/ Technology

Opinion: new tech means ‘interesting’ times will continue

From crypto to health data – policymakers will be facing challenges in the next few years. As I move on to pastures new, here’s what could be around the corner.

When I started in journalism in the mid 1980s, there was a lot of chatter about how ‘new technology’ was going to up-end the news industry and society at large.

In my first newspaper job, I hammered out stories on an ancient manual typewriter. Those folios of paper were passed downstairs to the subs (all men back then) who marked up edits and typesetting instructions in pencil. That ‘subbed’ copy went down another flight of stairs to ‘comps’ – the compositors – who typed my words and the subs’ mark-ups into computers to be electronically typeset and placed on the pages.

Emerging technologies

That labour-intensive process was the result of difficult conversations about what the new tech meant for the world we lived in: the comps had pivoted from setting pages in the old hot metal process to a (then) modern way of working.

Nearly 40 years on, we still have such conversations, even if the tech is very different. I recently took part in an exercise at Which?, where we threw around ideas about where tech is going, what emerging technologies mean for consumers and where Which? can focus its energies and expertise.

I raised concerns about football clubs getting into crypto and issuing ‘tokens’ fans can buy to access perks such as voting on some club decisions. We talked about how health data could be misused and what the switch from the old copper-wire phone infrastructure to digital telephony means, and much more.

Interesting times ahead

There is a lot coming up for Which? to keep an eye on, intervene on and work on policy proposals for. The next few years will be, as the supposed curse goes, interesting times. But I won’t be keeping an eye on these from my perch at Which?. I’m moving to pastures new, although still very much involved in the tech world.

I am confident Which? will continue to scrutinise the tech that matters, from mobile phones to the metaverse. It has been a privilege to be part of Which? and I am proud of the work I’ve done here. I will miss it


We will miss you and the voice of reason, Kate. Good luck in your new career.

…As we will miss you, Kate. Best of wishes for your future endeavours.

Although technological advances do not interest me in the way they did during the evolution of personal computers in the early 80s I am still interested in developments even if I have little desire to own smart devices etc.

Best wishes for the future, Kate, and thanks for the advice. I hope you will drop in occasionally and maybe even do a guest Convo for us.

I echo the above sentiments and wish you well for the future -someone’s gain is our loss. My biggest fear with developing technology is that the more advanced it gets and the more we rely on it, the more fragile the system is when it malfunctions and the more chaos this would cause. I know that computers are in every home and they do the job of communicating, shopping and helping us do things that would be impossible or time consuming without them. We are not pleased when they break or the infrastructure crashes or is hacked. This is usually a minor inconvenience and doesn’t take long to fix. Such malfunction in the health or industrial or political world could be far more damaging. Many countries are exploring ways of disrupting the electronic world and thus increasing the likelihood that things will crash in future. Suddenly developing technology that relies on electronics and the ether looks quite vulnerable. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of backup that will prevent this. Systems shut down to protect themselves and us, but that means that they no longer work when we need them to!

I vividly remember hammering out data on old manual typewriters 40 plus years ago, along with other female plodders. Who would have predicted that hammering would evolve into a light tapping and the prerogative of all men and women today.

Thank you Kate for your technological contribution to communication levels we enjoy today, and good luck in your pastures new, and all that you do.

““I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

Of course, IBM also went on to develop the Selectric “golf ball” typewriter. Maybe Watson enjoyed the typing pool.

That was not a good prediction but a great deal happened in the next ten years. At least Watson did not do the same damage to his company as Gerald Ratner achieved by being honest about the quality of one of his company’s products.

I recall the using an IBM Executive typewriter which offered proportional spacing long before the days of personal computers.

Good luck for the future Kate, you will be missed here. Sorting out some old paperwork I came across some tech humour from the 90’s.

If IT Companies Made Toasters

If IBM made toasters…
They would want one big toaster where people bring bread to be submitted for toasting. IBM would claim a worldwide market for five, maybe six, toasters.

If Xerox made toasters…
You could toast one-sided or double-sided. Successive slices would get lighter and lighter. The toaster would jam your bread for you.

If Oracle made toasters…
They’d claim their toaster was compatible with all brands and styles of bread, but when you got it home, you’d discover the Bagel Engine was still in development, the Croissant Extension was three years away and that, indeed, the whole appliance was just blowing smoke.

If Sun made toasters…
The toast would burn often, but you could get a really good cuppa Java.

Does DEC still make toasters?
They made good toasters in the ’80s, didn’t they?

If Hewlett-Packard made toasters…
They would market the Reverse Toaster, which takes in toast and gives you regular bread.

If Cray made toasters…
They would cost $16 million, but would toast faster than any single-slice toaster in the world.

If Sony made toasters…
The ToastMan, which would be barely larger than the single piece of bread it is meant to toast, could be conveniently attached to your belt.

If Timex made toasters…
They would be cheap and small quartz crystal wrist toasters that take a licking and keep on toasting.

If Acorn made toasters…
They wouldn’t tell you.

If Apple made toasters…
It would be the coolest-designed toaster in the world, but there’d be nowhere to put the bread.

