Technology: sometimes there’s just too much

I’m a self-styled technophile. Not the kind that runs out to line up a week in advance to get the latest gadget–I prefer buying technology that works properly. But I’m the kind of guy that dreams of having a Tony Stark workshop, the kind that loves the enabling potential of technology. The way it allows us to do things better, more intuitively, and even the way it will, I believe, ultimately improve humans ourselves (even with the cyborg parts). But some technology, technically amazing as it is, just seems to get in the way of what it’s supposed to do.

For example, video calling.

By the mid-naughties, with the extreme market saturation of mobile phones and the near ubiquity of cell signals, the phone call had essentially achieved perfection. It was almost possible to call anyone from anywhere, especially in population dense regions such as Europe and East, South-East Asia. Enter the internet with VOIP (voice over internet protocols) and it was perfect, cheap, easy, ubiquitous. It could even be free but hey, it exists so someone has to make money off it. Other than the lightbulb and the wheel, there’s probably no more perfect technology. But we had to go an mess it up.

The very same people who gave us VOIP also decided adding video would make it better. Enter the world of Skype and Google Hangouts.

For somethings, video calling is great. On a trip away from smoopsie-pie and your feeling a little naughty? Welcome to the age of cybersex. Want to show your overseas parents the new house, or their new grandchild? Great. But for standard calls it fails miserably.

Let me describe a standard phone call between two family members in general terms.

F0 – salutations, meaningless query to break ice

F1 – return salutations, answer to query

F0/F1 – conversation/discussion/annecdotes/focussed queries

F0/F1 – signoffs

Depending on how much catching up there is to do, conversations can take a few minutes to over an hour. The key is that they always move forward. Seldom is there waffle (except, perhaps, when calling smoopsie-pie). Now, enter video calling.

F0 – salutations, meaningless query to break ice

F1 – return salutations, answer to query

F0 – noting something in video

F1 – showing something to camera

F0/F1 – conversation/discussion/annecdotes/focussed queries

F0/F1 – conversation ebbs, but video continues

F0/F1 – gets a snack, new person enters room temporarily reviving conversation

Rinse and repeat previous three steps

F0/F1 – appologetic signoffs

Problem #1 with video calling: you have to be appropriately dressed. You can’t answer a video call while in bed with the wife. Nor are you likely to while trying on your favourite drag outfit.

Problem #2: the technology is just not quite there yet. Invariably one side or the other will have stuttering and freezing video that leads to dropped audio.

Problem #3: for some reason, seeing a person face-to-face makes it much more difficult to hang-up, so people will start doing the dishes, or cooking dinner, or doing something else completely, while the other person is left wondering how long this will go on. Perhaps it’s just because the technology is new and we haven’t yet developed video-calling etiquette, or perhaps there’s something different in actually seeing the other person. Maybe it feels offensive to just hang-up on someone you’re looking at.

I suppose analysis of that last hypothesis will have to wait until my daughter’s generation, growing up with the technology, is old enough to have their own video phones. Of course, as parents, instead of worrying that she’s in her room ringing up a huge phone bill gossiping to her friends, we’ll be worrying that she’s ringing up a huge phone bill having cybersex with her boy/girlfriend (or maybe all at the same time–enter the age of the cyberorgy).

Technology, we just can’t win.

Insight and longevity


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