Technology

The wheel of technology began turning millions of years ago. It turns faster every year, exponentially faster. Almost all its current momentum has been gained in my generation. Perhaps recent generations can make the same observation, as may future generations.

Some spiritual people bail out of this spin cycle, becoming pastoralists. The rest find it is too much fun to abandon. Bring it on. Yet if they stopped to reflect, to gain wisdom, they might seek a slower, more reflective, less transient future for themselves also, still enjoying the fun parts but skipping the dehumanizing extremes.

It all began with simple tools to increase access to food. Several species (e.g. humans, chimps, crows) demonstrate such a capability. Human technology then advanced to the manufacture of primitive stone tools in the early paleolithic, which developed over a two million year period of gradual refinement. For the vast majority of this time, our technology was limited to the manufacture of tools for hunting, fishing, competing/defense, making boats and rafts for traveling over water, making clothing, and using fire for cooking, heating, and land clearing.

The first period of noticeable growth escalation coincides with the start of the Holocene, when we advanced to domesticating plants and animals. Noticeable change was now occurring over millennia instead of over geologic eras. By 5kya we were developing tools for assisted mobility (wheel), simple metalworking with copper, advanced masonry architecture, and written language recording.

By 2kya, the Romans were heating their homes with heated water, manufacturing iron implements, solving complex mathematical problems, practicing a primitive medicine, and exploring the world scientifically. This would have seemed to us a vaguely modern world (absent cars and computers). Noticeable change was occurring over centuries instead of millennia.

Technology growth then switched gears again during the Industrial Revolution, allowing us rapid transport over long distances, mastery of the sky, servitude to ever more destructive weaponry, beneficiary of the power of the atom. Noticeable change was happening over lifetimes and then over decades. This brings us to current times, the information highway, the cloud, mobile communicators, entertainment on demand, vehicles that drive themselves, manufacturing via robotics. Noticeable change happens in years and soon months. The wheel spins ever faster.

eGadgets

We have a typical modern house. Modern electronic gadgetry provides us viewing, listening, communicating, and organizing opportunities our parents could not have envisioned, both in the home and while on the move.

Our gadget world has two modes, mobile and stationary. Every year, migration escalates from in situ to mobile gadgetry, with many beginning to realize their main media center experience through their mobile phablet, the main accoutrement of life on the go. Our own style described below is to maintain both in situ and mobile gadgetry, and allowing each to do what it does best.

Our in situ gadget world centers on the media center, our home theater (aka Great Wall of Stuff). The Great Wall is focused on the big display screen experience, what used to be the TV set. Most flat panel screens still provide all functionality necessary, picture, sound, and source signal selection/switching. The TV remote can then control the entire show. But since the TV is primarily a video component the sound is an afterthought, transducers forced into a form factor determined by a thin bezel on the sides of the screen.

To get quality audio reproduction, one must buy into discrete, modular components for audio, video, and switching control. The benefit is more quality, flexibility, and efficiency (audio sources can play with the TV screen turned off). The bill comes due in terms of increased complexity and cost.

We deliberately chose a professional plasma display panel with no built-in speakers, necessitating separate audio amplifiers and speakers. The next layer of complexity arises from multiple audio and video signal sources: digital set top box/DVR, game player, DVD player, computers. A large switch called the Audio Video Receiver (AVR) is used to connect signal sources with signal reproducers in all possible combinations. The AVR typically also contains a high quality audio digital-analog converter (DAC), video format transcoders, and multiple audio amplification channels.

There is an increasingly complex technology that must be learned and managed in order to get the most versatility and quality from the available experience. We must learn these complex products themselves, the media and signal standards they implement,  peripheral concerns of interconnects, networking, and computer software, and the dynamic changeability of it all as technology matures and then becomes eclipsed by the latest new thing.

The technology infrastructure of our home is the local area network (LAN), allowing egadgets to communicate. Both wireless and wired communications are implemented. Media streaming is always wired in our environment. Wireless is reserved for control signals in our scheme. The Great Wall is implemented modularly by a number of egadgets, most connecting to our LAN.

For audiophiles and home theater aficionados, the AVR is a requirement, but only a few of its capabilities are needed by the Great Wall, mainly the source media switch and DAC. These functions come in a big black box with lots of pricey, extra unused features. But we buy these mass-market consumer boxes anyway, because boxes limited to just the functions we need fall into the domain of ‘high-end’ gear, and so end up costing a lot more.

