Column: Productivity -- The Low-Tech World to Come

  • by May 26, 2006

New media passed the acid test with Hurricane Katrina. As the flood waters rose, The Times-Picayune newspaper staffers fled their offices with little more than what they could hold in their laps as delivery trucks sloshed through waist-deep water to carry them to safety. But once out of danger and back on the beat, they realized that there was no way to print the paper, nor any way to distribute it even if it could be printed.

So The Times-Picayune focused its energies on its Web site, which quickly became a vital hub of information and connection. During the first few days of the flood, the site received more than 70 million page views, compared to a mere 6 million per week previously. The new medium effectively kept the old in business.

Yet, even as Katrina showed off the value of new media, it also showed that traditional media were no less important. In affected areas, the lack of electrical power made the Internet inaccessible. Battery-powered radios became lifelines during the storm, as radio stations helped people locate gasoline, food, family, paychecks, shelters, building supplies, and emergency services. Four Clear Channel stations in Mobile, Ala. dropped their music formats and went to 24-hour call-in shows for people to share information.

Katrina reminded us of the oft-overlooked precariousness of our high-tech lifestyles. Therein lies our paradoxical future: It must be both high-tech and low-tech.

Notwithstanding the current infatuation with new media, this is the trend to watch: the revival of traditional media and low-tech technologies. Indeed, one of last year’s most interesting developments was the announcement of the $100 laptop by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. It is a stripped-down machine, usable for basic word-processing, Internet access, and e-mail. Each laptop comes with a crank that can provide 10 minutes of power per minute of cranking.

Negroponte wants to distribute the $100 laptop to children around the world. But this low-tech computer has created such commercial interest that he has partnered with a hardware company to market a slightly pricier version for retail. Profits will be used to fund his One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Think of it: a low-tech solution for transforming education in countries where millions of kids don’t even have access to textbooks. Low-tech so compelling that there is a for-profit market for it that could change the high-tech landscape. After all, it’s not just poor children but also millions of tech-savvy consumers for whom a no-frills laptop would be perfect.

This resurgence of traditional media and venues is afoot everywhere. Radio cooking shows are booming. Public lectures and book readings draw standing-room-only crowds. Poetry slams sell out like arena rock concerts. Cafés like Victrola in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district have seen business improve after turning off the Wi-Fi on weekends.

Even podcasting, that vaunted phenomenon of the new media marketplace, is nothing more than a new form of an old medium, radio. The Apple iPod has emerged as the iconic symbol of the radical boost in mobility, control, and customization wrought by the new digital media. Yet the tens of thousands of people now creating their own podcasting content are a throwback to the halcyon days of radio, before spectrum became scarce, regulated, and cornered. Digital delivery now sidesteps these limitations, but the content itself is no different from a format we have long enjoyed. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to turn podcasting on its head and see it not as part of a new media marketplace but as a fresh channel for an old medium.

High-tech gets the headlines, but low-tech is no less a phenomenon. And this tells us something important about lifestyles in the high-tech world ahead. We tend to presume that high-tech media are going to completely transform the character and quality of life, when in fact, more often than not, new technologies are just finding and settling into the niches where they are superior. That’s not to be dismissed, but it should be recognized for what it is. As new media establish their place, so will traditional media reinvent theirs. The future will be as much old media as new — no less low-tech than high.


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