We have seen video cassette tapes come and go, likewise DVDs. Like with audio, digital technology has changed everything.
  • Lighting – Incandescent light bulbs had a very good run, but are now being largely phased out in favor of more environmentally acceptable alternatives. Unfortunately this has been rushed and inferior replacement technologies have motivated many people to push back and stockpile the old bulbs [I have a load in a cupboard]. Fortunately, the latest LED bulbs are beginning to deliver much better brightness and color temperature, while using low power and having long lifetimes.
  • Transportation – Although we are a very mobile society, transportation has not changed that much. We saw supersonic airliners come and go – a technological solution looking for a problem. There have been plenty of incremental improvements – cars are stuffed with electronics and are more efficient and reliable than ever. There has been little in the way of drastic change in recent years. I observe that in the UK, a political party has announced a plan to ban cars powered by fossil fuels in 2040.
  • Printing – Although the invention of the printing press changed the world in amazing ways, I think its days are numbered. For getting news and topical information, newspapers and magazines are rapidly being eclipsed by TV and the Internet. Printed books are being out-sold by ebooks. I do not think that “real” books will disappear quickly, but I am sure that they will become a premium product. However, I am very attached to my Kindle, so my view is biased.
  • Communications – Possibly the biggest changes to the world in the last 30 years have been in communications. Telegrams and telex have been replaced by email and text message. Fax is going that way. Advances in audible communication are astounding. Although landlines are being used less, the idea of phoning someone to speak with them is persisting. I wonder why this is?

This last point is something that I have been wondering a lot about. What is it about the telephone that people actually like? I dislike the medium intently. I am not saying that it has no use. It has a place, but is mostly misused. I will illustrate with an example:

I was driving somewhere with my wife. We began discussing a particular topic, when her phone rang. It was a friend who wanted to convey an unimportant, non-urgent piece of information. This could have been communicated in a one line email or text message, but, instead, took a 5 minute phone call. At the end, I had trouble remembering what we had been discussing.

Phoning someone makes sense if you need an immediate response or want to be really sure that they have received a communication because it is urgent/important. But the phone is rarely used like that. If you were in a room having a conversation and someone burst in and interrupted to discuss something of interest to them, how would you feel? Unless their topic was a matter of life and death, you would think they were rather impolite at best. And yet, that is exactly how the phone is used.

It might be suggested that the phone is good for a conversation, but I would question this. The low bandwidth makes it tiring to use and limited in its scope. Such a call is rarely scheduled by mutual agreement, like a chat over coffee would be – it is always driven by one person grabbing the other’s time. For a group discussion, the technology is almost worse than useless – I hate to think of how many man-hours are wasted in the corporate world waiting for conference calls to start or end.

So, please do not call me unless you really need my answer right now. Please send me information by email/text. If we really need to talk, please arrange a date and time. Thank you.

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Posted August 8th, 2013, by

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This blog is a discussion of embedded software matters - news, comment, technical issues and ideas, along with other passing thoughts about anything that happens to be on my mind. The Colin Walls Blog

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Commented on 8 August 2013 at 19:39
By Peter Bushell

This resonates with me completely – particularly the ‘phone thing. But then I’m also an engineer and, as such, more rational than most people who are not.

In a way, semiconductors went almost full circle, back towards valves (or tubes, if you must). I remember my electronics supervisor at Cambridge applauding the arrival of FETs because they were voltage-driven and could be analysed as if they were pentodes. Sounded old-fashioned even to me at the time (it must have been 1968) but he subsequently became Master of my College, so he can’t have been completely off the wall. On the other hand, maybe some eccentricity is pre-requisite for that job… :-)

Commented on 9 August 2013 at 10:52
By Colin Walls

From our past interaction, I am unsurprised that you see my POV Peter.

I, too, recall the introduction of FETs. I recall reading about how to modify valve [vacuum tube] circuits to use FETs instead, with minimal changes. I seem to recall that “valve replacements” were marketed, which would plug in instead of valves and just require the PSU voltage to be reduced.

I also recall reading that FETs are what the guys were trying to produce back in ’48, but they stumbled across bipolar devices in the process …

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