Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Where is the fun in that?

with 6 comments

A recent article circulating online listed “30 things that might be obsolete by 2020”. It set out to outline the changes we can expect to see very soon in our everyday lives because of the impact of the latest changes to technology.

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/news/30-things-that-might-be-obsolete-by-2020/ss-BBG5rAe?ocid=spartanntp

I read this and seethed, for a whole pile of reasons. For me, it paints a picture of a new hell on earth, and I’m about to tell you why.

(And before any of you accuse me of being a reactionary Luddite leftist dinosaur, I’ll beat you to it and say “Guilty as charged – and proud of it.” I don’t take a specifically left-wing conspiracy theorist’s view of the march of modern technology in the service of capitalism – at least, not in the strict definition of the word ‘conspiracy’, meaning “a group of individuals, meeting in secret to actively plot a crime, coup d’état or other detrimental change to the status quo“. But I am a firm believer in the existence and power of ‘groupthink’, the act of narrow-mindedness of those with power which derives policy on the basis of “everyone who thinks like you and me is right, and everyone who does not think like you and me is wrong”. It also takes form in the expression “I’m thinking what everyone else is thinking”, though when someone says that, they inevitably aren’t thinking what everyone else is thinking.)

That ‘groupthink’ has another manifestation, in the form of a narrow national viewpoint. The article I am critiquing originated in the USA but has most likely been distributed throughout the English-speaking world. It is written from a specifically American viewpoint, and the attitudes and situations it describes are specifically American. I will point out places where that viewpoint doesn’t even apply in other countries.

So the article starts:

Devices that have only one use like calculators, alarm clocks, and digital cameras are being replaced by smartphones. Phone chargers and headphones with cords are also fading out in favor of wireless models. Paper is going digital, from magazines to maps to regular paperwork.

And newspapers.

Probably true, but don’t forget that the USA doesn’t have the same sort of national newspaper market that the UK does. Local newspapers may well be at greater risk of obsolescence. Then again, the magazine trade has upped its game when faced with the impact of hand-held devices. Many magazines offer both hard copy and electronic versions for those who wish to retain part or all of the magazine. Publishers have improved the quality of the physical magazine, or may include exclusive content in subscribers’ hard copies. Other magazines have taken advertisements out of hard copy versions, or removed barcodes, pricing and other consumer information from the covers of subscription-only physical versions. And many subscribers find the plop of a magazine dropping through the letterbox to be a reassuring thing; it’s nice to have something come through the post other than an official letter (usually not good news) or junk mail.

Newspapers are more problematic. Most people no longer access their news solely via newspapers; their target demographics are generally set according to either their distribution route (Metro, I) or by traditional readership profiles according to political viewpoint (Daily Mail and other ‘bluetop’ tabloids on one side, Daily Mirror and The Guardian on the other). Many of these papers are turning to their websites as their prime medium. I suspect that they, too, will have to improve their product, offering their constituent readers something they can’t get anywhere else, which will mainly be political commentary. But that will put them at risk of changing political moods; the Daily Mail has recently suffered a dramatic decline in its share price, which many are putting down to its relentless and traditional hard rightist line on so many issues.

Digital cameras

Now that phone cameras can shoot pictures and video in HD (there are even iPhone photography awards), clunky digital cameras will fade out of style.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Isn’t it odd that the road sign icon for ‘speed camera’ is closer to some of these than anything more modern?

It depends on what you want a camera for. The phone camera is fine for taking pictures that are only going to be viewed online. But the lenses of phone cameras, and their tiny sensors, do not produce images good enough for print. And whilst there are phone attachments that allow the user greater levels of creative control – supplementary lenses with zoom optics and the ability to vary aperture – these are so cumbersome and (comparatively) expensive that anyone with that level of interest in taking pictures will soon outgrow these things and move up to a proper camera.

An article I saw today was discussing the feature of the iPhone X to shoot in RAW; but all the image processing that RAW format pictures require was tied up in an app on the same phone. This will still not replace a proper digital camera for professional work – print publications, publicity or high-end imaging. Publications and publicity will still require bigger pictures with more resolution than the best phone cameras can deliver.

