A Side Effect of Technological Progress

When Apple launched it’s own navigation app for iPhone, causing countless Internet jokes due to it’s poor quality in comparison with Google Maps, I looked at the event with disdain, not because I’m an Apple fan or because I don’t use maps, but because my way of navigating modern urban landscapes doesn’t rely on any portable digital device.

Like a tobacco addict who always carry a lighter and a pack of cigarets, my pockets always contain an A4-sized paper stolen from the printer’s tray folded thrice, and a pen with supposedly enough ink to last for 7 years that I got from Strand. Before adventuring to a new place, I visit Google Maps on my laptop and draw a small copy of the neighborhood of the target location in one of the unfilled 16 slots of my sheet of paper. “My method,” as they would say in academic publishing circles, never got me lost.

It seems a little outdated, but I don’t do it simply for fashionable purposes. The problem with our times of technology transition is that, though one can find many digital alternatives for what has been historically done with microchip-less devices, many of them do not match the “user experience” of the old “technologies.”

Look at the notes-taking task, for instance. You can find a number of tablets with digital pens in the market, some with only the input interface, some with real-time display, some even with cell-phones included. But often the experience is as bad as that of writing with a nail in marble surface. When the “texture” of the interface is okay, the pen doesn’t quite touch the display: it’s like writing in one side of a glass for the text to appear on the other side. For the alternatives that give up the all-digital goal and adopt a “scanning” kind of approach – the pen has real ink, and writes on real paper, but also localizes itself so that the text can be turned digital – the drawback is that you have to use a special kind of paper, or an additional gadget to localize the pen.

It’s difficult to predict which alternatives will survive, as there are non-technical factors involved: sometimes the company that has the best CEO, not the best product, succeeds. In reality, new technologies never retain all the good qualities of the old ones. Eventually new generations don’t have access to the old way of doing things, not getting to know it was actually better in some sense, and that aspect is forever lost.

We are often too busy rushing towards the future to notice this side effect of progress. Maybe if we spent more time thinking about what we really need, and progressed a bit slower, we would actually get there faster.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

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