Category Archives: Technology

A picture of the future

old cameraDiary date: 8th April, 1986

On this day back in 1986 I was excitedly on my way to the chemists to pick up some photos I’d taken on a weekend away with the university squash team. They featured a lovely girl that I was fairly sure I had just started going out with – I was never very good at reading the signs – so I was looking forward to seeing them even more than usual.

I told this story to my teenage children the other day, and they literally didn’t believe it – least of all the part about the prospective girlfriend. However, it also didn’t escape their attention that I was describing paying someone at the chemists to create and print out photographs for me.

When you think about it, the whole process really was rather unwieldy.

In those days, you bought a one-time-use roll of light-sensitive film which you put carefully into your camera, snaking it round a spool before you closed the case and hoped everything was attached where it should be. You then went about your business taking photos – rather inexplicably in multiples of 12 depending on which film you’d bought – after which you needed to open your camera, pray that everything had worked, and insert another roll. You took your finished film to the nearest chemist or photography shop, and you waited a few days. Then you went back, handed over a fee, and were given a sealed envelope containing your photos. You had no idea if any of them were any good, but you bought them all anyway, sight unseen. As soon as you were out of the shop, you tore open the envelope to find out what you’d just bought, hoping against hope that they weren’t someone else’s pictures. Finally, you selected the ones you wanted to keep (the bar was set very low in those days), put them in a pile with all the rest (or – if you were very organised – in an album), and off you went again.

In comparison, taking photos in 2014 is undeniably sci-fi-like:

1. You take a photo. You could have taken a video just as easily, but hey, you’re old-fashioned like that. And by the way, you probably used your telephone to do it, not your camera: (a) because you can, and, (b) because your phone never, ever leaves your side.

2. You look at your photo on your phone as soon as you’ve taken it and decide if you like it. Maybe you edit it a bit if it isn’t quite what you were after – unless you’re aiming for something like a #nomakeupselfie, that is.

3. Once you’re happy (and regardless of where you happen to be at the time), you probably share your photo immediately with your entire circle of friends and family, using the handy global computer network to which you are almost constantly connected.

4. Within a few minutes, people from all over the world start telling you what they think of your snap – and if they like it too, they might even share it right away with their own friends.

I know we don’t have flying cars yet (come on people, let’s get that sorted!), but photography really has done everything it can to make up for that particular disappointment.

Now all we have to do is find a way to guarantee that all the pictures I take this year will be stored and accessible somewhere in 28 years time – just like that picture of my squash-playing girlfriend, which is still tucked away safely upstairs in my student photo album.

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This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

Now That’s What I Call…

Diary date: 23rd February, 1986

Having never been much of a shopper, it’s rare for my diary to mention things I may have bought at the time. But I made an exception on this date in 1986 and recorded with great excitement that I had belatedly added the cassettes of “Now That’s What I Call Music 3” to the others in my collection. For obvious reasons, I’m going to ignore the fact that the series has just reached number 87.

At the time, ‘Now!‘ felt ridiculously revolutionary. Companies like K-Tel and Ronco had been advertising and releasing ‘Various Artists’ compilations since the 70’s, but the tracks they had access to meant that you largely bought the records for the sake of two or three songs – or that you were buying material that already felt dated.

‘Now!’ was the first time two major labels – EMI and Virgin – had joined forces, and the result was a track list that was much more representative of the charts at the time. Not only that, but a combination of slick operations and genuine enthusiasm seemed to turn around each new ‘Now!’ more and more quickly. We started buying them as relatively representative of current music rather than out of a sense of retrospective nostalgia.

The other advantage of ‘Now!’ was the instant boost that it gave your mix tapes. Having previously spent hours on Sunday evenings with a microphone up against the radio – making excruciatingly poor quality recordings of Radio 1‘s chart show – ‘Now!’ gave you both high quality and a half-decent choice. Songs you hadn’t liked first time around were suddenly more appealing just because they were easily available.

With its numerous spin-offs – genre-specific editions, computer games, karaoke, quizzes, retrospectives, even its own TV channel – and its ability to react to market and technological change, ‘Now!’ has been a consistent thirty-year success story. The brand has adapted to survive the introduction of reproducible formats like CDs and MP3s, the advent of mass personal storage in the form of MP3 players, and the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster. As such, it stands in marked contrast to the music business as a whole, an industry which spent years in denial of the fact that – whether it was desirable or not – digital music distribution had changed everything.

Crossing the Channel by stagecoach

Channel TunnelDiary date: 26th January, 1986

My 1986 diary has more space than the previous year and comes with an unexpected bonus feature – an area headed ‘Notes’ every two or three pages. On the now 28-year old Notes page for January – conscious of my requirement to keep abreast of all things French – I solemnly recorded the fact that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterand had signed an agreement on the building of an undersea tunnel between the two countries.

