We’re Not High-Tech, We’re High-Connect

For years, I’ve been wondering, “Why does everyone still think that computers are ‘high tech,’ particularly given how little really new stuff arrives?” I mean, consider that we’re still doing most of our computing on processors that are basically tweaked versions of the 80386DX, which appeared in 1985, and our networking on IPv4, which appeared in 1989, with its nice, graphical face—the Web—first appearing the following year, in 1990. 1990? I mean hey, 17-year-old stuff isn’t high tech. So why do we keep calling the Internet and PCs “high tech?” Ah, but now I get it! I finally understand!

We’re not high tech. We’re high connect. And I have several items of proof.

First, consider cell-phone quality. When I was a kid, the United States had a phone system that many deemed to have the best voice quality in the world. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, you could get a phone almost anywhere in the country. In contrast, big pieces of the world had nearly non-existent phone service. The ability to pick up a phone in New York and talk to someone in San Francisco, and clearly understand the conversation, was high tech. Nowadays, most of us have phone connections that are truly awful by the standards of those days, as “high quality voice signal cell phone” isn’t a sequence of words that brings up a single hit on Google. Ah, but we can make those phone calls from just about anywhere to just about anywhere else, and that’s the innovation. Quality doesn’t matter: connectedness matters.

Second, consider “texting” or, in geek speak, “short message service” (SMS). As a reader of science fiction, I recall a general consensus among storytellers in the 1960s that humans in the future would evolve to have small bodies and giant brains to accommodate our (putative) growing need for intellectual power. Nowadays, I’d put my money on future humans having giant thumbs or at least preternaturally fast and flexible thumbs. I know I’m going to date myself with this assertion, but heck, I just turned 50, so I guess that’s a foregone conclusion, so here goes. In 1973, I got my first chance to sit down at a 110-bit-per-second (no, I didn’t mean to write “110 kilobit-per-second”) teletype and interact with my first computer. If you had told me then that by 2007 hundreds of millions and possibly billions of people would interact with themselves and, in some cases, computers, through the pathetically limited input device that is the 12-button phone keypad and the human thumb, I would have thought ,“Gosh, this person must be using those mind-bending drugs that I’ve heard to avoid.” And yet, that’s the future or, rather, the present.

Yeah, sure, you can buy a cell phone nowadays equipped with 80+ really, really tiny keys to make texting easier, but given the age group that seems to control what our cell phones look like, I suspect that anything with more than about 16 pushbuttons will always be seen as dorky and so never really achieve much of a market share unless it’s something that corporations will buy for people, like a BlackBerry. So, again, lower tech, higher connect.

Still not convinced? Stick around, because I think I saved the best for last: email. Remember the first time you got a piece of actual physical mail addressed to you when you were a kid, and how exciting it was? And now I’d guess that you, like most people, sort your mail over the trash barrel. (Oops, check that, I meant “recycle bin.” I like getting email from readers, but not that kind.) And, at least for me, email was the same story. Getting a piece of email from across the Internet in 1992 was unbelievably, cosmically cool, and very, very infrequent. But wait: Isn’t email higher-tech than physical mail? If you think so, go take a tour of any postal sorting center. They actually have machines that read handwriting—even my handwriting—at the rate of a zillion addresses per second. But connectivity? Email is all about it, and if the perverts that sent me most of my email (and don’t misunderstand me, I’m referring here to spammers, not my beloved readers) sent me physical mail, they’d be behind bars in no time at all.

So, the next time you’re looking for a winner of a stock pick, my friends, take my suggestion to the bank: Skip the high tech, and go for the high connect.

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