Friday, May 23, 2008

25 Technologies That Must Die


- Obviously technologies can't die, but our use of them can. I chose "technologies" rather than "inventions"; items developed via science or engineering rather than simply used or marketed. Cigarettes, for instance, would certainly hit a list of 25 inventions that need to die.

- Some cause death and destruction, while others simply annoy me. Some are useful and beneficial, but have negative side effects that justify hoping for something better.

- Some are on their way out, others obviously doomed as we are working to replace them, while others strike me as replaceable, eventually.

Coal Fueled Power Plants

Why They Must Die: Coal is the most inefficient mass source of energy production, with nearly 65% of all energy lost in its burning process, not including the 10% lost on the way to your house. It causes hundreds of thousands illnesses and deaths to miners and citizens each year, including asthma, lung cancer, and mercury poisoning.

It causes environmental damage; from the mining, stripping and destroying the land, to the endlessly darkening smog from burning.

Why does American keep burning coal? It's cheaper than oil, and doesn't require sending money to the Arab states.

What Should Replace Them: With oil at 130 dollars a barrel and rising, the rush is on to produce clean technologies. As the costs of producing energy from clean technologies fall, this will not only allow America to lessen its need for oil but also break the romantic pictures we have of having to produce coal or be dependent on foreign energy supplies.

Gasoline Fueled Internal Combustion Engines

Why They Must Die: Not only do combustion engines produce air pollution, they are one of the primary contributing factors to noise pollution. Until you get out of the city you forget just how noisy day to day life is with a constant stream of motors, tire squeals, and honking horns.

What Should Replace Them: Alternative engine technology, including hybrid, hydrogen, and electric vehicles. More kick-ass public transport, telecommuting, and local shared multi-company office facilities.

Car Alarms

Why They Must Die: No one hears a car alarm and thinks that a car is being stolen; they think, "Dude! Shut off your damn car alarm!" What is the false positive ratio? 100 to 1? 1000 to 1? Surely we can find a way to protect our car (or house), without waking up a three block radius at 3 am blaring a siren that nobody pays attention to.

What Should Replace Them: Systems connected to central stations, lighting an interior light instead sounding an alarm, or playing a quiet recording that the car is protected, the owner has been notified, and the area around the car is being filmed? And a big sticker that warns about it?

Better locks, immobilizers, ignitions, radios that only work with RFID keys, and interior steel safes attached to the chassis, so that burglars require a tow truck to steal your car.

Traffic Lights

Why They Must Die: Traffic signs and signals are to drivers what red flags are to bulls. I understand that people like to control their own vehicles, but it's long past time we notice that the system isn't working. Too many young male drivers; millions of deaths and injuries every year would have condemned any other technology long ago.

What Should Replace Them: Anti-collision detectors in cars and intersections could make a difference without causing too much trouble during an emergency. Traffic circles, if done right, are annoying, but less prone to accidents.

Some places have a practice called "Sharing Space". They believe that drivers are dangerous exactly because they rely on traffic signs and signal, making them feel immune to danger when they have the right of way. Contrary to common sense, removing not only traffic lights, but sidewalks and crosswalks, reduces accidents. Drivers in these areas drive slowly and cautiously, all by themselves.

Power Windows

Why They Must Die: Power windows break more frequently than their manual counterparts, exert enough pressure to crush fingers and necks of little children, and prevent you from opening or closing the window unless the key is turned on.

The one saving grace of an electric car window is that stupid people are less likely to kill someone while reaching across the seat to close them while driving.

What Should Replace Them: Good old manual windows work for me. Failing that, power windows with manual overrides and strong pressure safety regulations.

Visible Power Lines

Why They Must Die: Power lines promise instant death if you climb them and slow death if you live under or near them.

I grudgingly accept that the landscape needs to be ripped up for roads, communities, and quarries. But only billboards - another invention that should die - wreck a landscape more than miles of high voltage wires and poles. The next time you're outside, imagine the same view without the power lines; they're really the primary item rendering the landscape ugly.

What Should Replace Them: Buried insulated tubes that protect us from high level emissions with protections to deactivate the power if the tubes are compromised. I recognize that this is something on the order of ten times as expensive as above ground power lines.

As an alternative, wireless transmission. Superconductivity needs to catch up to our current demand (pun intended).

Power Cords

Why They Must Die: They're ugly. I keep tripping on them. My dog chews them up, and I don't want my children electrocuted or strangled without my consent.

What Should Replace Them: Wireless electricity or static or solar electricity chargers.


Why It Must Die: How many gallons of caustic development fluids must we dump just to see pretty pictures? Before you say, "this is over, we're all digital now," 2/3 to 3/4 of professional photographers still use film cameras. Why? Because it's a tad better resolution than digital.

What Should Replace It: The resolution issue is shrinking at a thankfully fast pace. Within a few years, digital photography will compete professionally with film photography. But it really doesn't matter. There's just not enough reason to use buckets of deadly chemicals just to make a "slightly nicer" picture when it's blown up to six by six feet.

Just take a break for from art photography for the next few years until digital catches up. I certainly don't need film photography for my web or newspaper stories.