Though the best photographers will agree that the best camera for any given event or occasion boils down to “the one you happen to have with you at the time”.

Having said that, 35mm film is unlikely to make a major comeback anytime soon, though some camera collectors will want to use film in legacy gear. Large-format film – 120 roll film, for example – will also survive in the hands of enthusiasts. Universities and other establishments teaching photography to degree level insist on starting with traditional “wet” processes. mainly because digital makes everything too easy and students who only ever shoot digital won’t understand important principles in photography. And for professional studio work, upgrading large-format cameras to digital is eye-wateringly expensive if you are looking to retain the same levels of image quality.

Video is a slightly different matter. Amateur video will be replaced by the smartphone; 8mm cine film and its video successors were always something of a niche product, and anyone serious about making films pretty soon graduated to 16mm or its video equivalent. Nowadays, it’s possible to make perfectly good amateur video using top-end digital SLR cameras (another reason why these will never be replaced by the smartphone), and some convergence of different technologies will inevitably take place. But high-end film and video cameras will be around for some years yet.

Hard drives

Soon, everyone will keep their information in “the cloud” and there will be no need for physical storage devices.

Thumb drives

Thumb drives may be a convenient way to carry data around in your pocket, but thanks to cloud computing you won’t have to carry anything at all.

Whilever there remains a lot of infrastructure between storage and user, there will be plenty of people who prefer the certainty of their data being on a physical carrier under their direct control instead of being located somewhere possibly half a continent away and subject to the wires and wireless technology working perfectly, all the time. Moreover, that infrastructure is under the control of others, whether they be corporations or governments. Although I don’t sign up to the idea that “big government (or even small government) is bad government”, I would rather my data is under my control rather than reliant on the goodwill and best intentions of others.

But for those who still think “The Cloud – but what really could possibly go wrong?”, there’s this:

https://techbeacon.com/cloud-databases-debased-aitype-virtual-keyboard-leaks-31m-users-sensitive-data

Paper maps

With step-by-step directions on Google Maps, paper maps are hardly necessary anymore.

Standalone GPS devices

Same goes for GPS devices. Your phone can perform all the same functions, plus text someone that you’ve arrived.

Well, in the case of Google, the map certainly isn’t the territory. Whilst Google Maps is fairly useful, it isn’t 100% infallible (as I once found waiting for a homeowner to arrive at a derelict house I was contracted to photograph for an estate agent, only to find that the Google Maps geotagging was wrong and I should have been at the far-from-derelict property next door – actually, a quarter-mile away); and it is not good at showing things unrelated to the simple act of getting from A to B, such as topography, abandoned railways, canals, places of worship classified by their architectural features, historical landmarks that only exist as unrelated piles of stones rather than having a visitor centre and a car park, or spot heights above sea level – all things that the UK Ordnance Survey maps show as standard because of their origin as maps for the military. A paper map may not be necessary for finding your way around; but it remains an important document for reading and understanding the landscape itself.

Paperwork

With Google Docs and digital signatures becoming the norm, contracts, medical forms, and other documents will cease to exist in paper form.

Google Docs is far from the norm here in the UK. I would be suspicious of any contract that only existed in the Cloud, because I’m suspicious of any contract anyway (but then again, I’m one of these odd people who actually reads small print). As for medical forms, I’ve steered clear of schemes currently on offer where my medication prescriptions can be transferred electronically from doctor’s surgery to pharmacy, and then delivered to my door, because a) I live alone, and so would need delivery at odd times; and b) even if documents were transferred electronically for my collection at the pharmacy of my choice, it wouldn’t work for me because these schemes in the UK only work within single health authorities; but I live in one health authority’s area and work in another. So the system doesn’t work for me. Often, I find IT systems generally are devised according to ideal circumstances or a series of assumptions about users – who they are, where they live, work and shop, and what their personal circumstances are – which either don’t reflect real life or are of no use to edge cases. The thing is, at some time or another, we are all edge cases to somebody else…

Having said that, I’ve finally seen a use that I can relate to for tablets and pads, only about ten years after they came into use. (Carrying around paperwork for meetings.) This dinosaur may be for evolving, after all…

Fax machines

Let’s face it – fax machines should have disappeared long ago. Once paperwork goes, these dinosaurs are going, too.

