Friday, March 7, 2008

Digital Watches are Cool

Since my post on the parallels between traditional crafts such as pottery and building Google Earth projects I've been musing on the 'we are infatuated with the tool' idea as applied to Google Earth. The basic idea of this is that upon introduction of a new tool there is usually a period when experts apply the new technology uncritically in applications where it shouldn't be used. I've come up with a couple of analogies:

The Atomic bomb: Following its infamous use in the 2nd World War 1950's engineers came up with a bizarre set of uses including setting off a series of bombs to build giant canals (from Bill Bryson's wonderful autobiography) and even a plan to use atomic explosions as rocket fuel.





Following this period of mad ideas we now have a well developed sense of the limitations of nuclear fision.

The second example is illustrated by a quote from Douglas Adams:

"[of humans] ...a race so backward they still thought digital watches were cool"




My dad used to have an analogue watch which I was allowed to wind up every evening. My interest didn't last, I clearly remember hounding the first kid at school who got a digital watch, I wanted to keep pressing the buttons to see those magic red figures light up. Unsurprisingly he wanted me to buzz off and stop wasting his watch battery. The infatuation with digital watches we all had didn't last of course, if you're wearing a watch as you read this its probably an analogue watch run by a quartz battery watch. Again, following a fascination with one technology (quartz digital watches) we quietly learned how to use the technology properly - the hype didn't last.

Neither of these examples are perfect, you could argue that the public have an overly developed fear of nuclear radiation which affects our present use of nuclear technologies. You could also argue that the popularity of analogue watches is linked to aesthetics as much as practicality. However, the analogies are there to illustrate the idea rather than be completely water tight and I think they work rather well.

So are we in the 'cool digital watches' period with the virtual globe technology? I would say we are, you don't have to look far to find Google Earth projects with badly thought out icons, overly bright lines and a bafflingly complex structure in the places column. The faster we get over our infatuation the better.

Which isn't to say Google Earth isn't a great tool, I wouldn't be blogging about it if I thought it was rubbishj, it's just we're not using it correctly yet.

4 comments:

Dave West said...

Intriguing post. I wonder, though, if the analogy you draw specifically between digital watch and virtual globe is an illustration of a more straightforward progression in technology at large. Objectively, the mechanical watch is in few ways functionally superior to the digital, though we find the display logical and attractive, thus people have continued to use them. There are numerous digital watches on the market now that are designed to emulate the look and feel of their predecessors.

The main flaw I see in the analogy is that digital and mechanical watches are still designed by engineers at Casio (and others...). While the first instinct using virtual globes is to fly to your house and play with the perty images and interface, the real lasting power I see in the technology is allowing users at all levels to author content.
Melding geospatial technology into social networking, as virtual globes have done, provides a new and completely different way of mapping the world. Sure, we are still in the inital stages of "neo-geography" and there are more clunky designs out there than can or should be mentioned, but I see this more as a reality of allowing unrestricted content than a "phase" that we will grow out of.

You can think of it more along the lines of spam. Though clunky, pointless design and dishonest content is a reality of any user input system, we can build ways of filtering this content into something bigger and better, using those same community resources. (i.e. wikipedia)

While digital watches were fun and impressive at the time, ultimately they did nothing to change the way people behave and communicate. You could always tell time, regardless of which technology you used. In this case, the technology makes mapping far more accessible and efficient than searching for paper content.

In fact, technology so quickly surpassed the functionality of paper maps that it could be argued that non-geographers have more access and power than the career mappers of the past generation.

(for the record: I am a half time print cartographer and devout paper map collector, and feel strongly that there will always be a place for paper output my blog)

In any case, makes for a fun and nerdy pub topic. cheers.

Robin Capper said...

Nope, I still prefer my time expressed as 24:00 Hour digits. I do own an analog watch, but never wear it.

Rich Treves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich Treves said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for discussing at length, I think you raise some valid points

you said
"The main flaw I see in the analogy is that digital and mechanical watches are still designed by engineers at Casio (and others...). While the first instinct using virtual globes is to fly to your house and play with the perty images and interface, the real lasting power I see in the technology is allowing users at all levels to author content."

well in this we totally agree. It is the web 2.0 features of GE that make it so powerful. To be more clear it is the users that I think are misusing the technology, and I am hoping to raise awareness of cartographic principles earlier rather than waiting for them to appear

you also said
"Sure, we are still in the inital stages of "neo-geography" and there are more clunky designs out there than can or should be mentioned, but I see this more as a reality of allowing unrestricted content than a "phase" that we will grow out of."

well this is what I worry about. I think if design isn't discussed early on we will get stuck with norms of use that come from the web designers or software developers rather than the cartographers. If you'll excuse yet another analogy, people rubbish powerpoint in teaching, quite rightly IMHO. It isn't that its a bad program its that its help system and wizards guides users towards rubbish design.

ps. I LOVE old paper maps and the first question I ask about any IT mapping is 'could this be done better on paper', and often, it could.