"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

A digital prediction

We spent the afternoon today configuring our new wireless router. Can you think of anything more fun and entertaining than that? It certainly was a learning experience. My wife spent the previous night on hold with a revolving batch of tech-support people (for the cable provider) trying to troubleshoot our old router. None of them had a clue. We figured it out, step by step, with a dash of trial-and-error. I'm online now, so I can prove we succeeded, can't I?

All this wireless and digital stuff is tricky, though, no matter how persistent you are. You have to keep turning things off, unplugging cables, resetting switches, and trying all sorts of unlikely combinations. When our other router died (at least, we think it's dead), all its little green lights still worked just fine. The only hint we had that it was kaput was the fact that it, well, it didn't work. That was our first and only indication. Back in the olden days, when the TV was on the fritz (what the heck's a fritz, anyway??), you knew something important was busted. Somewhere inside the old beast would be a dead rat, or a fried tube, or a burned-out connection. You could smell it! There weren't any silly little green glowing lights trying to trick us into believing the television might still be OK. Either the guy at the repair shop could fix it, or it was time to toss the thing into a dumpster. All these fancy new electronic devices fail with mystery and intrigue, sometimes right out of the box--or other times after months of perfect performance. They don't give you any warning: no sudden flashes or crackles, no weird oily electricky smells, and not even the satisfaction of a dead picture tube. Instead we get "error messages." How droll!

You've all seen the cute emails with titles like "If Bill Gates made Automobiles." At one time or another, we've all been thankful that our TV's don't have to be rebooted or scanned for viruses and Trojans. (Well, I hope there aren't any Trojans inside the TV, anyway!) They are working on making televisions more digital and troublesome, however. Don't worry about that. We haven't even figured out how to program the VCR's that are already obsolete. Funny thing is, those older VCR's weren't really all that complicated. They had lots of buttons to push, and all sorts of menu's to navigate, that's all. The new generation of electronic entertainment crap is all run by software and "set-up wizards," which sounds a little scary to me. If you've replaced your "obsolete" cell-phone lately, you've seen first-hand how complicated a simple device can get. Pass the Bluetooth, will ya please? Take a minute, and go customize the noise your phone makes when you flip it open--that's important!

I am a little discouraged by the level of techno-savvy one has to have these days just to deal with things we now consider ordinary. But I don't actually want to rant about all that, and sound like some befuddled curmudgeon gorging on sour grapes. Playing with all these high-tech toys is fun, and I'm not that old. If you think about it, though, our current electronic economy feels like it's being guided by the geekiest kids you ever knew in high school, with unlimited budgets. Oh, wait, it is! Our "toys" do things we don't even know about--things we don't understand at all. We're so far beyond "hmmm, I wonder how they get sound and pictures to go through the air and into my teevee..." that it's not really even funny to say so. Some of the far-future ideas that wowed us in early Star Trek episodes look quaint today by comparison. Remember when we thought it was so cool that the doors opened automatically for Scotty and Captain Kirk? I'll bet when those fancy doors broke they could fix them!

Where's it all going, anyway? That's what I started out to talk about, a couple hundred words ago. It's much too easy to complain; let's speculate instead! Right now we've got our PC's, our wireless networks, our HDTV (and HD radio, too!), wxyz-compliant cell-phones, multi-function MP3 players, talking cars with bluetooth, and GPS for everyone. That's one big sh**load of acronyms and tons of fun for everyone! Quick, how many remotes do you own? Four? Six? Want to bet it's closer to ten? Take a second, think about it, count them, and see. Still got your old cell-phone sitting in a drawer somewhere? (I checked, we have three! Isn't there some charity that needs them??) How many different radios do you have lying around? (More than ten, here.) Got any non-HD-ready televisions left? (The end is near!) It's all headed somewhere very different, I believe, despite the obvious level of HDD displayed by the rich geeky guys like Steve and Bill G. There's some kind of critical mass building on the electronics horizon.

What we have now will all emerge in wild and unpredictable ways in the near future. Here's what I see in my somewhat murky crystal ball: First, the whole issue of remote-controls will boil down to just two. One will be the truly "universal" remote that controls your television, video-recorder, media-player, tabletop radio--whatever. Most of the buttons will be gone; you'll control it with simple voice commands like "record Law & Order QRSTUV" or "play music." (This one's already in the works, so that forecast is pretty reliable. The price has to come down about forty thousand dollars, however.) Your other remote will open and close the garage door, unlock your car doors, and still have that red button you can hit accidentally to summon help in supermarket parking lots. That one will probably have an MP3 player built-in, but just as a back-up to the one in your cell-phone.

All the parts and pieces will come together, of course. CD's will be only a fond memory soon enough (fact, not prediction). Digital-video recording on simple flash-type memory devices will replace every DVD, Blue-ray or otherwise. Expect to toss all those other components in the trash one day: VCR, DVD-player, stereo-tuner, portable CD-player (already almost gone), etc. One box will accept broadband TV and Internet, as well as provide for digital time-shifting like we get now via TiVo or DVR. That "box" could reside inside whatever becomes of our beloved boxy PC's and notebooks. Our high-def video "monitors" ("screens"?) will be wherever we want them, about one inch thick, as big as we can afford (or desire to afford), and receive their input signals wirelessly from the box I mentioned earlier. You already know you will be able to get whatever signal you want to see or hear on your mobile phone; the only question is how much will that cost? ("OK, you got yer Family-Media Plan for $79 a month, plus the usual surcharges, taxes, fees, and applicable limitations...")

The fact is, these changes will happen soon and we won't be surprised or impressed anymore. We've already seen that you can do damn-near anything with electronics, and make it as small as is acceptable or useful. Most of what we're futzing around with right now are simply old ideas morphing into their new forms. We're all very busy stomping out the figurative bugs created by the transition--bugs in the software, the hardware, and in our ability to accept and comprehend the new concepts. The soon-enough result doesn't require a crystal ball: everything except TV screens will be small, HD (or digital in whatever form), and ultimately portable. And wireless, of course. (Too bad for all those who make cables of various sorts, eventually.) There's no doubt at all that soon you will be able to make telephone calls, listen to music, surf the Internet, navigate to any destination, watch video media of all kinds, take moving and still photographs, consult your day-planner, unlock your car, and jump-start your malfunctioning heart--all with a single device the size of a Bic lighter or wristwatch. We're almost there right now. Two questions, though: What will it all cost? (per month, of course), and How often will it suffer fatal malfunctions?