Technology: June 2011 Archives

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During the convenience phase, the superseded technology is still available as a fallback.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By "superseded technology," I don't necessarily mean a device, but a combination of tools or devices and ways of using them.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.

The headline story in today's Delaware State News reported testimony in the trial of pediatrician Earl Bradley on two dozen counts of rape, sexual assault, and sexual exploitation of children. According to the story, much of the prosecution's evidence is digital video recovered from thumb drives and memory sticks. 86 victims appeared on the tapes, nearly all were toddlers.

Amid the news story's account of the horrific testimony by the detective who had to review the videos, two items stood out:

The first is a warning to all parents. Just as a molester will "groom" a potential victim to be unwary, trusting, and compliant to the molester's advances, this molester groomed the parents of his patients to see nothing suspicious in him being alone with their children for an extended period of time:

Detective Garland said several incidents caught on video illustrate "planning and grooming" by Bradley in order to commit the acts. For instance, giving popsicles and prizes, such as princess dolls and other toys, and keeping them in the basement as a reason to separate parent and child made those occurrences common at his practice.

"By normalizing it, you avoid objections. You have that whole grooming thing going on of parents," Detective Garland said.

I imagine some parents had qualms about their children going alone with the doctor, but perhaps they felt foolish, thinking it inconceivable that a trusted professional would harm their children.

Parents should never feel embarrassed about acting to protect their children against someone who seems to have harmful intentions, even if its only a hunch. You may be mistaken, but you can be firm but gracious, protecting your child unapologetically but
without causing embarrassment to someone whose intentions may truly be honorable.

I'm reminded of the leader (now former leader) of an activity for pre-teen and teenage children. At one event, I saw that he drove a windowless full-size van. As far as I knew, this man had no personal or professional reason to own such a vehicle. I wouldn't have let my child join the group if this man were still involved; happily, he left before any of my children were ready to participate.

The second item that stood out involved a hurdle that the investigators had to cross, an unnecessary hurdle.

Some of the sex acts on captured on video were stored in password-protected files with an encryption software program that posed a challenge to forensic investigators. Detective Garland said that upon learning that the manufacturer that created the software was no longer in business, investigators resorted to trolling "less than reputable" online sites that deal in pirated software to help crack the code.

Why isn't there a reputable company offering software to crack these password-protected files? Possibly because of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The federal law, passed in 1998 without a roll call vote and signed by President Clinton, prohibits circumventing technological protections on software and media. The law has created a chilling effect, deterring software companies from providing consumers with the means to make fair use of the software and media they own. The U. S. Copyright Office has authorized some temporary exemptions to the law, but as far as I can tell (and I'm no expert) there is no exemption for reverse-engineering software owned by a defunct company.

While I support the right of Americans to use strong encryption (e.g. Pretty Good Privacy) so as to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects," I don't see why we should make it hard for companies to replicate the functionality of obsolete programs. There's something wrong when a measure intended to protect movie studios works instead to protect child rapists.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Technology category from June 2011.

Technology: May 2011 is the previous archive.

Technology: July 2011 is the next archive.

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