MSP38: OLD TECH IS BETTER TECH

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MSP39: OLD TECHNOLOGY IS BETTER TECHNOLOGY

It’s easy to jump on the new tech is better tech bandwagon. But what happens when that new tech is a little bit older and doesn’t perform as well as the technology it replaced? It’s time to Mattsplain.

Base Image: Pixabay. Corrupted by Kulturpop.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

If there’s one thing that we can be sure of on this show, it’s that the future is always better. Every week, Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage pops by to tell us that while the sun may not come up tomorrow, it’ll be back eventually. Even if humankind is dead by then. So, why, you may wonder, is he suddenly declaring that the old is better than the new? It’s time to Mattsplain. 

 

Have you finally turned into that crabby old man obsessed with the good old days?

·      Yup. Things were good back then.

·      Back then, kids didn’t to go to school.

·      There was no point - most of them were dead from disease or stuck in chimneys or looms before they reached their teens.

·      You didn’t have to lock your doors because you couldn’t afford anything anyone would want to steal.

 

Weren’t people more neighbourly then? 

·      Sure. What’s mine was yours because neither of us had anything. 

·      We looked out for each other. 

·      People would make sure you were really dead, or at least heavily sleeping, before they stole your boots. 

·      And if you couldn’t afford a funeral, the local parish would give you a generous send-off by flinging your body into a midden pit.

·      Not like today. Where everyone worries about nutrition and clean drinking water and getting an education. 

·      Life’s become too complicated. Let’s get back to basics. The important stuff. 

·      Work. Steal some food. Die young and deformed.

 

Fun Friday folks. Can we assume from your sarcasm that not everything was better in the past?

·      Of course it wasn’t. But sometimes we go too far the other way and get caught up in some shiny new thing rather than sticking with something that’s less exciting but works really well.

 

What’s brought this on?

·      It was actually a story I read about GPS.

·      And then, as seems to be the case almost every week, Elon Musk jumped into the story.

·      Not in terms of GPS but the weird reaction he had to the team of divers in Thailand declining to use his experimental mini-sub to rescue those schoolkids from the cave.

·      So, it gave kind of a new perspective on the GPS story.

 

We’ll unpack these one by one. GPS first. What’s the issue?

·      We’ve talked about GPS and the dangers of being over-reliant on it on the show before.

·      We take GPS and its satellites for granted, but as a system it’s actually pretty fragile.

·      There was a sitcom in the mid-1980s called, Comrade Dad, which reimagined the UK as a Communist Utopia.

·      And in the show, everyone believed that satellites were listening to what they were doing.

·      Fantasy of course, but that’s kinda what we expect GPS to do. 

·      Remarkably, 30 odd satellites comprise the entire GPS system. 

·      Which, as we’ll discuss, makes it very easy to manipulate. 

·      Those vulnerabilities are not new discoveries – a few years back we reported that the US Navy had realised its personnel were over-reliant on a system that could easily be compromised and has restarted training them in the use of sextants and navigation by the stars.

·      And there is an older, more robust and equally accurate system just sitting on a shelf waiting for the dust to be blown off.

 

And where does Elon Musk fit into this narrative?

·      Without getting into the he-said, she-said stuff that gets Musk a little hot unde the collar.

·      However well-meaning, Musk’s system should always and only have been seen as a last resort.

·      It was untested and unnecessarily complicated.

·      In the same way that we don’t use Space X when we order Foodpanda – a motorbike is cheaper and easier and more reliable. 

·      When someone’s life is on the line, your first port of call are the things that you know work.

·      Which is a team of divers, staging points. A set of logistics that the rescue teams understand and can follow.

 

If we followed that logic then nothing would ever change…

·      It’s not the same as being static or resistant to change.

·      What you do is test the new technology in non-critical circumstances. 

·      Teams are trained to use it and assess the circumstances in which to implement that solution.

·      There will always be a first time a new solution is used to save lives. But it’s not arrived at by the roll of a dice. 

·      It’s something you’re trained to use and comfortable working with.

·      Musk’s team may have been confident of succeeding but if something had gone wrong, would the Thai team then have had the expertise to remove a sub and rescue the kids?