Computers are the chief home information appliance attached to our LAN. Computers also serve various media over the LAN, specifically music, photos, and videos. Various interconnect cables connect the pieces, smart phablets and their specialized apps wirelessly control playback sources, and a programmable (via computer connection) universal remote control makes the entire Great Wall awaken, switch between activity modes, and then go back to sleep again. Our mobile egadgets and apps can even control basic home appliances (furnace and thermostat, refrigerator) via wireless communication (as yet unimplemented in our house).

Five Year Plan

I have been on the five year plan for computer and mobile device upgrades. (At my age, this requires considerable optimism.) Apple still supports their computers for up to five years. Even their iDude support is improving, from the dismal 18 months for the 1G iTouch to nearly four years and running for the iPhone 3GS. (Update: The 3GS was obsoleted by IOS 7, but still runs great on IOS 6, now past 5 years out of the barn.)

I mostly buy used computers on eBay, selling the old ones there also. Share my experiences with Macintosh computing over the years. I have AppleCare on our iPad (thanks Owen) and also on our iMac. Haven’t needed it yet. Apple did its own recall of the iMac to replace faulty hard drives on a certain subset. Mine had been making funny stuttering noises for a couple of years, but hadn’t failed yet. They replaced it with a totally silent drive with 24 hour turn around.

Speaking of hard drives, a review I just read ranks the major vendors in quality: Hitachi, WD, and Seagate. I used to buy Seagate. The last two went for 6 and 7 years respectively. But for my old G5 Xserve, I am buying Hitachi and WD now and hope to get 8 years service or more.

I’ve already used about 75% of my 1 TB iMac disk capacity, speaking about monotonicity in life. Prudence dictates that when sizing new storage options for the next five years, one aim for twice the storage one needs at the current time. So it’s time for some serious consolidation. My love of lossless-compressed audio and raw digital image file formats is a big factor in my data girth. I outfitted my garage server with 4.3 TB of disk storage, to offload some data from the iMac and to provide adequate backup space.

Technology and Us

The sometimes competing interests of fidelity, simplicity, and affordability color evaluation of our egadgets. An even more elemental characteristic of such contraptions is their impermanence. Of all things discussed on this site, eGadgets will become outdated most quickly. Any future readership will likely enjoy a chuckle at mention of such antiquities. Thus, any who obsess over such gadgets are well advised to get a life.

As we grow, we tend to leave behind the things from our past. So does the technology industry. Steve Jobs was expressing an Apple mantra when he symbolically ordered up a coffin to bury technology past. For both consumer and producer, old tech is a money sink.

In computing, this relentless march into the future comes with negative consequences for consumers. It risks loss of useful programs and data, generates substantial cost, and often forces us to change our preferred ways of doing things. In business, these issues are handled by specialists. But the general consumer of personal computing products, particularly the users who live on the bleeding edge, spend and relearn continuously.

Perhaps the young are more likely to embrace the new with an ‘it’s only money’ attitude. We geezers become more and more reluctant to give up the familiar or to spend for what we won’t utilize. Young or old, we share risk by accepting change, risk that we are gradually allowing our past to slip away, file and program at a time.

The increasing rate of obsolescence in eGadgets may be leveling off as eGadget manufacturers mature, just as changes in car technology come more and more slowly, making our holding onto older models more and more satisfactory to us. The limits to our ability to live a while in the technological past are reached when manufacturers no longer provide service parts.

The Future – De-humanized

It was plastics 50 years ago. Now it is robotics, which have moved steadily from esoterica of space and science programs, to mainstays of manufacturing, to the commonplace of driverless cars and automated vacuum cleaners, to automated confidants/psychologists. They’re here, and our lives will be forever altered. All aboard.

The Future – Too-Humanized

With robots doing all the essential things for us, what will we do with our free time. Social media should fill up our schedules nicely, keeping us twitting and sexting up a storm. In addition to communicating countless inanities, it is more substantively used for instantaneous crowd sourcing of information that can both inform us and manipulate us, win elections, and tell the truth when controlled media are fabricating truthiness. And if we must judge one another, what better means than by the number of friends one can list? Well, perhaps a list of accomplishments might give a broader valuation, but let’s not go there. Soon, the robots will top that list.

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