TechKnow: Walkme-Talkme

A Not So Mobile Vision
One can argue that growing up a geek (not the carnival performing kind but the modern day techy kind) is probably not the best grounding for all around personality development. Getting out and getting dirty is probably what kids should be doing. I was more inclined to stay in. Luckily for me, one of my family’s business operations is in electronics. They have an exports operation in Dubai, where goods are sent out to our retail locations, primarily in Malawi, Africa.

These retail outlets were a joy to my tech-sense; selling stereos with bright lights, large screen TVs playing Toy Story, speaker systems to die for, photo printing facilities, and of course, a dedicated mobile phone centre. Here is where I lurked, behind the shiny glass cabinets, I’d sneakily grab a new model mobile and play with it for hours as I sat, wearing shorts, on the cold, hard marble floor. This meant I was happily fed a steady stream of ‘byte sized’ nutrients which meant that I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing out on whatever it was the other kids were doing.

I think it’s also a misconception that geeks lack social skills. Many of the most sociable people I know are total geeks, they just ‘talk’ a little differently, that’s all.

Being a geek somehow automatically labels you as technical support for everyone you bump into, no matter the time and place. I was in the Vodafone store on Tottenham Court Road the other day, a busy road lined with shop after shop, bustling at the seams, selling all kinds of technology products. A location where customers specifically come in the belief that they will get superior technical advice, compared to their local high street store. As I waited for an assistant to be free, I listened in horror while a customer was being fed a heap of bad advice. Now, I don’t wear an “I’m a member of Nerdwatch” badge, but the customer, sensing something about me, turned to me and asked, “Do you think it will work on my Mac?”

This propelled me into a 10-minute conversation about her needs and options while the assistant stood back and smiled. (By the way I don’t need store assistants’ advice but I like to ask them questions so they realise how little they know about the products they sell – not in an evil way, more of a society improving way). Anyway, I digress. The point I am making is that to be a geek is to be a highly social creature. And that’s probably why I’ve always loved mobile phones.

I fondly remember fondling my fondest mobile phones during my teenage years; between the ages of 11 and 18 I played with almost every mobile phone that went through the family business. Being the tech-advisor to my father’s business meant I went through a lot of phones. Just over five years ago, the market was not nearly as saturated with the volume and variety of cell phones that it is today. There are now more mobile phones in the UK than there are households, and it is predicted that most of our calls in the future will be mobile-mobile, with fixed lines being used principally for data.

The feature set in some of the first phones I had consisted of text messaging, interchangeable faceplates, and a vibration alert function. Compared to the features I lust after in mobiles now, the cell phones of my youth seem as clunky as the old rotary-dial. After years of playing with mobile phones, I slowly got disheartened. As manufacturers upgraded their models and crammed in feature after feature, I found the quality of implementing those features only got worse. The joy I had in playing with every new mobile was soon clouded by frequent crashes and frustration; what thee new models promised on the box, they did not deliver in actual application. This meant that I no longer updated my mobile at the rate I use to. It is only recently that new mobiles are finally catching my interest, again. I’ve recently purchased (at the Vodafone store) the Sony Ericsson V600i and after a weeks use I can truly say my passion is reinvigorated.

Mobiles are one of the few technologies that have well and truly hacked in to our lives. They tap into our innate desire to communicate with each other, and provide instant gratuity. Now, anyone with a mobile phone is pretty much reachable anywhere. Those moments while you’re waiting for your plane at the airport or stuck on that long car journey, you can have a chat with your loved ones to pass the time. If you’re lucky.

No one could have predicted the success of digital cameras integrated into mobile phones, yet now you’d be hard pushed to find a phone without that feature. These inbuilt cameras are never going to replace your ‘digital SLR’, but nonetheless they prove useful. With some of the phones being released now, you’d have a hard choice deciding whether it’s a mobile phone with a built in camera, or a digital camera with built in phone features. For example the ‘Samsung SCH-V770‘. I can’t decide if this is a 7 mega pixel camera with a phone or a phone with a 7 mega pixel camera.

Mobile networks continue to find ways for you to increase your mobile bill. The slow but steady uptake of ‘3G’ (next generation mobile network) means that you can have broadband download speeds on your mobile. Recent and forthcoming technologies include the ability to watch ‘Sky TV‘, built in ‘digital TV tuners‘, ‘push to talk‘ — imagine a walkie-talkie network connection to your friends and family, and ‘GPS‘ (Global Positioning System) — imagine having a personal guide on your mobile, talking you through any journey by car or foot. Together with highly sophisticated operating systems such as ‘Symbian‘, ‘Windows Mobile‘ and ‘Linux‘ means that your mobile phone will definitely be packing a geographic punch.

Without wanting to sound like I’m asking to be mugged, I carry in my bag two mobile phones, a Palm, folding keyboard, an iPod, digital camera, a couple of SD memory cards and some USB flash drives. I’ve never considered that multifunction devices could ever perform as well as my separates. Rather, multifunction devices are merely an exercise in shoving as many features as possible into one gadget. But I can now see it slowly happening, I’m adopting the multi-function device. Prime examples being the ‘Nokia N91‘ and ‘Samsung i300‘, both with built in hard drives at a capacity that can replace your iPod. The all round entertainment centre ‘Sony Ericsson W900‘, which allows you to play 3D games, take pictures and videos rivalling budget digital cameras and a capable music player, and 0the fashionista’s workhorse. The ‘Motorola Q‘, a fully functioning PDA in the style of the highly successful Motorola RAZR.