And, of course:

If Microsoft made toasters…
Every time you bought a loaf of bread, you would have to buy a toaster. You wouldn’t have to take the toaster, but you’d still have to pay for it anyway. Toaster ’95 would weigh 15,000 pounds (hence requiring a reinforced steel counter-top), draw enough electricity to power a small city, take up 95 percent of the space in your kitchen, would claim to be the first toaster that lets you control how light and dark you want your toast to be, and would secretly interrogate your other appliances to find out who made them. Everyone would hate Microsoft toasters, but would buy them since most of the good bread only works with their toasters.

An Amazon Matketplace toaster might electrocute you the first time you used it and then set fire to the house to destroy the evidence, but it would be very cheap.

Incidentally, I have not yet seen frozen toast that you just pop in the microwave. But, unsure what to have in a John Lewis cafe once I saw “omelette” on the menu. The easiest thing possible to cook in around a minute. To my astonishment a pre-made boxed version was produced from the food repository, put in the microwave for two minutes, and provided on a plate with the consistency of chamois leather.

Liz Mulchinock says:
6 February 2022

Although at 83, I am fairly computer literate, banking on line,etc. I am worried that it’s all going too far and will leave me behind, unable to manage. And what will happen when I lose my land line I do not know – mobile coverage is poor in my house.

I’m not aware of any plans to remove landlines, Liz.

If you want to be able to use your mobile at home and have a wireless router you can use ‘WiFi calling’ a free service that makes use of your wireless router. The main service providers offer this service. In a poor signal area it helps extend the life of the battery between charges because mobiles use more power in weak signal areas. Away from the router, the phone uses the mobile network.

Liz is correct in so far as the current wire based telephone system is concerned. It is being replaced by an internet (IP) based system which is being deployed under the name ‘Digital Voice’. https://www.bt.com/help/landline/what-is-digital-voice-and-how-can-i-get-it-
With Digital Voice you can still have a landline, but instead of plugging into a socket that is connected to wires from the local telephone exchange, it is plugged into a socket on a router, probably the one supplied for connecting the household fibre broadband.
There are some Q&A at that link, but people will need answers to other questions.

I 100% agree with you Liz.

In the early days of home computing, there were a multitude of online forums with users wanting to learn, solve their PC problems, share their knowledge and even non-computer background folks wanted to get involved.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has destroyed users enthusiasm by making it harder to find your way around a computer and removing many of the useful utilities that made it possible so knowledge has been lost and those with problems are reduced to asking for help and being told to download and run a utility that may quite possibly contain a virus.

By making us reliant on them, tech companies now dictate we replace our tech more often. Fine if you don’t care about the environment and have money to burn, you can keep up with all those advances. But for those who don’t need or want the latest all-singing-all-dancing piece of tech, they are being left behind and when they do eventually catch up, it is too much for some people to grasp especially older folk like my dad (he’s older than you) who needs a new computer & printer and I can only help him remotely.

I’ve been using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, the technical term for ‘Digital Voice’) for many years. It’s a great system, and yes switching to it is basically just a matter of pulling a plug from a phone point and plugging it into a socket on your hub or fibre ONT (Optical Network Terminator). You can even port your phone number, just as you can when changing your mobile provider.

My phone service comes with a dashboard from which I can do a range of things like voice mail recordings sent to my email, viewing my call history (both in and out), setting do not disturb, call diversion, incoming calls ringing multiple numbers, automatic call diversion to my mobile if my internet connection is out, and turning other functions, like call waiting, on/off.

If your service is provided by a third party there are other advantages. My connection comes through a box plugged in to my router. Consequently, my service will travel with me if I move home. Similarly, when I switched ISP last June, my phone service was uninterrupted. It simply switched between providers when I switched hubs.

The big danger is that we are becoming too dependent on smart systems and our Internet connections. The big risk in the UK is that Out Reach is effectively a monopoly supplier. Apart from Virgin Media customers, most of the rest of us are likely to be relying on Out Reach for our internet connection. It doesn’t matter who your ISP is, other than Virgin cable customers, your service is most likely provided by Out Reach. There may be some exceptions, but generally, if Out Reach goes down, most of the homes in this country will be cut off from the Internet.

It really depends on what you want the the internet -in all its guises – to do. For me it’s the basics -web browse, occasional purchase, e. mail and writing here, in Which Conversation. The word ‘smart’ is used for for the clothing in the wardrobe or a good idea. I am not typical, but the argument is that the more you need the “internet” to run your life, the more it will hurt when it crashes and the more it is vulnerable to ways in which others can infiltrate the smart bits that you use. I am suspicious of anything that is over automated, because I like to have control over what things do. The convenience of the automation is unnecessary to my life-style. I do recognise that others may need many facilities that I don’t know about or even understand, but with that sophistication comes the need to understand how to protect the infrastructure you use and ensure that it does what is required. Keeping it simple, as I do, has its advantages.

I am with you on that, Vynor. I like to keep it all simple and within the limits of my understanding. My browsing range is very limited and I keep a relatively low internet profile which, whether by coincidence or design I do not know, means I don’t get into the bother that many people seem to with nuisance calls, scams, and other problems. If you’re not out there they can’t get you. Luckily my interests and leisure pursuits do not rely on much internet activity and nine days out of ten I don’t send any e-mails or place any orders. My phone is idle for most of its life as well and only two people have my number. This life of digital monasticism would not suit everyone perhaps but I find it reassuring.