The scheme they chose involved the construction of two one-way rail tunnels for shuttle and high-speed trains, plus a third service tunnel connected to the other two at regular intervals. Among the schemes they had rejected in coming to their decision were a suspension bridge, a set of artificial islands joined by bridges and a tunnel, and a set of road and rail tunnels.

However, for sheer visionary ambition, I doubt anyone has ever really improved on the plan put forward in 1802 by mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier. Favier suggested a single two-level tunnel. The lower level had practicality in mind and was a watercourse designed to collect and deal with the inevitable leaks. By contrast, the upper level was an altogether more romantic affair. It was to be used by horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, and lit with oil lamps. Air was to be provided by great iron chimneys connecting the tunnel to the surface, towering at regular intervals above the waves. Half way across, an artificial island was to be built on top of Varne sandbank to allow tired horses to be changed and travellers to rest and stretch their legs.

Favier’s zeal was sufficient to gain the support of Napoleon Bonaparte, who took the opportunity at one point to discuss the tunnel with a visiting British statesman – Charles James Fox. However, with war in the air – and the British suspicious of the First Consul’s motives – the idea was quietly put to one side.

Today’s tunnel is about as far from Favier’s vision of sedate, lamp-lit carriages as it is possible to get, with high-speed Eurostar trains hurtling beneath the sea at 100mph and the world’s largest roll-on-roll-off shuttles ferrying lorries and cars to and fro every 20 minutes. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering – and one that Favier would almost certainly have approved of.

From Walkman to iPod: Hello to abundance

Cassette and pencilDiary date: 30th December, 1985

My favourite Christmas present of 1985 was a Sony Discman my parents bought me to replace the ageing cassette-based Walkman that had served me so well on my travels over the previous four years. With its at-the-time revolutionary ability to jump from track to track instantly and its mysterious ESP – Electronic Skip Protection – the Discman (subsequently renamed CD Walkman) was a must-have for any mobile music lover whose collection was slowly migrating from cassette tape to compact disc. But despite its shiny shell and space age curves, it failed to solve the one issue which made travelling with a tape-based Walkman so difficult: the need to choose the limited amount of music you would take with you in advance.

Deciding which tapes – and subsequently which CDs – would accompany you on your travels was a major undertaking. Lack of space meant only a few albums or mixtapes would win a coveted place in your already packed rucksack – and the considerations and implications of your musical choices were legion:

Which of your current favourites had earned the right to come with you – and how would you choose them? Should you side with the novelty of the album you bought last week and still weren’t quite sure about, or was it better to stick with the tried and tested mixtape that could make you feel at home even when you were on the road? You might like both of them now, but how would they sound once you’d listened to them dozens of times in the space of a few days?

What would your choices say about you once your cassette cases were spotted by others? Would your tapes convey enough of a sense of taste, hipness, tortured artistry, fun and mystery? Would they make you more or less attractive to the opposite sex? And would your selection be sufficiently swappable and shareable as far as your friends were concerned?

How many albums would fit in your bag – and how many was it practical to carry? Which tape would start its life in the Walkman itself, and spend its non-playing days living in the cases of the other cassettes you’d chosen to take with you?

Then there were the practical considerations. Chief amongst these: batteries. I was lucky if my first Walkman lasted 2-3 hours with a brand new set of AAs – and even then the volume for the final hour would slip gradually ever lower. The condition of the tape itself was also important. Any cassette that had previously required rescuing with a pencil was immediately a non-starter. As for adding new music to your collection while you were on the go…well, a trip to a shop was obviously required, as well as careful thought about how it would fit into a bag that was already stuffed with the music you’d brought with you.

Today’s MP3 players have largely made the discipline and romance of restricted music selection a thing of the past. My iPod currently tells me it contains 1,985 songs, many of which – if I’m honest – I’m fairly sure I haven’t heard in a while. Albums too have been disassembled, with the miraculous instant track skip of the Discman replaced with the instant iPod shuffle between individually favoured songs.

These changes in the way we manage and consume music are symptomatic of the more general shift from yesterday’s scarcity of storage to today’s always-available abundance. Many of the choices we were once forced to make – trivial or otherwise – now feel like they belong to another age, and not a mere decade or two ago.

 

Why ‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the new ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

This way for Wi-FiDiary date: 17th November, 1985

Back in the heady days of my diary, my friends and I have moved out of university accommodation and are living in a rented house a mile or two away from the campus. We chose it because it was cheap at £11 a month each and provided a roof and running water. The fact that at least some of this water ran steadily through the ceiling into my bedroom and that slugs crawled all over the living room furniture every night doesn’t seem to have entered our thinking.