 

Sometimes you have to make that leap. take the risk…

·      Totally. The Thai cave rescue was remarkably successful, largely against the odds. 

·      And we’ve seen experimental solutions being used successfully.

·      Like the ebola vaccine, which was rushed through in weeks.

·      Even then it was morally and ethically dubious but when you balance the disease’s rapid spread, the high mortality rate, and West Africa’s underfunded health systems, then those who make these decisions thought it was worth the risk.

 

You don’t think the Thai kids were in that kind of danger?

·      It’s not that they weren’t. 

·      With Ebola, there weren’t really any other solutions other than to isolate and evacuate. 

·      There were options for the cave kids.

·      And as we’ve said on the show, human beings should not be a beta test for Silicon Valley’s latest funding gamble.

·      It may well be that Elon Musk has devised the greatest rescue technology since the life vest.

·      Equally, we may never see or hear from his minisubs again.

·      What matters is that the kids got out safe. There shouldn’t be any ego involved in how they got out.

·      I haven’t seen the makers of the Ebola vaccines doing the rounds of the late night chat shows or bigging themselves up on Twitter.

 

And there’s an ego link to GPS?

·      Of course, It’s all navigation, isn’t it. Cave systems. Satellite positioning.

·      Satellite positioning is definitely an ego issue in Europe.

·      The EU is spending billions on its owned satellite based alternative to GPS called Galileo. 

·      A lot of people don’t realize but GPS is actually a US operated standard, not a global one. Russia has its own version: Glonass and China too: Beidou

·      So if it turns some bloke had a clockwork version in his shed, left over from the second world war, that costs about a dollar fifty, then there will be a lot of people with egg on their faces.

 

We’re going to be talking about more than navigation systems, though, right? That might be a little narrow for some of our readers.

·      I know I get obsessed with things but, no, a full program on the merits of competing navigation systems might be pushing it.

·      It’s a jumping off point.

·      We present a lot of new technology on this show. And we explain why technologies are better than the thing that came before.

·      Part of that is also accepting that not all inventions and technology are fit for purpose, or better than the things they’re supposed to replace.

·      I was having a chat with a optical therapist this week. He uses touch screen 3D TVs as part of his treatment for patients.

·      But his machines are getting old and he’s having trouble finding replacements.

·      Because the electronics industry touted 3D TV as the next revolution in viewing but has pretty much abandoned it since.

·      Why? Because no one except optometrists has a use for it.

 

What is this ground-breaking, mothballed technology?

·      Thank you. I thought you’d never ask.

·      As I mentioned, sat-nav signals are easy to jam and spoof. They use a very narrow wavelength transmission which is really far away on the outer edges of our atmosphere.

·      So GPS signals are really weak, and that means the jammers that the signal can fit in your pocket.

·      Great for hackers and hostile state actors. Like Gerard Depardieu.

·      But we have another, older and potentially more reliable system 

·      One that was developed during the Second World War called long-range navigation, shorten to Loran.

·      The works in a very similar way to GPS in that masts transmit a Synchronised radio signal and a receiver at the users and plots its location according to the time it takes to receive the signal.

·      It’s accurate to about 1/100 of a nanosecond but not quite accurate as GPS and its Atomic clocks.

·      But it’s good enough for the electrical circuits in most electronic devices.

 

When did we stop using it?

·      That’s the thing. Relatively recently.

·      It was only in the 1980s that Loran started to be phased out and replaced with GPS.

·      Back then who knew what GPS was?

·      Mobile phones were so big you need a car to put them in.

·      Nobody had invented unicorn coffee so there was no need to Geo tag your fry up and mug of instant.

·      By the early noughties, when we started to integrate GPS technology into our devices, we just assumed that was the system that had always been.

 

If you’re listening to this show and you’re wondering where we are, I can confidently say that we’re all lost. Maybe not physically, but definitely spiritually. After the break: I promise to stop Matt talking about GPS.

 

BREAK

 

Before the break we spent far too much time talking about navigation systems. Can we put them to bed now?

·      Nearly. I’m almost done.

·      Look the EU has spent $10bn on Galileo.

·      Loran is cheap. It uses radio masts.

