When Apple launched its own navigation app for the iPhone, causing countless Internet jokes due to its poor quality in comparison with Google Maps, I looked at the event with disdain. Not because I’m an Apple fan or because I don’t use maps, but because my way of navigating modern urban landscapes doesn’t rely on any portable digital device.
Like a tobacco addict who always carries a lighter and a pack of cigarettes, my pockets always contain an A4-sized piece of paper folded thrice and a Strand pen with enough ink to last the next seven years. Before venturing to a new place, I visit Google Maps on my laptop and draw a small copy of the neighborhood of the target location in one of the unfilled 16 slots of my sheet of paper. My method never gets me lost.
It seems a little outdated, but I don’t do it simply for fashion. The problem with our time of technological transition is that, though one can find many digital alternatives for what has been historically done with microchip-less devices, many of them do not match the user experience of the old technologies.
Look at the digital note-taking task, for instance. You can find a number of tablets with digital pens in the market, some with only the input interface and others with real-time display. Some have cell phones included. But often the experience is as bad as writing with a nail on a marble surface. While the texture of the interface is okay, the pen doesn’t quite touch the display — it’s like writing in one side of a glass for the text to appear on the other side. For the alternatives that give up the all-digital goal and adopt a scanning kind of approach — the pen has real ink, and writes on real paper but also localizes itself so that the text can be turned digital — the drawback is that you have to use a special kind of paper or an additional gadget to localize the pen.
It’s difficult to predict which alternatives will survive, as there are non-technical factors involved — sometimes the company that has the best CEO, not the best product, succeeds. In reality, new technologies never retain all the good qualities of the old ones. Eventually, new generations lose access to the old way of doing things, and they don’t get to know how it may actually have been better in some sense, and those refined, non-digital tools will be forever lost.
We are often too busy rushing towards the future to notice this side effect of progress. Maybe if we spent more time thinking about what we really need and progressed a bit slower, we would actually get there faster.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 15 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]