Bates's Law of Creeping Techno-Slavery

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Here's an idea that's been on my mind for a while, and it's time to begin to flesh it out. As you read, keep in mind that this is a first draft. Your thoughts are welcome.

This insight seems obvious to me, so obvious that I searched to find the place where I must have read it, but I've never found it. I wrote about it at length in a UTW column in the aftermath of the December 2007 ice storm, which I had titled "The Amish Are Laughing at Us."

So I am going to stake my claim to this insight and give it a label:

Bates's Law of Creeping Techno-Slavery:

Any useful technology passes through three phases:
luxury, convenience, necessity.

It begins as a "can't have," but ultimately becomes a "can't live without."

The transition from luxury to convenience happens when the cost of the technology declines and the availability increases to allow it to be in general use.

During the convenience phase, the superseded technology is still available as a fallback. When the fallback disappears, we enter the necessity phase. We are completely dependent on the new technology.

The convenience phase is the sweet spot -- we have the technology, we can use it, but we can live without it (albeit not as well), because we still have the fallback. But we are pushed inexorably to the necessity phase.

In the necessity phase, we have reorganized our lives around the assumption that the technology will continue to exist, at the same cost or cheaper.

A fallback technology disappears when the cost of maintaining it exceeds the benefit.

Eventually, the knowledge to recreate the fallback becomes rare, limited to a handful of old-timers and the occasional retro-tech enthusiast.

By "superseded technology," I don't necessarily mean a device, but a combination of tools or devices and ways of using them.

Think about how you'd live your life if you suddenly had to do it without your own car. Or had to manage without motorized vehicles at all. Tulsa, like most younger cities, grew around the persistent availability of cheap personal transport.

Think about your home's comfort in the event of a lengthy power outage. If it's a newer home, it probably wasn't built to take advantage of passing breezes for ventilation, and the fireplace, if you have one, was designed for looks, not for keeping the place warm.

Another short example: Think about a trip to a large amusement park in the 1970s or earlier, with your family or, say, a church youth group. At some point in the day, the group you're with breaks up to do different things. Miraculously you're all back together at the end of the day for the drive home. We managed that without cell phones, and yet as I remember trips like that, it's hard to remember the methods we used to make it work. Or how we managed to convoy multiple cars over a long road trip without anything more than turn signals and hand signals to communicate.

A longer example: The library card catalog. For years, this was the means for maintaining an index of the library's ever-changing collections. The technology had significant limitations: It was available only in one place, adding, sorting, and deleting was error prone and subject to tampering. But it provided a way to maintain a complete, ordered listing without retyping the whole thing every time you added or removed a book.

When electronic library catalog systems came along, they were expensive and ran on expensive computers. Big libraries with big budgets could afford them, so it was still important for an aspiring librarian to know how to manage a card catalog. Even in libraries with an electronic catalog, a card catalog would have been maintained in parallel for a few years as a backup and to serve customers uncomfortable with the green glowing letters on the black screen of a dumb terminal.

Eventually the cost of hardware and software came down enough so that nearly every library could afford an electronic catalog. Patrons, used to working with computers at home, had no problem using a computer at the library to locate a book. Almost no one used the card catalog, and it wasn't worth the time of a librarian to type and sort cards in order to maintain it. The huge cases of tiny drawers went away, and the cards became scratch paper on which to jot down call numbers from the computer screen.

Ink, paper, and drawers aren't obsolete, but the application of these items as a card catalog is. And all is well, as long as the power stays on and nothing happens to the computer. If there's no power, there's no longer a backup. You could have an enormous library full of books to read, undiminished in their ability to entertain and enlighten by the lack of electricity, but you'd have no way to find the book you want. An older librarian might be able to point you to the general vicinity based on the subject and the likely Dewey Decimal number. Or you could just browse.

MORE: An excerpt from Eric Brende's 2004 book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, with an anecdote about the confusion at a fast-food drive-through window when the cash register doesn't work. Brende, with a degree from Yale and a master's from MIT, now lives a low-tech life with his family in St. Louis, working as a rickshaw driver and soapmaker, inspired by his interaction with the Amish.

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Roy said:

I suspect you baited the hook, Mike, by leaving out comments on those most obvious of egs: computer operating systems, languages. What does one do when one has files that a current generation computer cannot access nor handle? Or it does not have the interface mechanisms with which one is familiar? My wife's accounting business has gone thru several iterations of this. I've no doubt you've seen this professionally.

David Van Author Profile Page said:

Grea concept story, Michael!
The positives of my techno pilgrimage are:
I do have a smartphone.
I do have wifi home internet.
I do have digital cable.
I do have a few computers & peripherals.