·      Best of all, it uses powerful signals with a long wavelength. 

·      If you want to jam that signal you’re going to need something huge and bulky.

·      So if I go back to the original point, it’s that we replaced a really robust and accurate navigation system with something that is state-of-the-art, really complicated, very expensive and easy to compromise.

·      If you’re looking at for reasons to not replace something with, that’s a pretty comprehensive list.

 

Can we junk the satellites and go back to Loran?

·      There are a few pilot scheme is going on in the UK at the moment which are trying to resurrect the system with a new version called eLoran.

·      And the US has passed legislation which gives $10 million of research funding to the Loran systems.

·      The biggest problem is that most countries have turned off their old Loran transmitters. 

·      And rather than mothball them so that they can be resurrected if needed in the future, some EU countries, faced with the enormous amounts that spent on Galileo, have simply blown up the old masts so it isn’t an option.

 

I know there’s a point lurking in there somewhere…

·      Satellite positioning has become the Standard technology.

·      We would rather trust a disk perched in space than a mast outside our house.

·      Even when it’s demonstrable that the system is just as accurate and far more robust.

·      We trust something we can’t see or touch rather than something that we can fix with a wrench. 

·      We make the reflex assumption that the new technology has to be better. It replaced the old technology, and we can’t be seen to be going backwards.

 

What else have we replaced with an inferior version?

·      Don’t worry. I’m not going to say anything stupid like music was better when it was on vinyl cassette or CD.

·      Or when we had VHS recorders.

·      The way we consume music and TV and video and film today is awesome.

·      I love vinyl and CDs but if you asked me to choose between them and the streaming services, I don’t need to think about it.It’s the global jubebox in my pocket evrery time.

·      But the phone we use to listen to that music  and Watch videos isn’t necessarily the greatest way of making calls.

 

The landline?

·      Whenever you watch one of those disaster movies, I went to see skyscraper last week. Cliched, dumb and riddled with pot holes and all the more enjoyable for it.

·      There’s a point in most disaster movies when everyone’s phones fail.

·      The power goes out and the cell transmitters go dead.

·      Guess what? That doesn’t happen with landlines.

·      Those old copper wire systems use so little electricity that they keep working as long as the wires aren’t cut.

·      Most of us who still have landlines, even those lines are now mostly digital. They use the same connectivity as your Internet. 

·      It makes sense. The calls are cheap. It’s digital so call quality is high. 

·      We need the Internet infrastructure, and so why pay to maintain a costly and parallel telephone system?

 

Because we need a backup when things go wrong?

·      Sometimes it’s good to have that simple and robust system. Like Loran.

·      When phone networks were first installed, there were lots of competing systems.

·      Certainly in the US, I think it was only in the post-Second World War period the phone companies started to consolidate and harmonise the networks.

·      In fact, some of the early telephone systems cut out telephone companies completely.

·      This model didn’t work so well for cities, but in the countryside one thing they had a lot of was wire.

·      Fencing stretched for mile upon mile. And your telephone signal could be sent along the barbed wire that kept your cattle in the field.

·      Admittedly, it was more of a partyline, you’d pick up the phone and be able to hear anyone who was using the system at the same time.

·      But that’s how simple functional telephone system can be.

 

Rather than the one we have now that relies on electricity to power the phones and the transmission system?

·      We can do a lot more with our phones now because they’re really miniature computers.

·      But in terms of the basic idea of making calls, and a robust infrastructure, you can argue that we’ve taken a step back.

·      And it’s the same with a lot of our electronic devices.

·      Regular listeners will know that I love my smart watches but are they really better that telling the time than a windup analog or quartz watch?

·      I’ve been reading a lot of magical realism fiction recently. 

·      Nothing weird, standard stuff. Police procedurals with wizards. Alcoholic fairies. You know, everyday tales of supernatural countryfolk. 

·      In one of the series, analogue watches are a sign that someone maybe a Magic practitioner, because magic blows up electronic circuits.

 

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to tell you: Magic isn’t real.

·      Once again you fall into my cunning trap.

·      No. Magic isn’t real. There is also something Magic and unreal about my smart watch.

·      It needs another invisible wizard, electricity, to cast its spell before it exists.

