6 Ways Smart Technology Has Made Things Dumber
People are pretty technology-happy these days. We pore over rumors and specs on technology websites, we stand in line to get the newest gadgets, and we beat up people who dare own phones a couple years out of date. New technology isn't just anticipated, it's damn near fetishized. Witness the growing trend of "unboxing," YouTube videos dedicated to providing loving, tender footage of someone delicately taking a new product out of its packaging. Look them up if you want, but maybe make sure there's no one else in the room when you do it; they're seriously almost pornographic.
Making this image, I guess, basically bestiality. Kind of surprised I found it on a stock image site.
To be fair, the technology we all carry around with us, often just inches from our genitals, is pretty remarkable. These gadgets make life easier and improve it in any number of ways, and are, for the most part, worth getting excited over.
Just not always. In fact, more than a few times a new piece of technology foisted upon consumers has actually been significantly worse in some aspect than its predecessor. Often as not, this is the result of some sort of unfortunate side effect of the new technology, sort of like a new really efficient toilet that uses way less water, only it works by blowing instead of sucking.
Which would lead to a different type of NSFW video.
And if that sounds unlikely, well, get a load of some of the reverse toilets that we already live with.
Always-on Video Games
Video games used to be pretty simple. You'd buy one, and you'd slam it into your video game box, and you'd pick up the paddle, and you'd started playing with yourself. Sure, there were probably a few other sexual double-entendres involved that we couldn't pick up on, because we were kids, but otherwise they were pretty straightforward.
"You know how to fix your cartridge, don't you? It's easy. Just put your lips together and blow."
But that simple process is increasingly no longer how these things work. Putting them in the box doesn't cut it anymore, not unless your box is connected to other boxes, and the other box is working properly and also has your credit card number. This is, in a nutshell, called Always-Online Single Player, and it's already crippled the launches of Diablo 3 and SimCity, and will do so for probably dozens more games to come.
"Oh, EA, what have you done now, you bag of smashed assholes?"
We're used to new technology improving the consumer's experience, but there's no reason it can't improve the experience (or profit margins) of other stakeholders, as well. And that's exactly what's happened in this particular case, always-online video games being developed to deter piracy and secondhand sales. So really, the technology is better!
Just not for you.
Cable television was originally analog, which, if I understand the Wikipedia entry for "analog" correctly, means that tiny little elves surfing sine waves carried your television programs to you at the speed of light.
Digital cable changed all that, by turning these sine waves into something that looked like escalators made of zeros and ones, which ... are better somehow? I guess the escalators travel faster than the speed of light?
I'm sorry. I really should learn more about technology before I write these things.
The net result of all this is that digital cable can carry much more programming over the same wire and also incidentally make room for high-definition programming. Really, it's a perfect technological advance where everyone wins!
Except for people who like flipping through channels, that is.
According to a park bench full of angry old men I surveyed for this column, television used to be much better than it is now. You had a remote, much like we do now ...
... and when you pressed a button on the remote, the channel changed. But not in two or three seconds like it does now. It changed instantly. It used to be so fast that you didn't even really need to watch a show, so easy was it to just watch every show all at once.
The reason for the delay is, as expected, a side effect of the technology that's giving us all these hundreds of channels in the first place. At some point, all of this digital content has to be turned back into an analog signal so that it can be absorbed by our stupid, low-tech eyeballs. This is also why digital and high-def cable require those clunky-ass cable boxes. "Changing the channel" has turned from a simple electronic switch into a complicated calculation, and a couple-second delay is all but impossible to get around.
Not that that's likely to placate a bench full of old men.
Also, try not to get trapped into explaining how the "Input" button works to them.
Related: Peak TV IS Dead. R.I.P.
In Latin, "audiophile" means "awkward person," and if you're ever in a conversation with one, you can get a fine demonstration of this by simply mentioning the phrase "dynamic range compression" and watching them instantly flop sweat.
"Holy crap, dude. You've got to warn people in the first three rows if you've got a condition like that."
Dynamic range compression is a production technique where the quiet parts of a song are artificially made louder, and the louder parts made quieter. The net effect of this dial twiddling is that the whole song will, on average, sound louder. And industry experts, with long experience studying the music consumption habits of idiots, know that idiots think music that sounds louder is "betterer."
"But the receipt specifically said a pair of pants."
Audiophiles, of course, hate it, as it ends up reducing sound quality in exchange for this loudness, and bemoan the ever-increasing amounts of compression record engineers are using in modern audio production, calling it a "Loudness War."
Which is a pretty aggressive name for something so dorky, instead of the Gwar album title that it really ought to be.
And that's also a little unfair; there are benefits to dynamic range compression other than loudness. Most notably, it makes a song sound more uniform on low-quality equipment, which isn't a trivial concern considering how much pop music is listened to on crappy little earbuds or on car stereos with the windows rolled down. Those are real customers -- possibly even the majority of customers -- and it makes some sense to adjust post-production techniques to accommodate them.
