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Do we like technology, or the content?

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

No, this isn’t about McLuhan’s theories.  It seems culturally we are enamored with new technologies.  But there are some contradictory examples: television, movie theatres and cell phones.  Most TVs are still displaying video using specifications created in the 1940s, and enhanced and kludged over time constrained by the original specs.  Ever notice how mushy your reds are?  How much the screen flickers?  How lousy the resolution is?  All designed to work based on low-speed vacuum tubes.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that DVDs at least dealt with the colour bleeding.  And only in this decade is HDTV starting to become mainstream.  But higher definition, better quality transmission was possible 40 years ago.

Same with movies: I saw a movie in the theatre the other night: 24 frames a second, jiggly picture registration.  Looks awful when there is a lot of movement.  In some theatres I’ve found focus is a problem.  I don’t know when that standard was created, but probably the 1920s.  Higher quality movies were available in the 1960s (remember Cinerama? although it’s frame rate was only marginally higher: 26).  Imax (up to 60 fps) and Omnimax theatres offer higher resolution and frame rates, so look much better, but are still somewhat fringe.

And finally cell phones: the average call I get right now has vastly inferior voice quality to the cell phone I had in 1990, even without reception problems.  Why do consumers tolerate such poor quality?  And in North America, in my experience, reception is dramatically worse than in other countries.  In Hong Kong, cell phone reception is clear in most elevators, let alone on the street.

So maybe it’s like the plastic non-functioning cell phones I saw on many people in Costa Rica some years ago.  Having SOMETHING is what matters.  As long as it serves a basic purpose and looks cool, then the quality is secondary.  So our essential needs are being met: we can still laugh at the cheesy sticoms, get into the movie plot, and hear enough of the mobile conversation to get by.

Categories: Business, Technical