Yeah technology sucks but also, it's good

It’s easy to fall into the trap that computers and technology are horrible in the year of our lord 2023, tearing the fabric of society apart and warping the brains of our youth. I should know, I write about it every day, oscillating between being a cheerleader for Silicon Valley and nodding along to All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Despite that, there’s some awesome stuff out there that I’ve been taking for granted for far too long.

Music Streaming

While sitting on the sofa in my study just chilling out to some tunes on Spotify it hit me how if I was doing this as I regularly did as a teenager (on a single bed in a small suburban bedroom!) I would have probably cried with joy. I never had much money to spend on albums but I wanted to listen to soooo much music. The radio was great and when Napster and other file sharing services popped up it was a revelation - but I still had to go looking for what I wanted and when stuck on dialup it was a pain.

There was a brief period where places like What.CD and Oink’s Pink Palace existed and all my music needs were met, but it was illegal/slightly unethical and required some technical chops to get involved in that community and make the most of it. Streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and whatnot totally obliterated the need to pirate and get all technical.

After using Apple Music for a few months I even came to appreciate Spotify’s quite user friendly app - a rarity when it comes to online media in 2023. There isn’t a device in my house with speakers that doesn’t have Spotify built-in or supported, making switching between rooms absolutely seamless. I can download songs to a device to listen to offline. There’s lyrics for almost every song. So many playlists made and shared by people with way more taste than me! They’re not a replacement for a good DJ or a mate slinging you a playlist, but even the algorithm based playlists are pretty damn competent.

For all its faults (low payments to musicians, random stuff missing due to rights negotiations, etc) Spotify is phenomenal value for money. $12 a month to listen to virtually whatever I want, whenever I want, in amazing quality (better than CD on Apple Music!), wherever I like? Mate, what a deal! Shit, even the free Spotify service is fantastic.

Digital Maps

As much as I give Google grief on a regular basis for being a data thirsty snooping little bitch of a company - how fucken good is Google Maps? Without it I would probably have never had the courage to go overseas. In all my travels since the first time I left Australia in 2010 (for an iPad no less!) I’ve had Google Maps by my side, giving me directions not only for driving or walking, but even public transport, in English and in real time. That’s an absolute game changer.

At home it’s just as useful, allowing me to drive anywhere I want with confidence I’ll get there without getting lost. I’m old enough to remember driving around with the Melways (beautiful map) and how much of a pain in the arse it was to use. I also remember using TomTom and Garmin GPS units and while they were awesome at the time too and the fancier ones even had traffic information built in, the speed at which Google updates their map and adds various data sources (road closures, real time traffic, etc) is just next level.

Exploring the world via Google Maps is amazing too. Search for a place to eat or drink and you can see what’s around before you even go. Street view? Come on man, photos of every street in the country, updated regularly?? They even give you maps for inside buildings now. What an astonishing thing it is to exist and they don’t even charge a cent for it (as long as you don’t count the advertising as payment).

Honourable mention to Open Street Map too. It’s a massive effort to crowd source a usable data set against Google and they do an excellent job of it. Basically every other map that’s not Google is using OSM. I use this water fountain app and EV charging map regularly and they pull data from OSM. I’d be left on the side of the road and dying of thirst without it.

Cartographers from as recently as the early 2000s would lose their shit if they saw Google Maps and OSM as it is now in 2023. Some people might say it removes some of the “kismet” of discovering the world as Google’s mapped it all, but you can still do that if you want. For the rest of us who like to plan, we will enjoy our little trips and journeys nicely planned out for us by the computer.

Mobile Internet

Imagine a world where you could go anywhere and have instant access to the entirely of humanity’s knowledge delivered to you via radio signals. This was science fiction 30 years ago. Now we have it and take it for granted. I can go anywhere a human should go in Australia and get pretty damn solid internet access that’s better than I had at home over a fixed line connection until the early 2000s.

There’s thousands of antennas dotted around our population centres that spew out the internet for anyone to connect to. Over the last 30 years we went from talking to each other and sending SMS, which was amazing enough, and turned that same network into a high speed packet switched network capable of gigabits per second to the end user. It’s not even that expensive to hook up to as a customer considering what you can achieve with it. $20 to $30/m and I can get more data than I know what to do with that works while I’m on a train to the CBD, out in a national park, walking down the street to the shops.

As someone that grew up with the internet being a slow, expensive experience but it was so amazing we put up with it, to now being blanketed in fast internet anywhere I go for less than a hot meal a month, my mind is blown. Fixed line fibre optic internet is way better. Faster, cheaper, more reliable, but the ability to just be connected anywhere, anytime, would have been an unfathomable thing for me to contemplate in the 90s but I use it every day without thinking twice. Don’t get me started on 5G, that’s even better but still has a bit of a way to go until it’s at the same level of ubiquity and low price as LTE.