Well, fix internet security first. Fax machines died out for most people by the late 1990s – but legal firms retained them because they were actually more secure than the Internet at that time. Yes, there were ways to hack them; but you had to know which machine you were aiming for first. People who hacked fax machines were probably just as likely to engage in physical measures to obtain information from premises anyway.

CDs

People rarely buy music anymore, much less in any physical form. Streaming services are the way of the future.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Obviously, I’m not “people”.

DVD and Blu-ray players

Movie streaming services like Netflix are turning DVD and Blu-ray players into dust-collecting devices.

These two statements highlight most clearly the commodification of culture. Music and film becomes something to be consumed and discarded when something newer and more fashionable comes along. Only that which is new is valuable; that which is old is forgotten. Lecturers report that students of film and tv production have little or no knowledge of the history of the profession they are looking to follow. It is leading to a degree of contextual narcissism amongst students – and, by extension, amongst the professionals they will become – which means that each generation decides that content needs to be remade for each generation; tv shows and film franchises (and that word in itself is telling) are rebooted and films remade because the producers see commercial advantage in remaking something familiar rather than venturing to produce something truly new.

For me as someone with an interest in classical music, the CD format is ideal. Classical music fans were early adopters of the format because it offered advantages over LPs: mainly increased playing time and relative freedom from extra noise introduced by wear and tear on the record itself (clicks, pops and other transients caused by scratches). Classical music, written without consideration of the time restrictions of any given recording format, did not always fit easily onto LPs: a symphony might have to be spread unevenly over two or even three LP sides, leading to all sorts of compromises. Alternatively, longer works (Wagner operas, for instance) became far more convenient; sometimes, to get the correct split of acts, an opera might end up with one disc with less than twenty minutes playing time – not as bad as the days of 78rpm discs, but still an irritant if you were getting up to turn over sides every twenty minutes or so.

Someone once said that most classical recordings are cover versions: the option of having definitive recordings of a composer’s own vision for a piece only became possible in the 20th century, and (with the exception of things like the George Gershwin piano rolls of Rhapsody in Blue) were not really of acceptable sound quality until the microgroove record era from the late 1940s onwards. But the differences between performances in most classical pieces are minimal. So identifying a performance and establishing that performance with specific characteristics is difficult unless the listener has some other cue to separating, say, the Herbert von Karajan and Rudolf Kempe performances of a Richard Strauss tone poem, Unless the differences are considerable and highly memorable – like the section of Karajan’s recording of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) which sounds as if the entire percussion section of the orchestra has been kicked down a flight of stairs – even a keen enthusiast is not going to be able to keep track of which performance is which just from a list of works. Under these circumstances, the album sleeve or jewel box cover insert becomes relevant as a visual cue. And appreciation of the different interpretations or performances of a work takes time to establish. Streaming, with its emphasis on the new, doesn’t encourage repeat listening, which returning to a physical carrier facilitates.

Buying content on a physical carrier confers an element of ownership over the content; once in the hands of the purchaser, that person can, within reason, do as they like with the physical disc. Of course, that made piracy possible, and content owners’ efforts to combat that, to preserve the copyright owners’ privileges, are quite reasonable. But in shifting to downloadable files and on-demand streaming, the corporates standing behind the services get additional advantages. Firstly, they get an income stream from subscriptions. Free streaming services, whilst available, do not confer the same privileges as the paid-for version (otherwise, what would be the point of the paid-for service?); and with any service, the content provider and owner retains the licence for distribution. The end consumer isn’t purchasing a copy of the content (where files are downloaded); rather, they are purchasing a licence to access that content at will, subject to its continuing availability. Content providers retain the right to amend or withdraw the content at any time, and there have been instances where this has happened. It’s interesting to see that the original article didn’t claim that books would go a similar way. Five years ago that claim would have been made with the rise of the Kindle and similar ebook readers. But the limitations of the format, the issue of licensing versus purchase, and the limited number of ebooks available in comparison to the number of books actually published meant that the traditional book has weathered the e-publishing storm. The traditional book is portable, needs no power source, is comparatively cheap to produce and is eminently tradable; and when faced with the ebook, print publishers, just as magazine publishers did (as I said earlier) improved the quality of the physical book, with better paper and changes to format. The mass-market paperback in the UK is now universally offered in the larger, ‘B’ format, as opposed to the smaller ‘A’ format that was the case from the emergence of mass-market paperbacks in the 1940s and 50s.

