Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Preserving the flaws of old technology

It's surprising how often the flaws and limitations of an old technology become something we depend upon, so that a new technology, through nothing more than eliminating a flaw, creates a problem that seems so hard to solve that instead of solving it, we reintroduce artificial versions of the same flaw to preserve the old "solution". I'm particularly thinking of things where, if the flaw hadn't always been there, no one would ever consider introducing it.

One of the most egregious examples is the noise cars make. If cars didn't exist, and then you invented the first one and it was quiet, no one would ever suggest, hey, what that really needs is a lot of loud, dissonant roaring and grumbling. In fact, over the years many efforts (most obviously mufflers) have been made to reduce the noise level. Finding ways to contain the noise is a whole facet of civil engineering; cities have to choose where to put in roads based on keeping the noise from making areas unliveable, and build sound barriers designed to channel the noise in less harmful ways.

And yet, the advent of hybrid and electric cars which can run almost entirely silently has a lot of people complaining. It's a danger: people can be crossing a road without any idea that a car is coming, because they're used to the noise, and don't bother to look. And what about those with vision disabilities, who can't easily rely on looking? It is actually being seriously proposed, and stands a real chance of coming to pass, to require silent automobiles to include an artificial noise generator, constantly running when the car is, wasting energy to create unwanted noise, just because a hundred years of noisy cars has caused us to take the noise for granted and we don't want to go back and think of better ways to ensure the "safety" that we currently get from noise, and then go through the probably difficult process of putting them into place. (We're so hesitant to make any change that requires retraining, or a commitment to infrastructure-level changes; the only big sweeping changes we can embrace are ones we can do piecemeal and haphazardly, never ones that are decided and planned and executed. That's why we still don't use metric, for instance.)

The entire issue of digital rights management exists largely because a flaw in all previous methods of copying media, the loss of fidelity, meant we never really had to address the "copying of information" question that carefully before, because the flaw left an innate limitation on how far it could go. Yes, you could always buy an LP and then copy it to tape, and yes, the record industry always made a big fuss about that; but a few tape copies here and there was a drop in the bucket compared to widespread MP3 sharing. Yes, you could always make a photocopy of a book for your friend, or lend your book to your friend, but you couldn't spread it very far that way, it was too costly and limiting; being able to share eBooks as far as you like changes things. The same for movies, photos, and any other content you can think of.

Suddenly, the progressive loss of fidelity during copies was removed, and suddenly, no one can figure out a fair way to balance the rights of the content creator, the content distributor, the distribution infrastructure, and the content owner. While it certainly doesn't help that the two middle parts of that equation (the distributor, e.g., record companies and publishers; and the infrastructure, e.g., ISPs and cable companies) are rapacious, territorial bastards without the slightest compunction about being as unfair as they can, the problem is deeper than pointing a few fingers at the obvious villains. Even when you remove them from the equation and use the power of the Internet to connect creators to consumers directly, the problem doesn't go away. Creators still need to be sure they've got a chance to make a profit commensurate with their investment of both effort and talent, or they won't bother to create; consumers need to be sure that their money will get them the product they want and a reasonable expectation they'll be able to keep having access to it for its lifetime, along with "fair use" provisions like reasonable levels of sharing with friends. On both sides, expectations have been inflated to ridiculous levels by the old system. Creators dream of "hitting it big" and even those who are content making a paltry salary and keeping a day job still nurse the idea because they can't help but compare themselves to the millions being made by others in their field. Consumers were spoiled enough by being able to freely lend and copy their stuff for friends, but are ten times more spoiled by years of using Napster and BitTorrent, and can easily expand an observation about how this record company is evil, or that rock star is a pretentious git, into a rationalization that doesn't allow for any content creator to get fair recompense for his work.

Some people have actually proposed reintroducing loss of fidelity to copying, but no one really has the power to do that; the genie is way too far out of the bottle. Instead, most of the overzealous attempts to reintroduce the old flaw have gone even farther by completely eliminating all copying opportunities. They're kind of forced into that because once you can make a copy there's no way to limit what you do with it. But they've also gone too far. Even when they completely control the format, so they could introduce appropriately limited copying rights, consumers argue that they should have far more, and they overreact by giving them essentially none. There's a fairly obvious happy medium where both sides give up their unrealistic expectations and meet in the middle, but no one's moving towards it.

This reminds me of another juicy one: when CDs were new, a lot of people insisted that they sounded worse than LPs for many years. Of note was the fact that classical music fans latched onto CDs instantly and without hesitation. Classical music recording was always about capturing the experience of being there in front of the symphony or quartet, and CDs did that far, far better than LPs. But pop music fans had been, for decades, listening to albums which had been mixed by sound mixers who knew about the limitations of LPs, the distortion and hum that would later be called a "warm" sound, and had been mixing their albums around it, making sounds more austere and harsh and "cold" so that when the LP added its hum the sound would be what they wanted. There were certainly sounds you could never achieve this way, but at least the sounds we got were good ones. The first CDs were simply pressed from the same recordings, and we heard them as they were, not as they were intended, for the first time, and a lot of people balked. It's so cold and bland. Time to get the LPs back out.

Then the CD makers realized what was happening and started remixing for CD, and most of the LP-diehards came around, though they still remain as a marginal subculture. (I'm not counting the people who like phonographs to play old things not available on other formats, or who just like the nostalgia; I mean only those who still insist LPs have better sound quality than CDs.) And nowadays those who mix music don't have to guess at what a particular phonograph will add to the sound; they take the sound they want and put it on the CD and bang, you get it. If they want the "warm" sound of a late 60s Beatles album, they can do that, and if they want something a 60s LP could not have done, they can do that, too. But for a while, everything was simply carefully recreating and reintroducing the distortion of old LPs because that's what people were used to; and there's still a surprisingly large amount of that.

There's plenty of other examples where we've taken a flaw we're used to and preserved it artificially. If only we could learn how to, as a society, step back and ask how things should be, how we'd make them if we could wipe the slate and start clean with the resources we have now; and then let that inform what we do, instead of always doing things by tiny, big-picture-free steps.


Julya said...

I want my prius to make a plinketyplonk sound like a toy car!

The example I can think of is the fact phone companies charge differently for landlines as they do for cell phones, I am very certain the connection costs are only marginally different.

Another example is the investments companies won't make in new systems because old systems have "proven" themselves. This has set back a LOT of good new inventions and some have even lost it to ageold traditional systems....

I don't have to add that my own specialty Agile and Scrum suffers from the last mentioned.

Waterfal has proven to deliver (NOT) even if it was in twice the time it was alotted...besides...managers losing control of a project by giving the team responsibility and selfcontrol over their work?? Unheard!

Then they hear it saves money but won't change those control measures, rendering the whole process useless...yes I know about the ghosts of old hunting us very well.

Siobhan said...

I don't want my prius to make more noise! I like it quietish! Hrmph!

I run into stuff like this with databases a lot. The staff just wanted to computerize what they used to do on paper, rather than rethinking what they're trying to accomplish with whatever business system it is, and reworking the process in new ways that computers made possible and paper made impossible.