Thursday, 16 March 2017

Counting backwards (compatibility)

There's an exchange in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I have heard credited as demonstrating cinema's greatest tacit understanding of history.  Those lines are:

Large Man with Dead Body: Who's that then?
The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.
Large Man with Dead Body: Why?
The Dead Collector: He hasn't got shit all over him.

Why so hailed?  Because it pithily grasps both that the faces of even the powerful wouldn't have been immediately recognisable - bizarre to us in a world where we celebrate the famous for simply being famous - but your station could be surmised by dress, number of attendants and, yes, the last time you washed.

(I'm also very fond of the similar theory that the richer you were the stronger your beer - you didn't drink the water in those days - with those with the greatest political power on the strongest brews.  An examination of historical decision-making - declarations of war, marriages, etc. - in this context becomes enlightening...)

Why am I telling you this?  Well, because I think we're still waiting for an equally canny exchange capturing the essence of the future.

The future's meant to be shiny.  It's meant to be seamless.  It's meant to be infinitely functional yet so intuitive that a toddler can use it.  That's what the marketing tells me, and when has advertising ever lied?

But I'm really not sure that's where we're heading.  And unless the uber-lords of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft et al engage in some sort of coding and hardware civil war, the winner forcing us to adopt their technology across every aspect of our lives (am I the first to coin the phrase 'digital slavery'?) I don't think we will ever get there.

There's a classic episode of Star Trek - The Devil in the Dark, apparently Shatner's favourite, and one that last week celebrated it's fiftieth birthday - where the Enterprise comes to the rescue of a mining colony whose nuclear reactor has been sabotaged.  Unfortunately, the damaged part is obsolete, but Scotty rigs a temporary replacement from parts on board ship.

That even a temporary solution is possible, that spare parts knocking around The Enterprise fit with and talk to the colony's reactor, is possibly the most credibility-stretching aspect of an episode involving a rock-chewing polystyrene monster reminiscent of The Magic Roundabout's Dougal.  Most of the kit in my house cannot talk to each other and it's pretty much all sourced from the same place, and here we're dealing with a multi-national team assisting a distant mining colony.

We're about to embark on the Internet of Things - did I mention my most recently published story is on exactly that? - and the Americans are still on Imperial units...

Let me give you a real world example.  I have an ancient MacBook, which has all 27.82GB (I just checked) of music and podcasts; a 3rd generation iPod Nano, which is dying; two docking stations, each of which is compatible with the iPod (in theory), and a Moto G 2nd generation, which is also coughing up blood, metaphorically.

To replace both iPod and Moto G I've settled on a iPhone 4s.  Yes, I'm going to invest in technology some 5 years old in a world in which anything over the age of two may as well live up a cave and scratch its arse whilst dreaming of fire.  Because that's the most recent iPhone that can take the SIM from my Moto, and talk to my MacBook and docking station.

This is my conclusion.  Essentially I - and by 'I' I mean we - have two options: either replace all your kit - and by 'all your kit' I mean everything that has a plug from the toaster upwards - in one go, or seek out a baseline of consistent redundancy.  Old technology that at least fits with what you've got.  Like old people in a home shouting at each other, at least they'll be shouting in a shared language within earshot of each other, assuming the batteries in their hearing aids are charged.

The Sunday supplements will paint us a picture of a joined-up digital life, whereas I foresee a world of being unable to get into your own home, the curtains inexplicably opening and closing as you watch from your drive in the drizzle.

Perhaps the only realistic illustration of how (in)compatible technology really is in practice was in the Cold War German drama Deutschland 83, where the East German spies stare at a floppy disk wondering how they are to extract the stolen NATO report when what they expected was a file of papers.  Brilliant, and brilliantly prescient.

I await the day when a science fiction character holds a 16-pin plug in one hand and an 18-pin socket in the other with a look of defeat on their face. Only then will I feel it has any claim to be grittily realistic.

Perhaps HAL simply wasn't compatible with the pod bay doors?

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