Getting bills in the mail

Getting bills in the mail is already becoming a thing of the past with online payment methods and apps. Soon, you’ll be able to pay all of your bills through a few clicks on a computer or taps on your phone.

I’ll give you this one (95% of the time).

Calculators

Most phones have a calculator built in, reducing the need for this clunky device that only does one job.

Assuming that you don’t come from the generation that was taught to do mental arithmetic (said the old man), serious and rapid number-crunching is easier on a more clunky device. Touchscreen buttons lack feedback and slow down number input.

Alarm clocks

Most phones have an alarm clock, stopwatch, and timer built in, too.

Having had occasions where various forms of electronic alarm clocks have failed through power issues or through just not being loud enough, I’m increasingly seeing the old-fashioned wind-up mechanical alarm as the solution to a whole lot of early-morning rising issues. The louder, the better.

Analog watches

Smart watches may not be ready to overtake smartphones yet, but it’s looking like they’re going to replace analog watches.

Yeah, right. The way digital watches were going to replace analogue dials back in the 1970s. This looks like a statement issued by the makers of smart watches to try to talk up the market.

Landlines

2016 was the first year that a majority of American homes did not have a landline, according to the Center for Disease Control, and more than 70% of all adults aged 25-34 were living in wireless-only households. Home phone numbers are on their way out.

Again, a statement being pushed by mobile manufacturers. It does not account for households which are located in areas where mobile coverage is inadequate or insufficient. I live in such an area as I am in the shadow of a hill which blocks out mobile signals. And I don’t live in an isolated property by any stretch of the imagination. In rural areas, even if there is good mobile reception, the number of available lines may still be quite small and the capacity of local cells may be reached and then exceeded very quickly.

Emergency services advise that households should always have access to a landline because they are not subject to power or reception issues.

Pay phones

AT&T announced that it was leaving the pay phone market back in 2007. Everyone has cell phones these days anyhow.

My inner dinosaur brands this as capitalist claptrap. Just because a company cannot make money from a thing doesn’t mean that it should not be provided. And the arrogance of any statement that starts with “everyone has….” just highlights more “can’t be bothered” attitudes from people who only want to justify their position on a thing, rather than to consider possible scenarios and solutions to those problems. There will always be times when the mobile phone isn’t available or isn’t functioning.

Buttons on phones

The iPhone X, released on November 3, 2017, was the first iPhone to ditch the home button, and some Android models have already gotten rid of them.

I’ll grant you this one as well.

Reference books

With the internet at our fingertips at all times, dictionaries and encyclopedias are no longer necessary.

Another example of the arrogance of the IT journalist. It’s based on the lazy habit of checking things on Wikipedia. Now, I use Wikipedia fairly often, and it’s highly useful. But it isn’t the only source of information; and as stuff gets more complex, the “one answer for any question” approach becomes less appropriate. It is this approach which is plunging governments and organisations into making poor decisions on complex matters because they prefer the simple, discrete answer over the more complicated explanation. Reliance on the single answer to any problem also allows the rise of demagogue politicians who offer simplistic, biased solutions to national problems. Reducing any question to a matter of a few simple facts is getting students unused to analysing questions and weighing different opinions to arrive at their own interpretations of events. The internet has the potential to destroy critical thinking.

Checkbooks

With innovations like online banking and Apple Pay, writing out checks is already a chore. The future of finances is definitely digital.

