Tag Archives: history of technology

Metropolis – 83 years later and we’re still afraid of machines

Yesterday, I watched Metropolis, one of the most influential German silent films of all times. To be honest, I had hardly ever heard about it until recently, when an almost original version of the 1927 film was discovered in Argentina. Having seen it now, I can now understand why there’s been so much fuzz about it. With its special effects and high production cost, it must have been the equivalent of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. But more importantly, it’s a historical artifact that reflects an aspect of the modern Zeitgeist that is still with us today – the paradox of technology as progress and technology as enslavement. Continue reading

A cell phone for each stage of my life


In the summer of 2007, me and my cell phone were thrown into a Spanish swimming pool. We managed to reach the shore, but my cell phone died a few hours later from the damages it had suffered to some of its vital number keys. I was generously provided with exactly the same type of cell phone shortly after, which wasn’t a particularly modern device even back then. By now, it comes across as medieval. But it works. I’m not sure when I’ll purchase a new smart phone, but before I do, I’ll quickly remember some of its predecessors in this post. Continue reading

The file vision


As I may have mentioned before, I’m working in the broadcasting industry at the moment. The broadcasting industry is changing. Everybody tries to get rid of those good old tapes and do everything with digital files. But why? I know this sounds like a funny question. But when you think about it, it’s a bit puzzling. Why do computer files appear so much more appealing than videocassettes? We may immediately think of reduced costs, efficiencies, platform convergence and other ready-at-hand business phrases. Ultimately, however, we should look at the people in and around broadcasting and how they chat amongst each other. Continue reading

Behind the screens – Broadcasters going digital


These days, I’m working with a small company that basically helps TV stations to adopt the latest technology. The latest technology in broadcasting is digital and “tapeless”. Gone will be the days when films, shows, and commercials were recorded onto video tapes and ultimately stored as such on endless shelves in the basement (see picture). Tapes will be replaced by computer files and the basement shelves by a few fancy hard drives. Of course, this doesn’t happen over night and not all tapes and basement shelves will disappear, but that’s pretty much the direction the industry is going in.

Will the average TV viewer notice the difference? I doubt it. In fact, when I told friends and family about what I’m up to these days and how TV stations are only now beginning to abandon their video cassettes, most of them were surprised. They would ask, “I thought they’re all already doing it that way?” But they are not. Little does the average TV viewer know about how those films, shows, and commercials on his screen come about. A whole new world opens up for me these days, as I discover what goes on behind the screen.

Ordinary people

I will spare you any intriguing discussion of how to build “tapeless” broadcasting systems or how it may completely change TV stations as organizations. I’m just trying to come to terms with this separation between those who make television and those who watch it. It’s the same with stage performances, for example musicals. As somebody in the audience, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes or “how they do it”. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t know, because if I did, the show wouldn’t be the same.

That’s the magic of television (and other media as well) – the separation between “ordinary people” and those who make it. Nick Couldry, a leading media professor, has said that without this separation the whole media world as we know it wouldn’t work. We only trust the news and feel entertained by the latest sitcom because we have no clue how they’ve done it. He’s pretty critical of this because only those who do know how it’s done have the power to do it again and to produce the films, shows, and commercials they like. The ordinary viewer is confined to being an ordinary viewer.

Everything like Youtube

At this point you may like to point out that millions of Youtube users are making their own little clips and broadcast them to the world (if anybody cares to watch it). It’s almost boring to mention citizen journalism and user generated content now (where did web 2.0 go?). And indeed, some of the technologies that TV stations are now implementing seem a bit more democratic because they use the same standards and follow similar concepts like those that an ordinary person would use. For example, the TV station and the ordinary viewer will both have a hard drive with digital video files in very similar formats – only that the TV station’s hard drive is slightly bigger and surrounded by a bunch of other supporting hardware. But the idea is the same.

What this means for television and the media as a whole remains to be seen. One obvious consequence to me is that it will be easier for content to flow from the viewer/user to professional TV stations, at least from a technological point of view. This doesn’t mean that content will actually flow once we take all legal and organizational barriers into account. But at least there’s now the option of my Youtube video being easily transmitted to the BBC.

However, more democratic technology doesn’t mean that the separation between ordinary viewers and media makers will become permeable. A TV station will remain a little world of its own, a mystery to anybody outside of it. Technology is by no means the only way by which the viewer-producer separation is maintained. Professional conduct of people working in the television industry is another important one. So is the geographical split between places of media production (e.g. the news studio) and media consumption (the living room).

Ultimately, I think many viewers don’t care to know how their program gets to them as long as it does and as long as it keeps them happy and nicely amused.

