Pins on a map: Networks and Nostalgia

I was exploring the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Association conference website and didn’t get further into it then the 2013 Best of Innovations Awards when nostalgia hit. The first category: Computer Hardware & Components lists Moneual’s Touch Table PC as a tool for restaurant patrons to order, entertain themselves, and pay their bill. As someone who grew up in an area surrounded by diners and hamburger joints (NJ is the diner capital of the world), I fondly remember Mr. Bee’s hamburgers with fake bee hives under glass tables and Ms. PacMan table top games. Attendees at the annual ESRI International Conference in San Diego will probably relate it to the fun themed table tops at The Cheese Shop Deli near the conference center.  The concept of a touch table top for a diner is both innovative and comfortable at the same time, because it is built upon diner history for diner’s providing entertainment and often advertising space on table tops.

I started to reflect on how many of the innovations that the CES highlights this year, such as touch tables, tablets, and 3D visualization feel more comfortable in their environments than the technology that led up to them didn’t. Is one of the signs that a technology has matured that it blends in with its surroundings and daily life? According to the Wall Street Journal, restaurant chains are testing out using small, interactive computer screens at the table. They have found that diners tip more given electronic choices. Some restaurants are even making a profit on table top game apps. The arguments that the apps take away from the dining experience also feel nostalgic, they were the same arguments being used to argue against table top arcade gamappinmes in pizzerias.

3D Visualization was another CES feature technology that had a nostalgic feel because of arguments being made outside CES cautioning against the detrimental impacts of 3D visualization, such as  software creating external corporate control of cities, film making, or other entities that use the technology.  While the technology is new, many of the critiques of it, even when valid, feel retread. The same issues were raised with the use of innovations like office software tools and technicolor movies. Other new technologies that had a nostalgic feel were touch tablets that can be extended to work with one or more monitors to create better workflow. I often use my iPad as an electronic document holder and find that many of the principles for using it are a carry over from word processors and type writer ergonomics. Of course, the most technologically nostalgic device is one like the USB typewriter that modernizes old technology. Even the argument against “retro technologies” that try to fit new technologies into old boxes as nostalgic wallowing applies to today’s Generation Flux and yesterday’s Lost Generation.

A recent article in The Economist delves into the feeling of technology nostalgia, “Has the ideas machine broken down?: The idea that innovation and new technology have stopped driving growth is getting increasing attention. But it is not well founded.” It discusses the fact that this overall feeling of stagnancy and incremental rates of innovation has been going on for decades.  According to the article, this is partly a factor of perception, starting point, and growth rate.  In today’s society, our technological imaginations are bigger than our own reality. This might explain why criticisms of new innovations feel so similar to arguments about older technologies. An User Interface Engineering article, “Designing What’s Never Been Done Before” sums it up by saying that we are often designing new solutions for old or existing problems. An Entrepreneur article, “The New Trends and Technologies Driving Design“, written almost a year ago in February 2012 states that incrementalism and nostalgia are a manufactured part of the design process or a built in constraint.  We have to face facts, in the life cycle of the  grand technological growth curve there isn’t much difference between a manual or electronic document holder.

I haven’t decided if this nostalgia reflects more on my age or the age we live in, but I’ve decided to take the approach of Terry Pratchett, “It’s still magic even if we know how it’s done” or even if it feels like we’ve been here before. I look forward to the new age of space exploration, which Wired magazine’s “Almost Being There: Why the Future of Space Exploration Is Not What You Think”  is trying to tell me won’t live up to our imaginations because technology has transformed space exploration beyond our ken. We sociologically and psychologically feel uncomfortable with modern space travel because it exceeds mental images we have built as a society.  Maybe it is good to have innovations that challenge us intellectually and technologically as a society. I don’t know if Marvin Minsky was partially joking when he chided NASA for being old fashioned and creating 10 year olds jaded of space technology, but I like to think so, because I can’t believe the magic has gone out of technology and innovation yet. Maybe the nostalgia and maturity I am referring to is actually ennui and jadedness that will be overcome when the next big leap happens to wow us in our lifetimes. I hope it happens soon.


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