Narrowband Goes Broad

Seems LoRa is really taking off. Citing data from research firm Analysys Mason, Chris Donkin writes that 85 new networks were announced as live, in a trial phase or in development in 2016 compared with 29 in 2015.

While early LPWA deployments were concentrated in the US and Western Europe, Analysys Mason found interest in the technology spread during 2016, with strong traction being seen in the APAC market.

During 2015, two thirds of initiatives took place in the US and Western Europe whereas in 2016 the figure was down to less than a third. Simultaneously APAC showed growth from 4 per cent in 2015 to 30 per cent in 2016.

The report identified developments in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as being especially significant in the regional shift identified last year.
– via Mobile World Live

While a lot of these led by SigFox or operators using the NB-IoT standard — a stripped down 3G, more interesting, I think is the LoRa version, which actually provided the single largest group — 29 deployments vs 27 Sigfox.

The LoRa Alliance says 17 nationwide deployments have been publicly announced, and there are live networks in more than 150 cities. So I’m guessing AM’s numbers are somewhat conservative. The Things Network, an open source implementation of LoRa, boasts dozens of communities — people who are working on networks, however small — and while most are in Europe and the US, Australia is strong — Sydney’s Meshed Network Pty has installed five gateways around the city.

The author of the AM piece, Aris Xylouris, says “we can expect more announcements to be made before Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017. It is likely that the launch of the first real commercial deployment of an NB-IoT network will be among the announcements at MWC 2017.”

Here’s my take from August on narrowband.

Moleskines Redux

Moleskin ® redux

Of course, I claim a lot of the credit for this decade-long trend Why Startups Love Moleskines: 

“The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.”

I have returned to Moleskines recently, partly because I realised I have a cupboard full of them, and partly because of exactly this problem: there’s no digital equivalent experience. 

  • easier to conceptualise on paper
  • you can doodle when the speaker is waffling; those doodles embellish, even turn it into Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes
  • you can whip it out in places where an electronic device would be weird, or rude, or impractical;
  • there’s a natural timeline to your thoughts
  • there’s something sensual about having a pen in your hands and holding a notebook
  • pen and moleskine focus your thoughts and attention
  • the cost of the book acts as a brake on mindless note taking (writing stuff down without really thinking why) 
  • no mindmap software has ever really improved the mindmapping experience. 
There’s probably more to it. But maybe the point is that this isn’t a fad. People have been using these in the geeky community for more than a decade, suggesting that they have established themselves as a viable tool. Being able to easily digitise them — for saving, or processing, as I did this morning with a chart I sketched out which my graphics colleague wanted to poach from — is a bonus, and saves us from the fear of losing our work. 

(Via.Newley Purnell)

A Call for Diminished Reality

(a copy of my weekly syndicated column. Podcast from the BBC here.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

Podcast on Diminished Reality

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on diminished reality (The Business Daily podcast is here)

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Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

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The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

The Alarm Clock is Dead, Long Live the Cellphone

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Gadgets, like software and services, often end up being used in ways the creator didn’t intend. But how many companies make the most of this opportunity?

Take the cellphone. More than a third of Brits use their mobile phone as an alarm clock, according to a survey by British hotel chain Travelodge (thanks textually.org):

Budget hotel chain Travelodge quizzed 3,000 respondents on waking up habits and 71% of UK adults claimed that alarm clocks are now obsolete. The faithful bedside companion has been cast off in favour of the modern must-have, a mobile phone. Sixteen million Brits (36%) now prefer using the latest ring tone to rouse them from sleep rather than the shrill bleeping of an alarm clock.

Why? The article doesn’t say, but the answers are pretty obvious:

  • Who wants to take an extra device with you when you travel?
  • Ever come across an alarm clock with a dozen different ring tones?
  • Ever tried to program an alarm clock you’re not familiar with?
  • Ever tried to rely on wake up services?
  • Most alarm clocks are badly designed.

This might even reveal itself in the Alarm Clock Law: if another device can handle the task of a dumber gadget, it will replace it. So does that mean that the alarm clock is dead?

Not exactly. The alarm clock performs a single function: wake the person up. But that has turned out not to be as easy as it looks. While the design of most alarm clocks have been outsourced to the brain-dead, other designers have recognised the potential of alarm clocks that don’t merely wake up the owner, but keep them awake long enough to get up.

This list, for example, illustrates the thriving world of alarm clock design (think Clocky, that has wheels and has wheels and . And in this post about Seth Godin last September there was a bunch of responses suggesting that in fact alarm clock designers have tried to add features to make the alarm clock relevant. As one of the commenters pointed out, the problem is that we’re just not ready to pay more for those features because alarm clocks have become a commodity.

I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than this. There may be other factors:

  • the decline of radio, and therefore the decline of alarm-clock-radios (34% of respondents wake up to the radio in the Travelodge survey);
  • We travel more and carry more gadgets with us, so something had to stay behind;
  • As home alarm clocks became more sophisticated (music, radio, mains-powered) so we were less likely to take them on the road with us;
  • Then there’s security: I know I stopped bringing an old-style ticking alarm clock with me because it made airport security professionals nervous.

Perhaps most important, we have developed a comfort level with our cellphone’s inner workings, and few of us would like to entrust a morning alarm to something or someone we don’t know.

Cellphone manufacturers, to their credit, seem to have acknowledged this new role: I tried to find the alarm function on a Nokia 6120 and did so in five seconds. I bet it would take me longer on any digital alarm clock. The process is quick and painless, and a little bell logo on the home screen reassuringly indicates it’s set. The alarm itself is cute and starts out unobtrusively but then gets louder until you’re up and about.

Or, more ominously, have thrown the phone across the room where it now sits in pieces. Maybe there is something to be said for keeping the alarm clock separate.

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When Technology Lets Us Down

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(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.

My Technology-free Lunch

At lunch today, it took me some time to realise what was different. It wasn’t just that my four lunch partners were all quite a bit older than me–15 years, at least, and I’m not as young as you think I am. It was, I realised, that in more than two hours of eating not one of us had answered a phone–or even received a phone call, or text message, or furtively checked our email. I’m not sure any of us were packing a BlackBerry. Maybe my companions weren’t even carrying cellphones. It was extraordinary.

I was going to ask, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment. Here were five men sitting around a table talking about stuff for about 120 minutes, and not one single interruption by technology or modern communications. They weren’t even in sight: Not one of us had put a phone on the table in the usual custom of staking out one’s corner of the table. It felt like a flashback to the early 1990s. And it was great.

A recent survey in the UK highlights how mad we’ve become:

Our liking for modern technology may be disrupting our sleep – and even our relationships, claims a UK survey.

The poll, by The Sleep Council, found that many people admitted checking texts, surfing the internet, or playing games in bed.

It suggests one in four people now regularly sleeps in a different bed from their partner, and many often go to bed at different times.

God I miss the old days.

(And no, it wasn’t a boozy lunch. No alcohol in sight.)

BBC NEWS | Health | Gadgets may cause lonely bedtimes

Dark Age Messengers

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Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

image

Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

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