Again, a statement that could have been sponsored by Apple. It also reflects the specifically American situation of not having a national network of large national clearing banks. UK banks tried to eliminate cheques some five to ten years ago. There was immense pushback from consumers who wanted to retain a simple way of transferring funds to friends, relatives, charities or small organisations. The banks had to cancel those plans. In particular, clubs and societies often still find cheques to be the easiest way for members to pay their fees because of the way that cheques can be sent securely through the post. A society that is comprised entirely of volunteer members is not going to have its own corporate mobile phones, and the banks charge unrealistic amounts for the use of EPOS (electronic point-of-sale) terminals. In the real world, people’s needs for financial transactions don’t always fall into easy categories.

Passwords

Apple debuted FaceID this year, while Microsoft’s Windows Hello facial recognition system has been in place since 2015. Forget letters, numbers, and special characters – biometric passwords will be the norm.

Apart from our biometric features being online and presumably capable of being mined from public sources, I’ve met my doppelganger and I’ve been shown a photograph of another body double. Are we all as unique as we’d like to think we are?

Remote controls

You won’t have to search for the remote or replace its batteries when voice commands and smartphone controls become widespread ways to operate your devices.

Headphones with cords

From Apple’s AirPods to Bluetooth headphones, the headphone jack’s days are numbered.

Charger cables

Chargers are also going wireless with charging pads entering the scene.

All of which are dependent on us all buying new stuff all the time. Quite apart from the dependency that forces us into, it would be nice if economies were expanding sufficiently to allow wages to start outstripping inflation instead of the other way around. Then we might be able to afford all the bright shiny new toys.

Parking meters

Parking meters are being turned into art since paying for parking can be done via app in most places.

My experience of using mobile phones to pay for parking in the UK has been problematical, to say the least. The main issue is that I’m not a regular user of any one car park, so each time I’ve gone to use such a system, it’s been a one-off and (quite often) I’ve been in a hurry as well. What I’ve found is that voice recognition to input the car registration works badly, misrecording input due to accent, whether or not I have a cold, and ambient noise from surrounding traffic; information signs are vandalised or badly lit at night, and so difficult to read; and when I’ve contacted helplines to say “I can’t make your system work”, the response from “Customer Service” has been to say “I can’t take your payment over the phone”. Fortunately, salvation may be at hand with the rise of contactless payment systems, which are far simpler than downloading apps and only put me in hock to one giant corporation instead of two or three.

Delivery workers

In 2016, the White House predicted that nearly 3.1 million drivers in the workforce could have their jobs automated. Already, Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service is bringing packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.

The subtext here is that employees are part of the problem, not part of the solution. And saying that “new technology will create more jobs than it destroys” may be true in the long run, but it isn’t going to help those whose jobs disappear keep food on the table. And I suspect that the number of delivery drivers who successfully retrain as systems developers is never going to be all that high. So who then will be able to afford to buy stuff from Amazon in the first place?

Car keys

BMW already has an app that allows car owners to unlock their doors without using a key, and they announced in September that they’re considering completely replacing car keys with mobile phone apps.

There has been a sudden outbreak of “relay theft”:

https://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/relay-car-theft-what-is-it-and-how-can-you-avoid-it/

Using your mobile to unlock and start your car only pushes the problem one step further down, especially as mobile security appears equally vulnerable.

Travel agencies

There were 124,000 full-time travel agents in the US in 2000. In 2014, that number went down to 74,000. While a human touch definitely makes booking travel less of a headache, the convenience of the internet is narrowing the field.

These are very US-centric numbers; like the UK, those numbers reflect the impact of the global financial crisis as much as the rise of online tour booking. The UK equivalents suggest that travel agent numbers bottomed out at 59,289 in 2013 (a nine-year low) and had recovered to 66,224 in 2015. The recovery was forecast to continue during 2016 to come close to the pre-recession total of 69,471 in 2008. (http://www.travelweekly.co.uk/articles/60671/number-of-agents-and-tour-operators-return-to-pre-recession-levels) Given that the UK population of some 63 million is nearly a fifth of the US population of about 309 million, the fact that there are nearly as many travel agents in the UK as the US, and that their numbers didn’t show the same decline over the period in question, should demolish that argument. We won’t even mention the number of Americans who do not travel.