I used to wear a watch.
I used to own and carry a pager.
I used to subscribe to a newspaper.
I used to rush home for the 5:30 news.
I used to have a land-line home phone.
I used to own a fax machine.
I used to have tons of VCR tapes and recorders.
I used to have a home stereo, LPs, Tapes, and a walkman.
I used to have to schedule a library time every week.
I used to spend a lot more money and time trying to get my info resources,

I will not get rid of my shortwave radio.

Martha Ort said:

This article reminds me of an experience I had at a local hospital not too long ago. I was accompanying a friend as she was being prepped for a procedure. I graduated from nursing school in the 1970s and was interested in conversing with the nurse, a young woman in her 20's. Having not been in a hospital for quite a number of years, I commented on the machinery that was operating/controlling the drips, how we nurses used to regulate to flow of IV's by counting drops per minute and routinely checking up on the flow. Now the machines regulate that. I also commented on the devices they were using to check blood pressure and pulse, commenting that we had to actually use a stethoscope to listen to the blood pressure, and how we had to actually count the pulse while looking at the second hand on our watches. "Yes," she said, "I read about that in the history book." I wonder, what happens when the hospital loses electricity and no one really knows how to take blood pressures? And what if the machine to control the intravenous drips stops working?

Roy, great point. We have data in physical media that can't be read, and even if we have a device to read the old media, we wouldn't have the software to make sense of it. Which reminds me that I have stuff on DDS-1 tapes, ZIP discs, and floppies that I really need to migrate.

David, no question that information and entertainment are much easier to gather. I was very happy when County Assessor Ken Yazel put land records on the web, so I wouldn't have to make the trip to the library. I agree with you about holding on to the shortwave radio, although many broadcasters are cutting back over-the-air broadcasting in favor of internet only. And as radio goes digital, the days of being able to pick up a broadcast with an unpowered crystal set are coming to an end.

Martha, that's a great example of what we lose as we become dependent on a new technology. Kinda scary, too.

The A Team said:

The new battle cry of 21st century America:

Give me convenience, or give me death!

Moogle Author Profile Page said:

Do a web search on the forcasted death of cursive writing. Recently, as I was attempting, with some difficulty, to write something in cursive writing -- something I haven't done in quite a while -- I was having trouble with it, it looked bad, and I discovered that I had forgotten how to do a particular letter.

However, newer technology might undo what older technology did in establishing the keyboard as king. I see people who use these new tablet things do a fair amount of jotting things down with a stylus.

There's an effort to keep cursive writing alive. I know of at least two schools in Tulsa -- Regent Prep and Augustine Christian Academy -- which teach it in early elementary grades.

I occasionally make lists in cursive when I'm trying to stay awake in a dull meeting. I will try to list all the counties in England or Ireland or Oklahoma, state capitals, presidents, etc., and the hope is that thinking my way around a map and writing in cursive will stimulate my brain enough to overcome the part of my brain that's saying, "It's dark, it's quiet, and you're sitting still, so you can go to sleep now."

When I first had a Palm Pilot, circa 1999, there was a simplified script called Graffiti that you used in lieu of a keyboard to enter text. I was fairly good at it, but many of the letters were very different from manuscript or cursive versions. When the Treos came out, they had a little keyboard, which was much easier to use. There's a Graffiti app, but I've never downloaded it to my phone.

I tell my kids that I used to have to do essays and term papers by hand. I came across some writing from college recently; my handwriting was far neater back then.

Excellent point on individual dependence.

There's a bigger political point as well, in the expansive definition of "necessity." That metastasis is the excuse for ever-swelling size of government.

Ask a liberal "how much of GDP is enough?" There is no honest answer forthcoming, because nothing can ever be enough for them.

Jay said:

All quite true, but worrying about a technology failing is probably not productive. I remember when I was a kid and pocket calculators were becoming popular, some of our teachers fretted that with these new-fangled calculators, kids weren't learning how to use a slide rule. My father warned me that I'd better still learn to do arithmetic on paper, because what would I do if the calculator broke and I needed to get computations done? I'm sure you've heard similar worries about other new technologies.

I wonder if people in the late 1800s worried that with these strange new "automobiles", kids would never learn how to ride a horse, and then what would they do if the automobile breaks down? The obvious reply, of course, is that there is more likely to be a spare car available than a horse anywhere handy.

Neil said:

To The A Team, above:

then convenience proceeds from a luxury, to a convenience, to a necessity, as well.

john said:

very good site,I have book marked this one.
A little common sense and a well stock library will be a good edge for the future.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 25, 2011 12:37 AM.

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