Sunday, August 19, 2007

We're Losing Civilization's Backups

Ever notice that various pieces of the civilized landscape are slowly disappearing? Pay telephones are getting really hard to find. And clocks, those big advertising pieces that formerly graced store windows across the country or provided a public service outside banks and department stores--those are all but gone. The odd time/temp digital displays are still around, but there are few new ones going up.

I notice the new buildings at Miami University (and several at the University of Cincinnati) are sans clocks. None in the classrooms, and at French Hall at U.C. there are two clocks in offices, with dozens of other rooms entirely clockless. I expect this is echoed in new construction everywhere.

The gradual fading of those once-ubiquitous accouterments of daily life is the result of cheap technology. Timepieces are cheap, and they're added to just about every piece of electronic equipment you can think of. (Pretty much the same clock chip in everything).) And "everyone" has a cell phone. (I have one, though I've never activated it; at this point in my life there's nothing I can think of that requires me to be accessible no matter where I am, unless someone I know needs a blood transfusion from a universal donor.)

Anyway, those once-common pieces of civilized landscape (public clocks and pay telephones) aren't the only things gone missing. New buildings are going up without water fountains. How much has that to do with the popularity of bottled water? And what's next? Will street signs stop being replaced, or even put up, as GPS-driven maps become more common? Will catering to people who can't afford GPS systems, cell phones, and bottled water become too much trouble?

I think we need our backup systems. If some cell towers go out or there's some sort of EMP event, it'll be nice to have public landline phones for emergencies. For those who just can't afford cell phones, pay phones are vital. And people forget watches, and some just can't buy 'em. Finally, those computer maps aren't perfect. Look up the "center" of Oxford, Ohio, with MapQuest; it's a one-block, dead-end street on the edge of town. Weather maps used by local television stations (all provided cost-effectively by some "accurate" national service) sometimes show towns 50 miles and a state away from their real locations. And routing systems take you 60 miles out of your way because they ignore local roads, or have them in the wrong place. MapQuest still hasn't changed errors I reported to them 10 years ago. (I suspect that southern California MapQuest maps and directions are the only onez that are perfect, because the people who use MapQuest use those.)

Anyway, let's keep the big clocks going, and pay telephones in place. And give us paper maps that are accurate. Don't kill the backups because you can make more money without them. Look what happened with the railroads; they were a good backup for personal transportation, but it was possible to make more money trucking. And now we have a personal transportation system that grows more costly every day--and no backup.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

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