Charles Arthur: The Geek

Don't be a slave to gadgets
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My first article in this space, just over four years ago, dealt with the ticklish issue of projectors: were they going to take over as home-cinema machines, or just remain something you lugged about to slay people using PowerPoint? The suggestion from the projector-making companies was that they'd soon have home cinema on the run, because they were getting cheaper all the time.

But something else happened: LCD and plasma TVs became so cheap, so quickly, that the projector never got a real look-in. The technology that had the advantage of flexibility, because it could transfer from office to home, lost out to two others backed by incumbents in their fields - that is, TV makers. These days, while home cinema has become hugely popular, more homes sport 5.1 DVD systems and ever-wider TVs, projector sales have slowed.

It's an interesting example of a scenario that one sees repeated again and again in technology: something promising comes along, looks ready to stir the world up, but ultimately is defeated by something else belonging to the incumbents which is "good enough". Neither an LCD nor a plasma screen offers the flexibility of a projector (try moving either to another room), and only the plasma guarantees a better picture. Yet projectors have lost out.

It's quite rare for anything to come along and completely usurp our old ways of doing something, and replace it with something else. Usually, "good enough" triumphs, which may be a sad comment on the human condition, or just on the technologies we're presented with.

So while the phrase we keep hearing is that the speed of technological change is increasing apace, and that we have somehow to keep pace with it - as though we had no control over our lives at all - I have to say I don't agree.

You can welcome new technologies, such as broadband, plasma TVs, free voice-over-internet phone calls, digital-music downloads, photo upload and sharing sites, and wireless networking, to name just a few that have sprung to prominence since the first of these columns.

Or you can distrust and reject them. If you choose this path, there will always be someone ready to cater for you. Look at vinyl records, which everyone thought would be killed by CDs, but instead are thriving in this age of MP3s, while it's the CD that looks endangered. Many people have shifted big vinyl collections directly to MP3 or similar digital formats they control, bypassing the expense of CDs entirely.

And that latter path, I think, shows how to avoid getting hurt by technology changes. Wait for the time when the pain of adjusting hits a personal minimum. This differs for everyone; the young and eager will abandon habits for this week's new thing, while older people (and corporations) will dally for months or years, waiting for an idea to prove its widespread worth before taking it on.

And with that, I'll take my leave. I hope that the advice I've given in this column has proved useful; certainly it has been the feedback from you, the reader, which has helped to guide the direction. I'd like to thank you for reading, but especially for communicating. Good luck with the technology.