I love what we can do with technology, I love what we can do today and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. But the biggest and most obvious sign of the march of technology is often the worst way to judge it.
People like numbers, people will buy something that’s 1.2 not 1.1, or 200 not 150, so companies will sell products with higher and higher numbers. Far too often numbers mean that the tangible or meaningful developments are disregarded, or even reversed.
What makes 3 megapixels a good camera resolution is the simple binary fact that it (should be) high enough to print at 4×6 inches or to fill a standard desktop screen. When a camera claims that resolution but the prints look blocky, or when a camera claims it can do that resolution but it’s noisy as soon as the sun sets, that’s not progress. The sad truth is that’s exactly what has happened in a lot of cases. The higher the megapixel rating of a camera, the less sensitive each pixel can be so that some 3 megapixel cameras can take far better pictures after dark than a 10 megapixel ones.
What makes VHDSL broadband (AKA FTTC and BT Infinity) good is the simple fact that it’s enough to allow full high-definition video. For the purpose of browsing the web or streaming music, it’s absolutely no different to conventional broadband (ADSL or cable). One lets you do those things just as much as the other.
The pursuit of ‘higher and more’ isn’t completely wrong, but it is a terrible over-simplification. If we forget that a higher resolution video requires more bandwidth (so it looks noticeably soft), we haven’t made progress. If we buy a 10 megapixel camera not 3, but we can’t take photos indoors anymore, that’s one step forward, one step back. If a phone has a gigabyte of RAM, but doesn’t have a decent ringer speaker, that’s one step backward and, well, what can I do with that much RAM that I couldn’t before?
What makes full high-definiton good is not the fact that it has more pixels than standard-def, but that the city-scapes of Gotham in The Dark Knight are beautiful. In The Matrix and Gladiator, the fabric of the clothes becomes visible. Whether it’s the ornate Roman embellishments or the grim rags of the post-apocolyptic real world, the experience is fundamentally more authentic. When upscaled DVDs look better than “HD iPlayer”, something isn’t right. When people spend serious money on bluray editions of films not originally captured at a high-definition resolution, something isn’t right. (Is there any value in The Wire in high-def?)
Annoyingly, companies advertising use-cases often makes things worse for consumers, quite simply because their definition of ‘good enough for X’ often isn’t the same as their customers’. Some camera users don’t care about noise, some can’t stand it. The very best way to solve this problem is to have every consumer purchase go through an industry expert who can analyse a users requirements, that’s just not practical (though I maintain that most people that already know me should check with me before buying a computer).
The simplest thing people should do is disregard any number they see in big writing on a box or leaflet that they can’t translate to something meaningful. Even with money, I think it’s best to think in practical terms; that way a mobile phone is worth a new laptop, or only a few new pairs of socks.