Sunday, March 23, 2008

Is Technology Good?

This is a question I've struggled with at times. Is technology good? Obviously, conveniences make our lives easier. Technology can make manual and repetitive tasks easy to automate. Technology can lower the costs of goods (such as the automobile). But is it good?

I've thought for a long time that the digital distribution of goods (TV, video, music, books, etc) is the way to go. Hypothetically, costs should be cheaper since there is no packaging or shipping costs. There are bandwidth costs, but those should be very small shared among hundreds, or thousands, or millions (or... billions). One such product I thought might make a difference is the e-book. We've talked about it for years. You carry one device around, and load one or several books in electronic books on it. Certain e-book readers can store many many books. Imagine carrying around the entire Library of Congress with you. And all of your favorite songs. Incredible.

Amazon has been marketing one such e-book reader. Priced at $400 (eek!), the Kindle looks very similar to a book and appears to be easy on the eyes, another complaint of e-book readers. One huge benefit is that the Kindle communicates with Amazon via Sprint's EVDO cell phone service, enabling you to purchase and download books literally anywhere you have service. You're on a long car ride, forgot a book. Oh, just login and buy one! Zap, there it is.

But then the coolness fades... First, the Kindle is $400. $400!! That is before you actually buy any books to read on it. You can buy 100 $4 books for that price! Even more if you get cheap used books. Which brings up another disadvantage. With the Kindle, you cannot buy a 'used book.' There's no such thing! Any book you buy will be at whatever price Amazon sets. You can't trade with a friend, or pickup an old classic in a half-price book store.

This last point is one beef I have with digital downloads. There is no secondary market for used goods, no 'online garage sales' if you will. Why not? According to Amazon, Apple iTunes, Sony, and others, you are not purchasing a product (the book, song, movie, whatever). You are purchasing a license to use the product. In other words, you are paying $10 to read their book, but it still remains their book, not yours. You cannot sell it, rent it, loan it, or tear it up and burn it in your fireplace. You do not own it!

I'm told in more knowledgeable circles that this is called the doctrine of first sale. Computer software fought (and is still fighting) this fight. Technically, when you purchase most any software program for your computer, you are forced to agree to a license stating how you can use the software, and what you can/can't do with it. If I buy Intuit Quicken, decide I don't like it, uninstall it and sell it to a friend, there's nothing Intuit can do about that. However, you can be sure that corporations would rather each person purchase their own copy, increasing revenues.

Is technology good? I think it can be, but sometimes it can severely restrict us in ways we may not even think of!

Happy Easter!

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