·      Remember the old saying, even a broken clock is right twice a day?

·      An uncharged smartwatch is just a really ugly bracelet.

 

It can’t all be about electricity…

·      It is in a way. Earlier this week I needed to leave a note for someone.

·      It wasn’t someone I knew. I didn’t have their phone number or contacts.

·      I just needed to leave a simple note saying I’d be back to see them in a couple of hours.

·      I reached into my bag, grabbed a pen and realised I had nothing to write on.

·      Generally, for work I take all my notes on my computer or my phone.

·      I’ve become really slack about carrying a Notebook.

·      The only piece of paper I had was the takeaway menu that someone had pressed on me as I was walking around a mall earlier that day.

·      I couldn’t leave the person a note on my phone. Certainly wasn’t going to leave them a note scrawled in the margins of a menu.

 

That’s fine. There are always going to be gaps in the technology. And I’m assuming that no one died because you didn’t have a notepad.

·      Sure. And I left the child tethered to the counter, with its asthma medication around its neck ,so I’m sure everything was fine.

·      How much simpler would it have been if I just had paper and pen?

·      It’s great that society is a lot less reliant on paper because you know, the environment.

·      But a system that has served us really well in countless iterations for thousands of years since we first learned to autograph rocks isn’t something that we should dismiss so lightly.

 

How do you feel about combustion engines? Surely replacing them with electric drivetrains is the way forward?

·      It is. I’m still conflicted. I think we’re still at the point where a hybrid is the most practical compromise. 

·      We are really good at making combustion engines. We’ve been doing it for nearly 150 years.

·      We haven’t nearly ironed the kinks out of the electric motor, not least the battery packs that can catch fire.

·      Last year, an electric supercar that was being featured on car show Grand Tour crashed and caught fire: apparently it burned for several days.

·      The lithium cells burned in a chain reaction, they didn’t catch fire at once. So fires would spring up after it appeared to have been put out.

·      I’ll be honest, I’ve never thought that electric cars were anything but a stopgap solution on the path to better and greener transport solutions.

 

Are there any examples where people are dumping the supposedly better technology for the old, tried and trusted?

·      Yeah. Books. It seems that ebook readers are really only popular with middle aged folks.

·      Book sales have been picking up. It seems that the supposedly attention poor millennials love the physicality of books. 

·      I can understand that. 

·      Books are nicer to hold and read than ebooks. 

·      That said, ebooks and audiobooks are the only way I can read, so I don’t want to see technologies I need disappear.

·      Another technology that has gone backwards in a way might surprise people: air travel.

 

Are you about to slam budget airlines?

·      God no. We may not like them but they’ve changed our lives, mostly for the better.

·      Not just because we can now afford cheap getaways to previously unimaginable places but because they really are allowing everyone to fly, to paraphrase a certain airline.

·      That makes it much easier for foreign workers to go home. For people to be more connected to families as they disperse and spread and the physical distance between them grows.

·      But most people won’t know that a lot of airplanes are now slower than they were two or three decades ago.

·      And we’ve practically given up on commercial supersonic travel.

 

Because it’s so expensive?

·      Modern jets have traded efficiency and increased load for lower speeds.

·      And that efficiency and extra capacity has helped ticket costs to plummet.

·      Most people are happy to spend an extra 30 mins or an hour on a flight if their ticket price has halved in real terms.

 

You managed to get through the whole show without mentioning high tech juicers. I’m very proud of you.

Before we wrap up, can you give us one more backwards technology that people still seem to love?

·      Hmm. You had to bring up the juicers. Talk about putting me in a bad mood.

·      Got one Which brings us back around to Loran and GPS.

·       Us. Radio. 

·      You have the Internet. TV and movies on demand. Streaming music. 

·      Yet here we are. People listening to nothing but our voices, even though we live in a multimedia age.

·      Sure, I know a lot of people are listening to us online. But the principle is the same.

·      We’re hardly a potpourri for the senses.

·      Better still, podcasting means we can share these stories with listeners all over the world at their leisure.

·      Here we still are. No matter what technology has thrown at it, radio has endured and prospered. 

·      And it’s still looking fit for the future.

Matt Armitage