Incandescent Lights

Why They Must Die: Incandescents use far too much electricity for the light they output, wasting the rest as heat. They burn out too often and shatter too easily.

What Should Replace Them: Fluorescent and LED lights are finally able to take the place of incandescents. They're coming down in price, they fit standard sockets, they use a fraction of the energy and last long enough to be cheaper than incandescents, over time. Several states and countries have committed to phase out all incandescent bulbs within the next decade.

Landline Telephones

Why They Must Die: We used to call business to business or locality to locality. Then we called house to house. That made sense for a while.

The result of getting stuck in the need for a landline telephones is the worst consumer abusing companies existing, and we still can't use the phone when someone else in the house is on it. We not only pay for the calls, but a monthly service charge.

What Should Replace Them: Mobile phones. Kids need cheap, safe, waterproof cells with limited functionality or service.

I know that mobile phones are up there at the top of most people's lists of technologies that they hate: irritating rings, loud blathering, the feeling of constantly being tethered and available, and companions that would rather talk to someone far away from them than the person sitting in front of them.

But remember two things: One, it's not technology that makes people annoying, it's people that make people annoying. And two, cell phones are just too important: in scheduling, in personal freedom, and in emergencies, to lose altogether.

The bigger problem is that mobile calling companies are just as consumer abusing as landline companies. The calls are ridiculously expensive, you're locked into service companies, and you pay extra charges whenever the company feels like it. We need an Internet for mobile system that allows you to simply be online, all the time, for a monthly flat fee.

Another problem is the expense of the phone, and the environmental damage from burnt out batteries. But prices are coming down, and battery recycling should become more pervasive.

Lead Paint, Fuel, and Pipe Soldering

Why These Must Die: We've known for decades about the toxic effects of lead in our consumer products, yet it stubbornly remains. Lead paint remains in many older houses, and is still used in other countries. Lead fuel is still used for aircraft, racing cars, farm equipment, and marine engines. Lead solder is still used for house pipes.

What Should Replace Them: Lead paints can be replaced with titanium based paint. Unleaded fuels have been powering our cars, and there is no reason legislation shouldn't force their general use. Lead pipes are pretty much history, but lead soldering continues due to its lower melting point than some alternatives. For pipes, the solution is plastic (one of the better uses for plastic).

Media Packaging

Why It Must Die: Because the essential part of media is, well, media. The media distribution industry and all laws that deal with IP revolve around the scarcity and difficulty of producing and distributing packaging materials: magazines, cassettes, CDs, and so on. Packaging uses up vital resources that will eventually get junked, requires us to purchase new containers when the old ones no longer work or don't work on new media players, and protects an industry whose current business is based on replicating packaging in digital formats with DRM and region controls.

What Should Replace It: Nothing. It's time to think of media as unpackageable: infinitely copyable and distributable. Rewrite our laws and businesses based on this fact. Don't work overtime trying to artificially wreck our copying and distributing capabilities.

If media is immediately available and accessible the moment it's recorded, what type of business models should exist based on this fact? Off the top of my head: live performance, searching, association, recommendation, summarizing, relevant and interesting facts about the media, personalization (personal media, such as songs recorded to your style and taste) and splice-ups, coaching, teaching, fact-checking, live coverage, better media players, ...

Web Sites and Web Browsers

Why They Must Die: Businesses want to be Game Masters and pretend that we're player characters. Each business tries to force us into its own world, telling us what we can and can't do.

We're beginning to question this. Why should I buy all the songs on a CD when I just want one? Why should I search through clothes sorted by brands in a store, instead of by sizes or styles that suit me? Why should I read text, watch video, find information, shop, travel, eat, or live the way a company wants me to, instead of the way I want to?

Web sites are modeled on storefronts. Sites bury their information in a way that suits the site owner or company.

What Should Replace Them: XML, RSS, and other technologies liberate us from this company-oriented methodology, if the company allows it. Luckily for us, the overwhelming force of these technologies are forcing companies to adapt, whether they like it or not.

Soon enough, the vast majority of relevant information will be accessible in chunks, tags, and feeds. We'll browse for what we want using tools that look and feel similar to file and email clients. The web as we know it will de-construct. All that will be left on the web are online applications and places to hang out.

For more detail, read Web 3.0.

Scheduled Broadcasting

Why It Must Die: When broadcast was the only game in town, the image of clicking through channel after channel with the TV remote became an icon for the dissatisfaction of broadcasting services. With rare exception, no one wants to have to sit through this to watch that. Or hear a lot of this in the hope of occasionally hearing that.

What Should Replace It: The Internet and our slow but steady move to digital on-demand broadcast services allow us to select our own schedules, start or stop content on a whim, or receive content selection that attempts to match our personal preference.

Closed Source Code

Why It Must Die: Because nearly all code sucks. The industry of closed source code is built around selling service and updates to itself. If you want a program to do something, you have to pay some guy to do it for you, the same guy whose interest is to keep you wanting more changes.

The reason we have malware, adware, spyware, file format hijacking, popups and pop-unders, and any sort of code doing things that we don't really want is because we can't just ask someone to change the code to disable it.