"Hey, thanks buddies!"
It's almost impossible to understate the impact Microsoft Windows has had on the computing industry, and frankly, the entire world.
Everything in this picture is running Windows
But for all that, it's also not really a very exciting product, is it? It's there, and it does its job, kind of like a sidewalk or a tree, and that's about all you need to know about it. And sort of like sidewalks and trees, there hasn't been much to improve upon. In fact, ever since Microsoft made a version that achieved sidewalk levels of reliability, there haven't been many improvements to the product worth speaking of. I still use Windows XP to this day on some of my computers and don't miss a single Windows 7 or 8 feature when I'm using them.
Which is great for me but kind of shitty for a company trying to make money selling operating systems.
"We're thinking something with tiles."
And so Microsoft has attempted to "upgrade" its utterly competent software, by adding features that no one wants or needs or likes because they don't work very well. Two of the last three upgrades have been famously bad. Windows Vista, of course, had enhanced security features that were so cumbersome that the only way to actually use your damn computer was to turn them off. And then there's Windows 8, which has a brand new interface designed for products that no one owns, crammed on to products that people do want to own, forcing them to ignore the brand new interface entirely if they want to do any useful work.
"I think it's time to admit that we're just not very good at this ... NO WAIT I'VE GOT IT WE INCLUDE A TALKING PAPERCLIP THAT NEVER LEAVES."
The arrival of widescreen televisions ushered in a new, wider era to television, a wideness previously only enjoyed by people who attended the cinema or watched everything in the reflection of one of those funhouse mirrors. Now, with all that extra space, home audiences could finally view movies in the format they'd been filmed in, and Law & Order: SVU fans could finally show us what was happening just past Detective Stabler's shoulder.
Not much, it turned out. But still. Nice to know. Nice not to worry about it any more.
Which sounds great and all, but as anyone who's watched a television over the past 10 years will know, it seems to be messed up almost half the time. The reason is we now have two formats of televisions out there, widescreen and ... thinscreen? No. Squatscreen? Sure. And we also have two different formats of television content. When you get the format of the content matched up with the screen, things look fine, but when you don't, which happens way too often, things get dumb in a hurry. We live in an era of stretched screens, chopped screens, and screens filled with black bars across the top, bottom, sides, or all at once.
And it's actually making our content worse. Consider a piece of content made for one format, converted to the other (at which point black bars are inserted above and below or to the sides) and then back to the original format. You'll end up with content that appears in a stupid little box in the middle of the enormous screen you paid for, an issue called "Postage Stamping." For now this seems to affect commercials more than anything else, but even then it's a hilarious example of technology doing the exact opposite of what it's supposed to.
"This has ruined our favorite baby-eating-chicken commercial!"
Related: Peak TV IS Dead. R.I.P.
Motion pictures and most regular television is broadcast at 24 frames per second (fps). There's nothing special about that particular number, it was just the format they settled on when the Earth was young. 24fps provides smooth enough movements, and although it doesn't provide the crispest image, it's generally good enough for most viewers.
"No, this is fine. We're easy."
But there's no reason cameras couldn't also shoot at, say, 48 or 60 frames per second, or for televisions to display the same. And thanks to technology, there's no reason why a television can't take a 24fps image, then interpolate and insert intermediate frames to turn that into a 60fps image. Depending on the TV, this is called "motion interpolation" or "judder reduction" or "silky smooth flow" or some bullshit, and it does, in fact, lead to smoother, crisper motion, especially in the background.
Which would be great, were it not for the fact that this also leads to perhaps the strangest side effect in the history of consumer electronics, the dreaded "Soap Opera Effect."
Which does not, as you might expect, give every character an evil twin.
To explain this simply, a movie displayed with this motion interpolation looks weird, and even "cheap." It no longer looks like a movie, but like actors moving around on a set. It's actually kind of unsettling, and turning this option off is one of the first things people do when they get new televisions.
So why is this happening? Well there's a couple reasons. The first is that soap operas are filmed very efficiently, using simple and cheap cameras, with all the cost-savings being poured right back into providing the best possible writing for the show. Soap operas have thus long used video cameras, which, instead of the film cameras movies and traditional television shows have used, shoot at 60fps. This results in soap operas having a noticeably different look to them, which fairly or unfairly, some people consider "cheap."
A partial explanation for that is that filming at 24fps allows for a certain blurriness in the end product, blurriness that can be applied for artistic effect. Maybe what's happening in the background isn't the most important thing in a scene and deserves to be blurry? Indeed, this is an effect a director or cinematographer deliberately attempts to achieve with a 24fps camera. Which your idiot television tries to "correct" for them.
Though if they ever make a television that makes Han shoot first again, we're all on board.