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Technology and Getting A Life

70s

Why do I like technology? Well, I don’t, actually. I think back wistfully do the days before computers and my love affair with the typewriter and my newspaper cuttings library (which I still have, weirdly.) But technology isn’t going away, so rejecting it is a bit like rejecting clothing. But if I was being honest, I would say: technology allows us to think hard about the future, to see it more clearly, and to be able to argue with people who are much smarter than us.

Take a column I have just been reading by a guy called Nicholas Carr. He’s a very smart fellow, written a skeptical book about IT called Does IT Matter? and generally says things that are smart. But like a lot of people, he doesn’t always seem to get things. One thing he doesn’t like is the idea that as technology gets more ubiquitous, so does recording our lives get easier. This, he says, in a recent editorial piece in The Guardian, would make Socrates (who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”) turn over in his grave: “We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them.”

This is the kind of thing that technology users have learned to live with: the nonsense that everyone who uses technology is obsessed by it, and watches as their lives roll by. But like all balderdash it has some truth to it. As parents we seem more determined to plot our child’s progress through the filter of an viewfinder or LCD monitor than to actually absorb the moment through our eyeballs (babies one day are going to start thinking a human face has one big eye on it, one vast rectangular ear and a blinking red light for a nose.) And as I’ve mentioned before, we cubicle wallahs may be forgiven for mistaking virtual lives via our Twitter and instant messaging lists for real ones.

But Nicholas is not really talking about that. He’s talking about things called lifestreams – where we nerds create a digital feed of all the things we’re doing, reading or taking photos of and share it with anyone who’s interested. One or two folk take this a stage further, and walk around with cameras on their head. Or they record on their Twitter page what they’re eating, or write blogs that redefine the notion of boring your audience to tears. (I have read blogs that have had me literally weeping with boredom.)

Now I can understand that non-techies may feel this is a vast waste of time, and can’t think of anyone whose lives they’d want to follow in such excruciating detail. But just because we, and Nicholas Carr, can’t imagine anyone wanting to see or hear or read this deluge of life-data doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. As with all technologies, we’ll both adapt it to our needs, and adapt to it.

Posterity is a funny thing: We don’t know what it is our future selves and descendants are going to be interested in. A BBC website requesting photos and recollections of the 1970s, for example, found that most British people fondly remembered the strike-induced blackouts. (This is true: I remember looking forward to them because we all slowed down for 10 seconds and Dad told us a story around the fire.) But don’t expect to see any family snaps of that particular aspect of life back then. Unsurprisingly, not many people thought, as they shopped in the flickering gloom of candlelight, “Oo! I should record this for posterity! We’ll look back on these grim days in 30 years’ time with fondness!”

Then take a look at Flickr, or any online photo sharing site and see what people record and share these days. Now, technology allows us not only to see ourselves immediately — no more waiting for the film to come back from the developer, no more tiny digital display that doesn’t let us see much of what we’ve just shot — but also, via 3G and GPS, to share it immediately with anyone else on the planet. Technology, in other words, lets us hold a mirror up to our existence, which we can observe in real time. Socrates wouldn’t be alarmed, he’d be dancing around considering the possibilities.

True, we may not use this mirror as well as we could. A lot of what people record is banal, but who knows what people are going to find interesting about us 30, 50, 300 years down the track? Who knows what we’re going to find interesting about us 10 years down the track? (I’m guessing the lurch in male fashion from long pants to those over-the-knee numbers.) The point is that we’re not just recording our lives because technology allows us to. We’re recording them because we want to. Nicholas Carr thinks this is narcissism. For some it probably is. For others the technology becomes a fence from which to hide behind and not participate. For the rest of us it offers chance to capture and reflect on a life that goes by way too quickly.