What Should Replace It: Open source code, with strict practices for modularization, security, and flexibility.

Invasive Surgery

Why It Must Die: Surgery has saved millions of lives, and restored the dignity of tens of millions more. But, just, ew. Taking a knife and cutting someone open in order to heal them just doesn't seem right to me. Aside from the scarring and hemorrhaging, huge recovery times, hospital expenses, and sanitation issues, only a select few people in the world can safely practice surgery, and only under specific conditions in specific places with specific instruments.

What Should Replace It: For the near future, better and more widespread micro- and laser surgery techniques and endoscopic tools. Eventually, something that can move, repair, and suture through skin without breaking it.

10 day Anti-biotic Series

Why They Must Die: Too many people can't, don't, or won't take a full course of anti-biotics, creating whole new generations of drug resistant pathogens. We are, in reality, proscribing ourselves to death.

What Should Replace Them: Eventually something besides anti-biotics. But for now, short course anti-biotics (three days seems more doable), as well as patch-applied and other slow release mechanisms.

Oil Hydrogenation

Why It Must Die: Despite the better consistency achieved in pie and strudel dough, trans fats produced by hydrogenating oil lead to obesity and heart disease.

What Should Replace It: Suffering for lack of specific types of great desserts, I guess. Everyone knows the problems by now, which is why they are gradually being phased out. We'll all just have to switch to better lifestyles.

Automatic Electric Doors

Why They Must Die: Electronic doors are slow and waste electricity (they save on heating/cooling, but hydraulic door closures do that just as well). Most of the electronic doors I know of annoyingly open and close seemingly at random, or are just plain broken.

What Should Replace It: Like everything else automatic that has ever been created, automatic doors need manual overrides, so you can push back that revolving door that has your pocketbook caught in the door frame. Simple push or sliding doors work fine for me.

On subways and buses, hydraulic closers should work just as well. The main point is electronic sensors to ensure that the vehicle doesn't move when the door is open, and that doesn't depend on automatic closure.

Door Hinges

Why They Must Die: One of our oldest and simplest technologies, and unfortunately the cause of hundreds of thousands of crushed fingers every year. The space between the door and the frame opposite the hinges also causes finger injuries, but this can be fixed with slow closing hydraulics.

What Should Replace It: You can install door guards in your house to cover the hinges, but they're ugly and need to be installed on both sides, really.

It would be nice to replace basic hinges with anything that can't trap fingers. A pivot system inside a recessed frame should do the trick.

Hand Dryers

Why They Must Die: They take too long, they make too much noise, they waste electricity, but most importantly they can't dry anything but your hands.

Hand dryers replaced the canonical usage of a hand towel, without considering that hand towels are useful for many other things, other than drying hands. This is highly symbolic of many of our technological "achievements"; the loss of a simple, generic tool in favor of a highly complex and specific one that works half as well and no longer offers the flexibility of the original tool. Hand dryers, for instance, can't mop up a wet surface.

What Should Replace They: Paper towels made from recycled paper.


Why It Should Die: Otherwise known as Styrofoam, foam peanuts, plastic and hot cups, fast food containers, and so on. Unrecyclable, landfill intensive, and littering our planet for the next million years.

What Should Replace It: Any number of green products, including biodegradable bubble wrap, cardboard, recycled paper peanuts, smart wrap, and so on.

Lethal Weapons

Why They Must Die: So that more people won't. Most of the time, lethal weapons are used because other technologies haven't yet been able to take their place.

What Should Replace Them: Less-lethal, non-crippling weapons, currently under development. In truth, there will always be some place for killing weapons, but the less, the better.

On the other hand, there is a growing tendency, as less-lethal weapons become available, for their wielders to use them with careless frequency, under the delusion that less-lethal means never-lethal, that force is easier than thinking, and that, since pain is transient, it's forgivable even when not appropriate.

The lesson here is that less-lethal weapons require just as much training and prudence as lethal weapons do.

Land mines and Cluster Bombs

Why They Must Die: Booby-trapping a place you don't want someone to go into makes the place unavailable not only to your opponent but to you. In the end, the people generally killed or maimed by these bombs are civilians such as farmers or curious children.

What Should Replace Them: Electronic sensors with sirens probably work just as well. Or, at least, smart mines and bombs that can be unequivocally dismantled by passing a radio beam over them with the correct pass code.


Why It Should Die: It makes a nice fire retardant, but many forms of asbestos are highly toxic through inhalation. 10,000 people a year die in the U.S. alone due to asbestos related illnesses. The litigation costs alone over asbestos are staggeringly expensive.

What Should Replace It: Most intelligent countries have already banned asbestos as a construction material, except, of course, the U.S. A number of alternative materials exist, including fiberglass and polybenzimidazole fiber.



Marc Majcher said...

Fax machines. The only reason I keep a land line in the home office. It's the future, people. Email has attachments now.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Oh, yes, Marc. Right on.


Anonymous said...

Mountaintop-Mining. To get faster to the metals needed, companys now cut off whole mountain tops wih dynamite, poisining the ssurrounding enviroment.