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The technology curve comes full circle

For several years, I've had a quote from the late Marshall McLuhan pinned to my bulletin board that says succinctly: "If it works, it's obsolete."

This just about sums up my skepticism about technological advances. Progress is not the most important product, just my most complicated.

So it is with great surprise that I finally found a piece of cutting-edge technology that actually changed my life. Or to be more specific, my mother's life.

Six months ago, my mother was in TV hell. Her remote controls were out of control. She was cursed with a trio of cable/VCR/TV gadgets. They had so many functions that she had become dysfunctional. The mere act of turning on the evening news required a house call. It was, alas, my house that was called.

Then we discovered the newest new thing: a single remote control to replace the triplets that had tripped her up. A remote with five buttons instead of 25. One button to turn the TV on and off, two to change the channels, another pair to raise and lower the volume. And that's all, folks.

Yes I know. Her "cutting-edge technology" cut its first edge in about 1980. Which makes it a candidate for a technological Antiques Road Show. But the manufacturer who brought this retro-gizmo back to life is my candidate for leader for our time. He or she is a trendsetter who has joined the next wave. A wave titled, ta da: Forward to the Past.

Have you noticed this forward (to the past) thinking? Maybe not. Maybe you're too busy getting your wireless laptop to send a message to your friend's camera phone, even though he's standing next to you. Maybe you even want that refrigerator with the Internet connection. But most of today's new technology is about as appealing to me as dating a man with a Webcam in his bedroom.

Now I deeply hope that we are in for a revenge of the antinerds. We may be about to discover the advantage of being so far behind the curve that it comes full circle.

Have you noticed that today's new new thing is indeed the good old thing? Consider the latest in PalmPilots, a model named Zire, which cleverly enough rhymes with desire. After years of add-ons _ a color screen, a voice recorder and numerous attachments _ they manufactured a subtract-from. The only things your heart's de-Zire can hold are dates and addresses.

If that were not forward (to the past) thinking enough, Microsoft is marketing a brand new little tablet PC which you can write on with _ blast from the past _ a pen. They boasted loud and far that this invention had all the versatility of paper. What will they do next, patent papyrus?

Meanwhile, Restoration Hardware discovered that the big Christmas seller of 2002 was a record player circa 1950. This turntable spins all those 33s, 45s and 78s, which of course you threw out when _ Honey They Shrank the Music _ they replaced LPs with CDs, thereby improving the sound quality of music to a level appreciated only by Labradors.

And let us not forget the words of another forward (to the past) thinker, techie and blogger Glenn Harlan Reynolds, who analyzed the problems with computer voting and came up with a solution: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the paper ballot: an idea whose time has come again."

It now appears that all things come (back) to those who wait. And reinventing the wheel doesn't seem like a waste of time.

This leads me to a forward-to-the-past marketing plan. Having spent hours taking, transferring and zipping digital photos to friends who couldn't unzip, I suspect that someone will soon market the amazing new camera with film you can take to a store and have someone else develop.

After a few more years of e-mail mania, messaging back and forth 10 times over the Internet to coordinate a lunch date with a co-worker, surely someone will come up with the futuristic way of actually hearing another person's voice. Call it a telephone.

If these two reinventions are a success, we might also have a new, improved version of a Personal Digital Assistant. We'll call it a person.

And since we are told that artificial intelligence is the hot item of the future, with everyone vying to write a program that will distinguish the human from the machine, I have one last little marketing ploy. Let's reinvent natural intelligence.

Is that going too far? Too far forward? Or too far back?

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group