Textbooks

Paper textbooks are expensive and heavy, not to mention they often become obsolete after a few years when new discoveries require updated editions. According to Scholastic, higher education has already begun to pivot to e-textbooks.

I’m not a complete Luddite, so I might well accept this one. But see my comments above about there not being the “one Internet answer” to every question.

Paper receipts

CVS receipts are so long they’ve become a meme. But even they have begun offering digital receipts. Many vendors already send receipts via email, so it won’t be long until it’s the new standard.

Try that one on the store detective next time you walk out of a shop without a receipt.

-oOo-

I’m not trying to go back to a mythical Golden Age when we paid for our gramophone records by cheque, signed with a fountain pen, and then dropped off a film for developing at the chemists before picking up the evening paper on the way home. And I do make my living by testing IT software, much of which is increasingly going to be based on mobile technology. But so much of this headlong rush to the automated future seems driven by the groupthink of an industry wanting to expand its market and seizing on information from early adopters to justify their position. And in a Britain supposedly realigning its business stance to look outwards to a wider world, I worry that Brexit might be coming too late for us to be anything other than ‘also-rans’ in the global digital economy.

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Written by robertday154

December 9, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting article. I was on a committee over 40 years ago that was panning for a paperless society but I doubt there are any fewer trees being chopped down !
    On doctors’ prescriptions, here in Croatia my prescription is available at any pharmacy in the country on swiping my medical card. I was quite stunned the first time I did it.
    Parking here has been available everywhere by just texting your number plate for nearly 20yrs..They even message you 10mins before expiry to see if you want to renew it, which saves frantic dashes back to the car. (It is also vastly cheaper than when I lived in Kensington !)

    Peter Ellis

    December 9, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    • If I wasn’t working, I would probably get my prescriptions handled via the online renewal service; but our NHS bureaucracy isn’t set up to cope with people living in one area but trying to get their prescriptions filled in another.

      robertday154

      December 9, 2017 at 10:12 pm

  2. Some comments on your list: three cheers for your point about delivery drivers. The one I sort of disagree with is your section on paper checks. I still write paper checks for some bills, but the personal payments are now all made using some sort of online process or “app,” because the people I’m paying prefer it that way. My harp teacher actually walked me through an app download after we’d already moved from check to direct transfer after finding we had the same bank, and a coworker who manages a coffee club uses the same app. I expect in a couple more years I probably won’t use paper checks at all, and I am a person who hangs on to the familiar longer than most people.

    annainpdx

    December 9, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    • I hire a storage unit from a farmer; he’s still sufficiently old-fashioned for cheques to be his preferred payment method. Otherwise, I’d probably write one or two a year for renewing club memberships. Here in the UK, banks aren’t sure what to do about small clubs and societies; these may often have balances in the mid-thousands, made up from lots of small payments. To some anti-fraud algorithms, they look exactly like the sort of accounts used for laundering the proceeds of crime – balances out of proportion to the average size of transaction. These accounts are like small businesses, but they don’t do the number of transactions that a business might, so (as I said) the costs of an EPOS terminal are way out of the scope of the society.

      I suppose that our banks will probably test the water again over abolishing cheques in a few years’ time and they’ll keep on trying until they manage it. But it may well take them another twenty years or so.

      robertday154

      December 9, 2017 at 10:09 pm

  3. …but where is that “paperless” society we were promised?

    Detailed, nuanced post, Robert, as always. I’ve been thinking about getting an iPad and if I can eliminate all the appliances and gadgets in my house with one small device, I say ‘why not?’. Technology is changing us far faster than evolution, our minds rewired, attention spans shortened, ‘trends’ rather than ‘news’. Not all changes are positive, not all mutations beneficial…

    Cliff Burns

    December 11, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    • I’ve put an iPad or similar on my “to get” list since I saw a colleague in a voluntary society I help run using it to reference his agenda, minutes and other meeting papers. Seeing as I’d generated those documents, I thought “Why didn’t I think of that?” But replacing my desktop PC, which suddenly displayed to me the Blue Screen of Death due to a bad boot disk sector earlier this year, takes priority. That might get done during 2018.

      robertday154

      December 11, 2017 at 11:35 pm


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