Monday, April 14, 2008

Checking Electric Meters in a Widgetless Wired World

Monday morning, 749 AM. Scramble out of bed to get the door as the doorbell rings. Even in a wired world, every month the doorbell rings early in the morning for the Con Edison meter person to check the meter. The meter maid shows up with an electronic record keeping device, wearing a walkie talkie and a speaker phone that chirps incessantly, but requires me to physically unlock the basement for her to check the meter. Even in a wired world, electric meters must be checked manually.

But how wired is our world? Well, judging by my wireless computer, extremely so!

This sorry state of affairs is due to the general lack of integration of the consumer electronics industry outside the land of mac users who can go from room to room in their house listening to their music on their Airport enabled speakers. My wireless connection doesn't seem to connect in my house, despite the fact that I can connect to my neighbors if I position my laptop in one corner of my room, my laptop battery goes dead after 1 hour, and I can't buy a USB FM transmitter to link my computer speakers to the home theater system (all the ones I can find in the store are powered by cigarette lighters).

I demand a widget. One that will let me connect my PC music output to my home theater, that will connect my paper calendar to my electronic computer, that I can download to my phone. My roommate says I should really stop thinking about a phone as a phone. He says it is an application on a handheld computer, as he sits in the living room and plays pacman on his phone.

Perhaps this is just my inadequacy in getting electronically linked? One of the attendings showed me her calendar on her phone, I asked her, can you really synchronize that with, for example, google calendars? She said she didn't know what that was. I am old school. My version of synchronization is scanning my wall calendar and printing it out, then cutting it to fit inside my leather pocket notepad.

Pocket notepad? Yeah, the other word is "pocket protector". What about a PDA? Nope. If I want to look up a drug dose I have a pocket PDR book. Why? Well, the batteries can't go out, if I drop it, I just pick it up, and if I lose it I just buy another. It costs 7 dollars. Plus, there is NO way that you can crash or stall a book, and once you know the book, you know where to find things fast.

Something tells me that as long as electric meters need to be checked every month by a person, the digital world will remain bound by paper, pen, and human. If that is the case, can't we switch suddenly once all the bugs get worked out? This transition from pen and paper to digital is absurd. It is complicated to remember fifty usernames and passwords in fifty different database/systems, entering the data manually in each, transferring the schedules of my life from bills/pdf/email/text message/verbal announcement/snail mail to my calendar, to carry with me.

I only have one written signature, why can't I have one electronic signature? I need ONE electronic information system to manage my affairs-financial, medical,social, recreational. For example, I should be able to log in to this system with one username and password, and conduct all the business I would do using my brain, eg, pay my bills (bank website/bank statements/atm machines), pay people (cash, check, credit card), keep up with friends (facebook, myspace, IM, cell phones), make travel plans (passport,airline reservation, hotel reservation, car reservation), take a picture (camera), read a book (libary, bookstore), listen to music (speakers, headphones, mp3 player, home theater), make a phone call (cell phone, skype), watch tv (slingbox, tv, dvr, cable box, home theater, remote control, dvd remote, cable remote, sound remote), schedule my week (calendar, phone, pda), compose a patient's medical record (computer, electronic medical record, HIPAA, fax, paper chart, written consents), review a patient's ekg from their private doctor's office (fax machine, photocopy), review their old echo reports (separate computer file), and so on. We do have the current technology to make this possible, we just need to do away with the idea that these are all separate activities.

They are all just information processing, and each has a separate device or technology or government regulation(in parentheses), to process that information, some are paper, some are electronic, some require some hardware, some do not. Everything from meter reading to buying a cheeseburger, it's all processing and exchanging information. We need some "urban planning", some "information architects" in this area. People in the IT world need to stop making LOLcats and facebook widgets and start doing something useful, like the folks who work hard at McD's every day.

In college, I learned about a theory of cultural evolution called the "costly information hypothesis" of Richerson and Boyd. This theory suggests that culture is transmitted easily because it is too costly from an evolutionary standpoint to evaluate each idea/bit of information for yourself, so we take the ideas and behaviors of people who appear to be successful (Britney Spears, Bill Gates), and these spread. This also means that bad ideas spread easily (lolcats).

In our current state of cultural evolution, we have fifty or so systems/classes/types of information exchange which all help us exchange information, yet each is not connected to the other, and each has many intraclass competing technologies. This so called "information sprawl", is a product of people making individual tested leaps in technology, yet no one has unified these technologies into something that simplifies life in a more adaptive way.

Any one technology is relatively low cost to develop and perfect, but the cost of failure in uniting all these classes of technology is so large and the economic benefit of consumers buying many things is so great that it is not adaptive for anyone to produce a unified technology that would simplify your life. Apple appears to be trying to convince us that their sleek machines do this, but in reality, it is just a big peripherals game with the same OS, it's not one unified system.

At the current pace, digital hasn't given us increased simplicity of living, it has made the world more complex because all these activities have a separate form of electronic information attached to them, and each has a separate operating interface and requires a manual backup and user dependent data synchronization. Thinking that the world is wired as it is now is like saying there is no glitch in the matrix. Right now, there is no matrix in the glitch.

1 comment:

S. said...

Good timing on your thoughts as the VA computer system was down for hours the other day and the nurses didn't know what to do with verbal or written orders. And as my cell phone (which is also my calendar, address book, camera, pda, etc) had a huge tantrum tonight. Your PDA looks tempting...

Hope you're enjoying Spring in New York. Szilvie said they were polishing the lamps the other day. The world can always use more light.