When low tech is better than high tech

When low tech is better than high tech

Technology pundit types like me are always blabbering about bleeding-edge technology.

Wow! A holographic wristwatch that lets Princess Leia tell you the time! A browser plug-in that ignores your email so you don't have to! A wireless camera fork that automatically tweets pictures of your lunch!

Unfortunately, some bleeding-edge technology you read about never ships. And even if it does ship, most new tech products are never taken up by most people.

If few people use "revolutionary" technology, where's the revolution, really?

For example, we've been talking about wireless charging of mobile phones for years. And devices that do that are available. But of the 100 people you know best, how many of them use this technology? One? Zero?

The tech press and blogosphere creates the illusion that the newest technology is always best. But this isn't true. The best technology is the one that makes your life better -- no matter how new it is.

Because of our bias in favor of super advanced hardware and software, we too often shun some of the greatest technology because it's not the latest technology.

Here's some low-tech tech that everyone should embrace.

Dash cams

Have you seen that video of jetliner debris exploding across a Russian highway after a plane crash?

To the average U.S. viewer, the coincidence seems incredible. But the reality is that dash cams -- special-purpose car cameras that record all the time -- are so common in Russia that anything that happens on a road there is likely to be recorded by someone.

In fact, if you search for the words "Russia" and "dash cam," you'll be introduced to an amazing world of mind-blowing events serendipitously captured on video. You'll see traffic accidents, police abuse, fistfights, road rage, crazy drunk people, wild animals and blatant attempts at fraud.

In Russia, a dash cam is like car insurance -- something everyone should have for self preservation.

Dash cams are low tech. They're relatively low-quality digital video camcorders that record, then purge what they recorded unless you push a button to keep it.

As Russian motorists know, a dash cam is a low-cost, low-tech, set-it-and-forget-it technology.

But it's a powerful way to protect yourself from all kinds of things; it's also a great way to capture amazing things that happen while you're driving.

Everyone should follow the Russians' lead and install low-tech dash cams in their cars.

Mobile payments

Did you know that Kenya is far ahead of the U.S. in mobile payments?

No, Kenya's not ahead in the design and fabrication of NFC chips, or in deployment of encryption technology or in smartphone app penetration. It's just ahead in mobile payments.

I've been in Kenya for two months, and it's shocking to see just about everyone paying for things with their cellphones.

And by cellphones, I mean cellphones -- not smartphones.

While America waits for ultra-high-tech NFC and smartphone-app-based solutions, this East African country has already made mobile payments the standard way to pay for things.

The system is called M-Pesa. (The M stands for mobile, and pesa is Swahili for money, so the brand name means "mobile money.")

The genius of M-Pesa, and the reason that more than half the world's mobile transactions take place using this system, is that it uses low-tech SMS technology to transfer money, rather than the high-tech NFC systems we're still waiting for.

SMS eliminates the need for expensive advanced phones with special electronics. Anyone with any mobile phone can use SMS.

M-Pesa users can make bank deposits and withdrawals and exchange money with one another. They can also pay bills and transfer funds to pay for their prepaid phone accounts.

And because it's low tech, it's both simple and cheap.

While the rest of us are getting constantly raked over the coals by predatory banks that charge credit card fees for everything, M-Pesa is a banking system that barely uses banks. There's a very small fee charged for each transaction, and that's about it.

And while we're all waiting for some utopian future with mobile payments, Kenya has had mobile payments for years -- the low-tech way.


In the past four years, thousands of education-, news- and information-related mobile apps have emerged. And they're getting increasingly sophisticated. For example, a new iOS app I told you about recently called Grokr practically reverse-engineers your brain to deliver news and information it thinks will be relevant to you.

The newest learning technology is the best technology, but it doesn't give you the best learning.

The best technology for learning and staying informed since the creation of the book is the humble podcast.

A good podcasting app will let you subscribe to your favorite podcasts and automatically download them. When you're ready to listen, they're already on your phone.

Podcasting, and by extension Apple's iTunes U and audio books, is best because it's reliable, it offers high-quality content, it's flexible and -- best of all -- it lets you learn while you do other things.

The biggest barrier to your ongoing education is time.

You want to stay on top of all the news. You want to learn a new language. You want to become more educated about your line of work. You want your mind expanded by the ideas of brilliant public intellectuals.

Nobody has time for that.

But with podcasting, you do have time. You can listen while driving, exercising and while doing errands and chores.

Yet most people who want to learn more don't listen to podcasts. I believe the reason for that is paralysis of choice -- there are too many podcasts out there, and most of them are terrible.

The secret to falling in love with podcasting is listening to the good ones, not the bad ones.

So here's my starter kit -- the 10 indispensable podcasts that every educated geek should listen to (in alphabetical order). Just search via your podcasting source for:

BBC Food Programme

In Our Time

MacBreak Weekly

No Agenda

Slate's Culture Gabfest

Start the Week

StarTalk Radio Show


This Week in Google

This Week in Tech

I would also continually explore new podcasts, and experiment. Great podcasts are priceless resources for staying informed.

By embracing the humble and low-tech podcast, you can use those hours you're wasting to educate yourself in a way that no other technology can match.

And more

These are just three older technologies that everyone should embrace if they can. Others include RSS, SMS, Google Alerts and even simple text editors like Notepad.

Advanced technology is great. But even greater is an advanced user, someone who chooses technology that improves his life the most, no matter how low-tech it may be.

Why? Because the best technology is the one you actually use.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.

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