In the not too distant future, I foresee us all carrying one device that will be easy enough to use for those who don’t want to be inundated with the high teach features, yet include all the features that we geeks demand. You can be sure that mobile phone companies and network providers are working hard to develop technologies that ensure that the phone is the only device you carry, therefore guaranteeing that your telephone / internet / text messaging / photo sending bill increases year by year.

Whether you like them or not, expect the most successful life-hack (a more efficient or effective way of completing an everyday task) of the 20th century to hack in to your life that little bit more.

— Yusuf Osman

‘Life-Hack’ Yourself Open.
Whether a publicity stunt in advance of a new edition or a public service, the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) announced its 2005 Word of the Year. They’ve selected “podcast”, and the only criteria seems to be producers’ and consumer’s rapid adoption. But more interesting to me was another technology-related term that also appeared on the list of runners-up: “lifehack”. The wordsmiths at NOAD define a lifehack as “a more efficient or effective way of completing an everyday task.”

It’s an idea that can easily move beyond technology and into other realms of our daily life, but gives even more credence to the idea of our increasing cyborg / human integration. After all, vacuum cleaners and other household appliances are marketed as labor-saving devices when, in fact, they possibly create more work. One year, I gave my mother a vacuum cleaner for her birthday. My usually gracious mother became wholly ungracious asking, “Now what makes you think I want something to do housework with?” It was my first lesson in discerning wants from needs. I also earned a new chore in exchange for my allowance: weekly vacuuming. Should’ve bought her those Rick Springfield albums, instead.

What this experience taught me was that the primitive lifehacks rarely save time. If they do shave a few minutes off the domestic drudgery, the result is not often enough leisure pursuits. This is perhaps symptomatic of shifting the American workplace to the home. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captures the conundrum in the subtitle to her book The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (2001). Her focus is the American family and the time crunch parents experience as they try to accommodate the financial demands of the home with more work. Yet for singles and families alike, one has to be productive even while at rest. TiVO streamlines the viewing process. Broadband speeds up surfing the web for everything from the meaningful to the trivial, thus, making all information seem equally necessary.

Presumably mobile phones, PDAs, and other gadgets are lifehacks, too. They give us, and our activities, importance. Not only are our appointments, phone numbers, partner’s birthdays, and to-do lists at hand, we are also reachable anytime, anywhere. And, from reports at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show held last month in Las Vegas, technology producers are determined to make our mobile phones smaller with even more functions and our homes fully integrated so all of your media needs are at hand, in hand, all the time.

For fear of becoming the curmudgeon, Marxist half of TechKnow (Tech-I-Don’t-Wanna-Know?), I’m duty-bound to point out the subtext of the phrase, “making life easier”. Productivity seems to be the central concern of websites such as Lifehack.org and a related keyword for Technorati.com. I am, admittedly, lazy. All this talk of productivity makes me want to go lie down and take a nap. It’s tempting to compare myself to the Luddites, but even that comparison falls short.

One is accused of being a Luddite when one resists technology. This is, though, an inaccurate use of the word, prompting me to begin my early campaign for “neo-Luddite” as the 2006 word of the year. The Luddites were, in fact, textile workers who revolted in the early 1800s against being displaced in favor of machines. British authorities cracked down on the Luddites and charged them under newly created laws that prohibited machine breaking — the Luddites’ favorite form of protest. Execution by hanging or being deported to Australia as workers, not prisoners (never a penal colony as myth maintains), was the penalty.

The Luddite revolt become a reductive narrative for those who insist on being out of step with the times and oppose change. Let’s get our labor history straight, though: the story of the Luddites is the story of people wanting to keep their jobs and remain productive. These days, true, neo-Luddite sentiments are afoot, espousing that technology has gotten the better of us — that it controls us rather than the other way around.

Internet service providers and hardware companies are gladly embracing the language of addiction. One 2005 European survey (“Intel Digital Lifestyle Report“, August 2005) found that one in five Britons said they couldn’t live without their digital or computer technology. An AOL survey crowed about the number of its clients who would classify themselves as addicted to email. Respondents checked their email, on average, five times a day. Also, at the time of this writing, Canadian-based Research in Motion, the marker of the Blackberry wireless handheld device, awaits the decision of a federal judge on whether their device infringes on a US company’s patent. If the judge orders an injunction until the case is settled, a substantial number of Blackberry users would be blocked and face life without their handheld. Blackberry users, rallying proudly under the moniker “crackberry” addicts, are up in arms about possibly being denied their lifeline.

It’s this hyperbole about our need for technology delivery that makes my circuits overload. If you really can’t live without a gadget or without checking your email every few minutes, you’re screwed and have lost all perspective on wants versus needs. Like the myth of Luddites as technology-haters, both marketing and improvements in technology are over-exaggerations of necessity.

Rather than squawking like Chicken Little and predicting impending doom because we’ll all forget how to memorize phone numbers, I’m arguing for some caution and thought before giving ourselves over to the latest gizmos. There’s nothing wrong with the wonder that comes along with the “Gee Whiz Factor” when seeing a new toy for the first time. It really is cool when a camera-phone can take a gazillion megapixel photos and bake bread all on its own. We can appreciate these things for the order they give our lives. But, like those machine-busting British workers, perspective on technology counts. Will we remember to marvel at beauty not filtered through an LCD screen? Can we feel despair at social injustice beyond not being able to afford a new laptop? Hopefully, we’ll keep in mind that we don’t actually live in The Matrix and devise lifehacks that will make the lives of others’ better than they were yesterday.

— Kimberly Springer

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