Technobabble — Tech, the Good, Bad and Evil

Technology is like a wrench — neither good nor evil, on its own. The impact of it is utterly up to the user, just as the wrench used to shut off a natural gas leak before it triggers an explosion may be exactly the same wrench used as a weapon in a strong-arm robbery.

The Internet is neither good nor evil, but it is a superhighway that may carry lifesaving information at the same time it carries the instructions for building a pipe bomb.To paraphrase an old TV commercial, “bits is bits.” The medium is absolutely indifferent to the information it carries.

NEW technology is neither better nor worse than existing technology. I used to be an information technology administrator, and I sometimes had to try to damp the enthusiasm of a senior administrator about some new IT advance that had just appeared as a feature on some TV news program, or one that had just been promoted to the administrator by a “sales engineer” for the company that was trying to sell it to us.

In the late ’90s, it became fashionable in our organization (a public school corporation with more money than sense, and thousands of networked computers) for upper managers, who were clueless about the fundamentals of science and technology, to hector the IT department about why the whole corporation wasn’t networked wirelessly. Wireless was cool, new and slightly mysterious — because of the lack of wires, evidently. Likewise, the superintendent was bullish on getting rid of all our “old-fashioned” two-way radios, and issuing everyone who could have justified carrying a radio a cellular phone, instead.

The vagaries of cellular service, including dropped calls, distortion and the limitations of the cellular and “twisted pair” networks on the ability to communicate in an emergency didn’t matter to these big shots. What they didn’t understand was, by definition, unimportant. Likewise, the wireless data network technology of that time was sketchy as to coverage, and hugely vulnerable to hacking and eavesdropping. It was also painfully slow, and subject to increasing levels of delay and dropped connections as traffic volume went up. None of this mattered to the poobahs in the big offices, though.

Their IT department’s reluctance to embrace cellular and “WiFi” were evidence, in their eyes, that we were too dumb or lazy to take on the task of making the necessary changes.

After 9/11, it became apparent that a cellular phone network could be rendered useless in a disaster, when communication is most needed. Every subscriber tried to place a call at the same time, as human nature dictates. The system collapsed, requiring some, finite time to recover. When it recovered, subscribers tried again to call each other and to call outside the network. It recovered with a call density that left many users trying again and again to place a call.

Cellular service providers are for-profit businesses, and thus they build their networks to handle the number of subscribers likely to try to call at once, but not for all of them to call at once. Capacity costs money, and cellular providers are no more likely to build for 100 per cent capacity than airlines are to schedule flights for everyone who might fly, rather than for those who are likely to, on any given day.

A simple, two-way radio system can accommodate everyone who is carrying a radio, if all will discipline themselves to wait for an opening before transmitting. A dispatcher or any other radio user of a simple, two-way radio network can relay information to multiple users at once. A firefighter standing outside a burning building, seeing that  the roof is about to collapse, can warn every other firefighter on the scene with one transmission, “GET OUT OF THE BUILDING! ROOF COMING DOWN!”

How can a severe weather warning be transmitted simultaneously to tens of thousands of listeners to a broadcast radio station? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio has been doing it for decades, and anyone listening to one of the broadcast stations when the message goes out has had the opportunity to benefit from the information. Not even two-way radio is required to make that happen — just the one-way, broadcast radio technology that has been around for a century.

Try that with a cell phone.

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