Technology Trends that are Changing Us Today

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 4, 2004.

We're living in the future.

It might not be the future of George Jetson and Buck Rogers, of Star Wars and Star Trek, a future of flying cars and laser rifles.

But our present isn't that different from the imagined future. You want Capt. Kirk's communicator? Have you taken a look at a cell phone recently? And talk to some people on the cutting edge of medical technology: Devices close enough to tricorders, the futuristic medical scanners, are on their way.

More importantly, though, more futuristic than the actual shape of the technology we've developed, the future we live in is one of the mind.

Technology not only changes the way we do things, it also changes the way we think about the things we do: It changes the way we view life itself.

Want to distribute your garage band's new single? Log on to a file sharing network.

Want to find out where you are? Boot up the GPS device.

Want to take a picture? Pull out your cell phone.

Technology has pervaded our lives, creating new ways of interacting with those around us. It has changed the culture itself, making us more connected while limiting personal interaction, allowing us to see time and space in a different fashion, giving us new ways to interact with information.

The culture changing effects of technology become clearer the older you are.

Talk to someone -- especially someone geeky -- who grew up in the 1970s, and they'll marvel over the new "keychain" USB storage devices, which have more memory than PCs did a couple of decades ago. Show an iPod to someone a little bit older, and they'll start calculating how much shelf space they'd need to store 10,000 songs pressed onto LPs.

"So much has changed," said Lionel Loquias,, who can still wax nostalgic about Timex Sinclair -- a personal computer featuring a cassette tape drive -- he got when he was 17. Now, Loquias fools around with the highest tech of gadgets as head of the at FCCJ.

The devices that have changed Loquias' life, he said, include his cell phone, laptop, wireless connection, iPod and USB key chain.

"Those five components enable me to work anywhere in the world," he said. "If I have connectivity, I have an office."

Loquias's list mirrors many of the characteristics of culture-changing technology. The devices that have affected -- and will continue to affect -- our lives are marked by:

Portability: From the ability to carry hours of music in your pocket or produce the sound of band in a laptop, the technologies that have changed how we interact with the world have snuck in by being small, discreet, portable.

Connectivity: Wi-Fi. Third-generation cell phones. Phone calls over the Internet. The Internet itself. Technology has led to a shrinking world, one in which devices are expected to talk to each us, and allow us to connect with the world around us as well.

Democracy: Although bleeding edge technology comes at a cost, hardware and software just a little bit down the ladder allows vast swatches of the population access to culture-transforming technology. Even more importantly, access to such technology levels the playing field of production: You don't need a studio to make a movie or an album any more. You don't need a printing press to get your words out to the world.

Convergence: Motorola's newest offering -- the MPx -- combines a PDA and cell phone with an MP3 player and camera as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections. Like the most recent must-have gadget, PalmOne's Treo 600, such devices blur the traditional category lines, allowing consumers to do more with one device.

Some technology makes our lives easier. Some just make it more fun. Some are important -- and some seem frivolous until the day they are used for something important.

The future might not be here yet. But as technology keeps getting smaller, keeps bringing us closer together, keeps on being creative, we can rest assured that it's on its way.

WI-FI: Connected without wires isn't for select few

Remember the days when the Internet was only for home, with maybe e-mail at the office? Now, connectivity is available in airports, coffee shops and some park benches in downtown Jacksonville.

Wireless connections allow travelers to get on the Internet, let home users share files and make it easier for offices to get computers talking to each other.

The importance and growing acceptance of Wi-Fi can be clearly seen by Intel's entry into the marketplace. Just over a year ago, the computer chip behemoth rolled out its Centrino product, which pairs a Pentium M chip with a wireless transmitter and other specific hardware. The result is a machine designed for wireless connectivity: Not only does the built-in antenna provide a better connection than offered by an aftermarket PCMCIA wireless card, but the machine's innards are designed to prolong battery life while you're surfing the Web during those long layovers.

In a test of an 1.4-GHz IBM ThinkPad x31 equipped with Intel's Centrino technology, getting online at a local Panera's Bread was as simple as turning on the machine while waiting for the soup to show up. Windows XP found the network within moments, making available during lunch.

Later, the battery lasted around four hours in a test that included downloading large files as a way to keep the wireless radio running.

"Wireless connectivity to the Internet is no longer exotic or special or only for a few," said Ralph Bond, a consumer education manager for Intel. "We're baking it into the pie coming out of the oven."

Going wireless has changed his own life, Bond said, letting him get more done while traveling or even just wile away commercial breaks answering e-mail. "It's really interesting to see what it's doing to people's lives," he said. "It's uncanny how many little 10, 15 minutes chunks you can use more productively."

Whether it's using Centrino or any of the other ways of letting your computer talk to other computers without wires, Wi-Fi can change the time, the places and even the way you use your computer.