Saving Skype Voicemail

This is not particularly new, but I thought it worth making a note of, since there still seems to be some confusion about whether it’s possible to save Skype voicemail messages as audio files onto your computer. There are other ways, but this one, posted at SkypeJournal last year by a guy called Carlos, does the trick most simply, in my view, and doesn’t require any extra software. (This will probably only work on duplex soundcards, but most are nowadays, methinks.) I’ve edited it a bit for clarity.

  • Open the Windows Volume Control (under Accessories/Multimedia in your Start Menu, or via the little speaker in the System Tray)
  • Click on Options and then Properties
  • Select Recording, then make sure Wave Out Mix is selected. Click OK
  • In the Recording Control window, Select Wave out Mix
  • Open the Windows Sound Recorder program (under Accessories/Multimedia) or whatever audio recording program you use
  • Start recording
  • Play the VoiceMail on Skype
  • You should now be recording. Adjust the levels on your audio recording program (I found I had to set it very, very low) as necessary
  • Save the file.

Podcast: The Technology of Hotels

I’ve been recording pieces, usually derived from my WSJ.com and WSJ Asia Loose Wire columns, for the BBC World Service’s World Business Report for more than a year now, and they’re a lovely bunch of guys. (Here’s a link to Jonathan’s recent house move. As someone who hasn’t live in London for nearly 20 years I’m jealous.) Anyway, some listeners have requested a podcast type repeat here, and the BBC have kindly agreed to allow it, so here’s the first podcast of my BBC pieces for now: on hotels. Download Hotels.mp3

Hopefully, if I’ve done my sums right, this will appear as a podcast in the RSS feed. Apologies if it doesn’t. More to follow.

The Future Of Organizers? wikidPad Goes Open Source

If you like wikis, you might like to know that one of the best self-contained wiki Windows programs, wikidPad, is now open source at SourceForge.net:

wikidPad is a wiki-like notebook for storing your thoughts, ideas, todo lists, contacts, or anything else you can think of to write down.

Its author, Jason Horman, released the code late last month, after posting this explanation a month or so back:

I have (clearly) had no time lately to work on wikidPad. I am currently involved with two other startup companies that are eating away all of my time. So what to do? While I enjoy the modest extra income it provides I think that it could be so much cooler than it currently is. In the past few months it seems that more developers have been playing with the platform, and some have been offering to help out in some capacity. I would love to see wikidPad evolve into something incredibly cool. So, I have been thinking of open sourcing it. I haven’t done this before so there are some core questions. I would appreciate feedback/discussion on how to proceed.

WikidPad is a great way to handle notes, and I for one am very optimistic that this sort of thing can move further to centre stage. To be able to cross reference everything just simply by making the words ‘wiki-ed’ is a wonderful tool. There’s a Mac tool that does this in a very similar way, although the name escapes me for the moment.

Good luck, folks, taking this forward, and thanks to Jason for making a gift of this very promising tool.

How Not To Build Buzz

How not to build buzz in the blogosphere: Tell bloggers how to do their job. Just got this in my inbox from Bubbler:

Hello from Glenn Reid, founder of Five Across (Bubbler people),

We’ve shipped Bubbler 1.0, and the world is starting to notice.

John Battelle, one of the founders of Wired Magazine, posted to his blog yesterday asking who might be using Bubbler. Check it out at batellemedia.com and add a comment and a link to your blog if you are excited about it.

I’m sure this is not really from Glenn (the from email address is announce@fiveacross.com), and actually Bubbler is not a bad tool. But I’m not sure telling bloggers to link to another piece is going to appeal to their sense of having their own brain, not least because Battelle’s piece doesn’t say more than

Bubbler seems like a cool idea, I’d heard of it before, and now SVW has a write up. It’s something of a mashup between blogging and first generation webpage building apps…if anyone is using it, lemme know…

I can well understand it’s hard to hit the right note when approaching bloggers. I think the best way is just the simple, straight way: ‘This is what we’ve just done, let us know if you’d like any more information.’ I’m convinced the way is not to tell them how to do their job. That said, by posting this I’ve now done exactly what they asked what they asked me to, so I suppose it does work.