Twenty-eight years on, my eldest daughter is looking at prospective universities and I’m quickly discovering that the list of student accommodation must-haves has lengthened considerably. An absolute given is something that was barely dreamt of when I was a student – Wi-Fi. Accessing books, films, games, the library, lecture notes and even friends and family used to require effort, planning, movement and often (horror of horrors!) physically relocating yourself miles away from your current position. Now, the same activities are available from your student room at the touch of a tablet, in a way that feels eerily like the world in E. M. Forster’s haunting short story, ‘The Machine Stops.’

Wi-Fi has quickly become one of those attributes that somehow makes a place seem more desirable. Its rise has been so meteoric that it’s fast approaching the status of utility rather than luxury  – an upstart must-have without the historic gravitas of water, heating and lighting, but part of a new breed of suddenly essential services, like its sibling mobile telephony. Wi-Fi lets you feel at home even when you’re on the move, to remain together even while you’re apart.

‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the connected generation’s ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ It’s a question asked of everything from shopping centres and trains to pubs and holiday destinations. High streets are awash with individual networks, with retailers banking on the fact that data-starved users on less reliable or more expensive mobile connections will crawl to the nearest hotspot like thirsty explorers to a desert oasis.

The idea that Wi-Fi adds a certain something to a location isn’t new. As long ago as 2004, realistic plans were being drawn up for whole towns and cities to offer free, municipal networks. Despite the fact that many of these early projects failed (through a combination of cost, practicality, technical hitches and competition from the big mobile networks), optimism over city-wide Wi-Fi persists – embodied in big projects like the UK government’s super-connected cities initiative.

Whichever university my daughter ends up in, I’m pretty sure that ‘how do you connect to the Wi-Fi’ will almost certainly be one of the first questions she puts her hand up to ask.

Is stupidity making us Google?

is google making us stupid - Google SearchDiary date: 12th September, 1985

My working stay in Sweden lasts around six to eight weeks. It was a real eye-opener at the time, but reading back through my 28-year old diary, the whole period feels distinctly analogue.

A lot of the time, I don’t really know what’s going on and frankly seem to have very little way of finding out. I write longhand messages to friends and family on pieces of paper which are then carefully transported to them over a period of several days by a series of paid messengers. I lose track of what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and seem to struggle even to find out what’s going on in the immediate vicinity. I collect maps by the armful to help me get around. When I finally leave Gothenburg by train, I have no way of letting my family in Munich know that I’m two hours late, so they have to hang around the station just hoping I’ll turn up.

But taken as a whole, one thing stands out more than anything else in those innocent, analogue days – the tremendous effort I put into trying to know stuff.

And when I say know, I really mean know.

For certain.

You used to need to know stuff. Back then, it seemed really important. These days, you just need to feel reasonably sure that the stuff you’re concerned with is knowable, and that if and when it’s needed, you’ll be able to find it.

In other words, we’ve slowly but surely begun outsourcing the knowledge that we used to carry around with us – principally of course to the Internet and our friends at Google, but also to phones, satnavs, e-readers, tablets, MP3 players and lots of other devices.

So what are we doing with all the spare mental capacity that our outsourcing policy has presumably produced? Is it really all being spent on Angry Birds and watching cat videos on YouTube? Perhaps we’ve now got the potential to know a great deal more than we ever did before – albeit by proxy. Or maybe we’ve got surplus brainspace available to know and store more and more interesting/useful/esoteric/ephemeral stuff – leaving all the dull, heavy-lifting to the magic of the Internet.

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield for one has her doubts. She’s argued frequently and publicly that the human brain’s incredible ability to adapt may well mean that life online and our obsession with the “yuck! and wow!” of the Web will result in lasting and not necessarily desirable changes to how we interact, think and manage knowledge. She’s occasionally been criticised for her views, but she’s far from being alone. Even Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt sounds concerned that we’re losing the ability to think deeply enough to retain genuine and profound knowledge.

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking.

Celebrated technology writer Nicolas Carr – asker of the original question, Is Google Making us Stupid? – has written along similar lines, suggesting that the Internet may represent a Faustian pact that will trade ‘deeper’ thought for something more superficial:

For most of the past 500 years, the ideal mind was the contemplative mind. The loss of that ideal, and that mind, may be the price we pay for the Web’s glittering treasure.

Outsourcing both knowledge and storage is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years as evidenced by everything from the Pyramids to the Rosetta Stone. But the sheer power, speed and ubiquity of the Internet may well mean that unlike the mechanisms we’ve used in the past, this one has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of the minds that created it.