VOIP: A local call that goes anywhere in the world

When blogger and San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor went to Hong Kong last year, his friends in California didn't have to worry about racking up huge long-distance bills. Instead, they could get in touch with him by dialing a local number -- and having their call routed invisibly, seamlessly, over the Internet to the columnist's phone.

You might not be going to China, but if you want to have a Jacksonville number in Atlanta or, say, make it look like you have a Daytona Beach branch office, Voice over IP -- converting analog calls into data transmissions, then turning them back into sound -- is the technology that can change your life.

VoIP has been around for a few years, attracting mainly early adopters who could deal with the special equipment and technical glitches. Now, though, the technology has grown up: Once you clip the box to your broadband Internet connection and plug in a traditional phone, you never need to think about your voice making its way across the Internet as packets of data before becoming voice calls when they get to a traditional phone line.

One of the major new players in the Jacksonville market is Broadline Communications, a subsidiary of FDN Communications, which has long provided business phone service in the area. Broadline rolled out VoIP service in Central Florida last year, doing so well that it expanded to North Florida earlier this year, said Matt Blocha, president of Broadline.

The reception the service received here led the company to move into South Florida and Georgia this month.

Internet telephony has taken off because it combines the best of typical landlines with the best aspects of cellular phones, Blocha said. "It doesn't tie you to the copper line," he said. "You can take the number where you want to go, but there is no roaming charges and the signal isn't going to give out."

Because of its relationship with FDN, Broadline phone calls don't necessarily go that far on the Internet. The parent company owns phone switches in Jacksonville -- the machines that get your call going to where it should be -- so many calls will join the phone line network there.

VoIP, at least when done properly, is a transparent technology, but no less culture changing for that fact. The economic impact alone is significant: Think of the money your company could save if road warriors were just a local phone call away, no matter where they actually were.
CAMERA PHONES: Combining the two makes for a snap

You might be forgiven for thinking digital cameras were innovative enough, allowing amateurs to take quick snapshots they could e-mail to grandparents and letting professionals forget their worries about running out of film.

But camera phones add a new dynamic to the mix: The devices not only let you e-mail the pictures you take, cool in and of itself, but more importantly, having a camera in your phone makes it much more likely that you'll have a camera with you to start with.

If you're not a professional photographer, how likely is it that you'll have a camera with you most of the time? Inveterate mobile phone users, though, are unlikely to leave home without their cell, which could come in handy when they see that perfect sunset or blackmail opportunity.

(As the technology becomes more widespread, companies are even banning the devices, afraid of industrial espionage rising when everyone carries a James-Bond-sized camera.)

"It's the convenience factor," said Gary Bonner, director of marketing for Cingular Wireless-North Florida. "Folks are able to capture those moments in life and share them with their family and friends and business colleagues."

Camera phones make up about a quarter of Cingular's sales in North Florida, Bonner said, with customers ranging from teenagers to business people -- consumers looking for a low-end digital camera and real estate agents who need to e-mail pictures of houses.

Ubiquitous cameras have changed the role photography plays in our life. No longer do events have to be momentous; no longer do smiles have to be posed. Instead, we can now find the fleeting moment, the quick snapshot that can capture something much more meaningful.

DIGITAL MEDIA: Connected without wires isn't for select few

A decade ago -- maybe even just a few years ago -- Morris Perry might never have made music.

Oh, sure, he might noodle around a bit, coming up with a few tunes, but a lack of funding would make recording difficult and distribution all but impossible.

Technology has changed all of that.

"Anybody can make a song," Perry said. "[The computer] gives everyone an equal playing field. Your work can compete with the studio stuff."

Mica McPheeters, like Perry a student at Florida Community College of Jacksonville, has used similar sorts of technology to put her ideas on film. Making a movie no longer requires a crew and a studio, she said; instead, armed with a digital video camera and a computer editing program, she can produce something on par with seasoned professionals.

"I have a couple friends who are seniors in high school," she said, "and they're making movies."

The act of creation is now cheaper, faster and more widespread than it has ever been. Digital editing software has also made the creative process easier, letting musicians and movie makers tinker more with the guts of their work.

"You can move scenes around like cards," McPheeters said. "You can throw stuff up and see what works."

There's still a cost, of course: Their professor, Lionel Loquias, estimates that the software and hardware necessary for a good audio or video setup runs a few thousand dollars. Still, that's a far cry from the almost $100,000 such equipment would have cost a decade ago.

Digital media has also changed the distribution process. While much attention is focused on illegal uses of file sharing networks and the like, many creators are finding the World Wide Web and other Internet-based data-sharing systems a great way to share their dream with the world.

It might be a few years yet before an artist with a laptop can be a true one-man band, handling everything from creation to sales to promotion on her own. The recording and movie industries are still entrenched, still working through older distribution models. But digital media has changed the paradigm, has given a whole new level of power to creators.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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