The wanna-be museum of communication


It was a bit of a let down, really. My dad and I agreed that today’s visit to Berlin’s “Museum of Communication” was properly disappointing. Upon entering the rather impressive (can’t think of a more eloquent word to describe architecture) building, we found ourselves surrounded by old telephones and telegraphs – lots of them, too, in roughly chronological order.

In the circular open space in the middle of the impressive building, two robots were bored to death kicking around an orange-colored plastic ball. For no immediately obvious reason, the curators then skipped over the invention of radio and television, guiding us visitors quickly to the 21st century. The new media age was represented by roughly 10 stationary personal computers, which my dad and I used to check our emails real quick.

The special of the day was a temporary exposition entitled “From diaries to blogs” (or something in that direction… I threw away lost the leaflet), which provided a non-exhaustive list of historical and contemporary figures (Goebbels, Anne Frank, and some other non-Nazi related figures as well) who wrote diaries, arriving promptly at the conclusion that both diaries and blogs can be written for all sorts of purposes. Thank you.

Now, let me wrap it up with some balance-striking words. Admittedly, the whole “Museum of Communication” started of as and is still part of a foundation for “Post and Telecommunication”, with a clear emphasis on the former. In fact, if they call the whole thing “Museum of the German Postal Service (and free internet access on the 2nd floor)”, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Expectation management, hello?!

And on an intellectual note, that was also the only take-home-massage from that museum: Long-distance communication in the form of letters, telegraphs, and later telephone was for a long time considered a responsibility of the German state(s). Hence, it was placed in the hands of a public body run by efficient, mainly Prussian, terribly orderly, German civil servants. No guys in flip-flops from Silicon Valley to provide email services or some foreign invaders buying up German cell phone networks. No, it had to be die Deutsche Bundespost, ja.

In times like these, when we’re about to liberalize and privatize every last bit of telecommunication, this glimpse into the past was rather instructive… Not that instructive though. After all, it was just a bunch of old telephones and telegraphs in roughly chronological order.

Always say “Yes and No”

When somebody asks you whether you think the Internet is about to change life as we know it, say “Yes… [hesitate a bit]… and no”. With that sort of answer you can never go wrong and it also makes you sound smart because apparently you’ve taken all kinds of perspectives into account. Besides, it’s probably the correct answer. If people aren’t happy with it, add something like “…but everything’s faster now and there’s more of it, too.”

Here’s an example. It was never true that the person who buys a newspaper will be the only one reading it. He/she will forget it on the bus, throw it over the fence to the neighbors in the afternoon. He/she may even cut out an article to show to someone else. In fact, that’s what my grandpa still does – complete with the newspaper name and the date handwritten in one corner. So that’s how it used to be done.

And what would my grandpa do if he was using the internet? He would go to his Google Reader or newspaper website (Kieler Nachrichten, by the way), find something interesting, and show it to someone else – now complete with the link and a nice little comment. Not much new there, just a bit more digital. The difference is, he would do it all the time, with many of his Facebook friends, across the entire Universe, and with instantaneous delivery. That’s why you can add “…but everything’s faster now and there’s more of it, too.”

I really meant to write about how and why people share online content with others, but I guess I got carried away… oh well, next post.

When Jack Bauer is using a computer…

Watching the TV series 24 is good fun. At least for me it is. One thing that always cracks me up is the way Jack Bauer and all the other good and bad guys are using computers. I have two questions: Why don’t they ever just use some Windows/Linux/Mac OS application? And if you’re working for the FBI, what operating systems are they running? Does anybody know?

The first thing you have to notice about the stuff on their screens is how flashy and shiny it is. Objects are flying all over the place, numbers and other symbols are steadily moving up and down in the background, everything is at least 3-D. No developer would ever do this to the system’s resources, especially when it’s purpose is to search through millions of fingerprint records as fast as possible. Such an interface is also highly distracting. They must all be dizzy at the end of the day.

The second thing that’s so fantastic about their interfaces is how they depict the operations that are carried out. Let’s say somebody has to crack some crazy file encryption. The screen then shows a billion symbols or so that are supposed to look like something is being matched up or calculated, much like the Matrix code. The same with database searches, for example for fingerprints. What database would visually fly through all its records until returning the correct entry? My favorite is deleting stuff. Files are actually really wiped off the hard drive in front of the user and the audience, illustrated by some fading icon…

I’m sure there’s tons of information out there about the way computers (and technology in general) are shown in pop culture. The big question is where the people making these movies and series get their ideas from and how their ideas shape the way computers actually develop.

Anyways, this is a nice list of computer usability bloopers in TV/cinema. And here’s an interesting interview with some industry people who actually design these fake interfaces. Any other information is highly appreciated!