Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stifling technology

Whilst the technological advances of the past few decades are truly amazing, somehow we also have the propensity to turn every new achievement into a headache. Take air travel, for example, which shortened the distances between difficult to reach places. The UK was once served with a well distributed multitude of small airfields. Gradually, most of them closed to make room for other developments, and with them disappeared the hope for a transport network much more sensible than road traffic. I recently visited the Orkney islands where Logan air operates an inter-island service using small propeller-driven passenger aircraft in regular intervals at cheap prices, and their time-table reads just like that of a metropolitan bus service.

With the exception of such laudable isolated examples, however, we have deluded ourselves with bigger being better, like the new Airbus super jumbo jet. Huge airport hubs have established mass travel and reversed the benefits of quick point-to-point travel by air. A passenger jet can get you from London to Glasgow in an hour and a half, but you will first have to spend two hours driving to the airport in slow-moving traffic, arrive three hours early for check-in due to extra security, wait an hour at the other end before you can collect your luggage and join the traffic jams at your destination. All in all, the flight will take longer than driving all the way. It is still cheaper, of course, but only because it is subsidised. Airlines don't pay duty and VAT on their fuel like the rest of us.

Email was the great new communications tool replacing couriers and postal services. Today it is a battle to sift through an inbox flooded with spam messages, just as the internet is awash with virus threats, Trojan horses and spyware. The moment someone develops something to make our lives easier, we get down to spoiling the experience and turning the new-found blessing into a nightmare.

Electronics have become smaller and smaller, which means more portable. A little USB hard drive the size of a pocket calculator can hold more Gigabyte in storage than most laptops are kitted out with. Yet, we all have to wield weighty laptops around because software companies don't want us to enjoy the freedom of technology without fleecing us first. Software, although paid for, becomes tied to a single machine, although the technology exists for portable software registration via a soft key, allowing users to move their software from one computer to another as many times as they like provided they only use one instance of it at any one time.

Much more of a problem is, however, the operating system. I can copy or image my whole computer content onto my little USB hard drive which I can plug into any computer in the world, but I am still waiting for somebody to develop a way of booting from it. This is what I would call a real personal or pocket computer. I can carry it around with me and could plug it in at any internet café, and within a few minutes I would be greeted with my familiar software programmes, files and settings. And airport security wouldn't have to bother me any longer with switching my computer on and off, a practice about as silly in preventing a potential hazard as emptying drinks and after-shave bottles into liquid containers at the check-in desk.

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