Are we too obsessed with new technology?

12th Jul 2009 | 11:00

Are we too obsessed with new technology?

When it comes to gadgets and games, newest isn't always best

Do we need the latest gadgets?

Self-confessed techno-luddite Owen Ryder smells a rat. "Answer me this," he says. "Why should I have to keep re-buying what I've already got just because other people have fallen for the marketing hype put out on the latest gadgets?"

In a time of economic uncertainty, he may have a point. Accelerating technological progress means that manufacturers now offer new products faster and in more variations than ever before.

Nokia's UK website currently lists over 100 models of mobile phones – and yet they all use the same network to call or text as phones that were released a decade ago.

We're bombarded by advertisements for everything from phones to computers while our current models are fairly new and, in most cases, can still do what we need them for. It's as if manufacturers need us to make a regular stream of purchases. "If that's just a conspiracy theory rather than how [gadget manufacturers] really operate, it's convincing me," says Ryder.

"Compare [new models] to my old Psion 3C organiser. It stores all my appointments, it wakes me up in the morning and allows me to jot down my thoughts – and I can program it too. It's a bit scratched but it's still working perfectly about a decade after I bought it."

But isn't Ryder missing some cool new toys, such as the iPod or the iPhone? "I've got a mobile phone," he says. "It's not the newest model but it works perfectly well. It makes calls and it sends texts and that's what I want it to do. I've got an MP3 player, too. I don't need to carry every single track I've ever owned around with me. That's what my CD collection is for. I load up the tracks I want to listen to when I'm out and about. I bet most people who spend hours putting every track they own on their iPods never listen to 90 per cent of them."

Brilliant games, brilliant ideas

While some deride the constant new releases for making technology that still works perfectly well obsolete, others think that cutting-edge technology may actually be stifling innovation rather than promoting it.

For Jason Moore, the best computer games are about the ideas, not the technology on which they run. "Once you get started playing old games," he says, "it isn't long before you realise that some of these concepts remain as addictive as they ever were. For me, game creation is something of a magical art.

"A great game doesn't need network play, the latest hardware and amazing visuals," argues Moore. "Brilliant games rely on brilliant ideas being perfectly executed. That has nothing to do with technology or age; it's just as likely that those ingredients came together in previous generations as they do now. Take Star Castle and Peggle, or APB and GTA IV. All are great games, but decades apart."

Moore runs Retrogames, which sells the kind of hardware and software liable to make people who grew up in the '70s and '80s misty-eyed with nostalgia. But a new audience is starting to emerge, as Moore explains: "There's reason to believe the current interest in casual gaming is helping spark interest in classic gaming. Many of these new players' memories of games are trapped in the arcades of the 1980s, and retro gaming is a way to recapture that."

Moore believes that technical limitations don't stifle creativity; rather, they allow it to flourish. "One key to the continued popularity of older games is their originality and the variety of concepts and genres," he says. "It's a parallel that you can draw with the current Flash gaming scene. Limited technical resources raise creativity levels. Technical boundaries were reached quite early on older computers and consoles, so creativity blossomed and imaginative games resulted."

Though many would argue that today's devices are better because they don't have such limitations, Moore isn't convinced. "I think you can see the same thing happening on the iPhone at the moment with some really brilliant original games, and adaptations of retro classics. My worry is that the technology of even these handheld devices will soon jump forward, so we will end up with huge PC-style epics, and these inventive smaller games will be lost again."

Too much bloatware?

Too much bloatware?

Other retro technology buffs argue that the huge software development environments running on today's gadgets bring little benefit. One is Herb Johnson, who runs www.retrotechnology.com. "These are huge development packages of hundreds of megabytes of programs and files," he says. "And yet, these embedded computers may only have megabytes of program memory or even less – much like the 'classic' computers of decades ago.

"In the computing world today," he says, "it's impossible for one person to fully comprehend an operating system right from high-level functions down to the operation of hardware. In fact, those are now specialised skills. But in the 'old days' of much simpler hardware and software, knowledge of both was required. That's because both areas were still in development until a stable and generally accepted OS and hardware platform was established."

Johnson argues that bloat is something that's also creeping into other areas of technology as big business tries to capitalise on the increasing availability of hobby electronics. "There is growing interest in hobby robotics as a literal 'nuts and bolts' environment," he says. "But there are also moves by Microsoft and other large companies to introduce very complex and large tools into robotics. They claim these are 'efficient' tools, but their motives are simply to grab market share with tools that you can't escape from."

The microcontrollers available to home robot builders contain about as much RAM as a home computer from the early 1980s. Part of the joy of such devices is getting the best results possible out of them; overcoming their limitations with ingenious creativity, as Johnson and Moore say.

"If you know the fundamentals," argues Johnson, "and your tools are fundamental, you can always use other tools or adapt your tools for other purposes. Knowing the basics makes you flexible, and I'd argue that's still an advantage today."

Living without a mobile

Robert Östling is an assistant professor at the Institute for International Economic Studies at the University of Sweden. Despite having to stay up to date with the technology-orientated business world, Östling doesn't own a mobile phone.

"Since I don't have any friends who don't use IRC, cell phones are unnecessary," he says. "Same thing goes for these social-networking sites, instant messaging and those things that seem to be so popular these days." Östling believes that new technologies are not always a step forward in terms of efficiency.

"Word on the latest Windows is about as slow as the corresponding combination 15 years ago, in spite of running on a PC that's several orders of magnitude faster," he says, "so efficiency is down by the same factor. And Gmail, which I use right now because I'm pretty lazy, is much slower than a decent mail client even on an antique computer. Yet it and other web-based services seem to be gaining popularity. So when it comes to modern technology, development is not always going forward."

Though Östling admits to recently buying an Eee 701 laptop, has he bought any other new high-tech devices recently? "I think that the only other piece of technology that I've bought new in the last five or 10 years would be a graphics tablet that I got a few years ago when I was constructing a handwriting recognition system. Everything else is stuff I got cheap from flea markets or for free from people who thought that the item was old and useless."

Of course, not everyone considers old to be beautiful. The bleeding edge will always have its allure, and if technology didn't progress, we'd never find those key concepts that really do change the world. Still, it's worth remembering that what we want isn't always what we need, and that sometimes, good enough is just that.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 283

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