February 17, 1999


I am a gadget guy. I look through catalogs and magazines and take note of all the new products and services that have been developed, and I am awestruck. We are in an age where ideas and experiences are widely and rapidly disseminated, and improved upon by the collected ingenuity of many minds. The information age is causing an explosion of technology.

The introduction of new products depends heavily upon people feeling a need to possess the newest technology, whether it be fastest, lightest, smallest, biggest, most powerful or most economical, or whatever. I look at all the offerings and admire their ingenuity and their technological triumphs, and say so what? I admire gadgets, but I consciously avoid collecting them.

Computers, communication, and computers that communicate are hotbeds of new gadgetry. As the technology evolves, more information can be amassed, yet sorted more quickly. Leaving aside the arguments of good and evil, the capability to gather collate, sort, interpret, and disseminate data has centralized information throughout government and private industry.

Weather data collection analysis and forecasting has largely become a centralized function, and air traffic control radar data is also centralized. Several private companies have acquired access to this real time data, and have dressed it up into a consumer product. Variously known as flight trax, flight explorer, or flight tracker, these services plot the position of all air traffic operating on an instrument flight plan within, to, or from, the United States.

Typically, these services place jet shaped icons on a map at the location of every airplane that is being tracked. Clicking on any of these icons will produce a range of information about that flight, among them the aircraft type and identification, its altitude, speed, points of origin and destination, the time of each and its present flight track. Weather data can also be superimposed upon the flight map, showing the location and strength of precipitation areas.

There are an almost infinite number of sorting filters, so that the user can select only arrivals or departures for any specified airport or flights operating in any specified state or region. Want to know which airplanes are making the contrails high overhead? Where they have been, where they are going? Want to know how Granny's flight from Los Angeles to Pittsburg, en route to Elmira, is doing? All that, and more, is right at your fingertips.

At work, I walked past a fellow who was happily browsing in a screenful of little jet icons. I mumbled "gratuitous tech" as I passed, and he turned with a smile and brightened eyes, and said "I love gratuitous tech!". He is a pilot, and a talented electronics and computer man. He told me of listening to transatlantic air traffic on the long-range aeronautical SSB frequencies, and locating the flights on the flight tracker. One of the planes had departed London an hour and a half previously and was en route to Dallas. Later that day, he went to another internet site and listened to the plane talk to Dallas approach control as it started its arrival.

This is absolutely fascinating, and unimaginable just a few years ago. Air traffic controllers once monitored the flow of traffic in their area by manually plotting the position reports and estimates radioed from the pilots. Traffic is now spotted and plotted by radar, and the data from each radar site is fed to a central computer for dissemination to control centers.

I am impressed but uninterested. Like all the other shiny new gadgets, I'm not buying this one either. Computer products and services have exploded in growth and diversity, but is this explosion any more substantial than hot air? After all, none of these things are necessities. Today it seems that we have entire industries turning out frills and fluff, the kind of stuff that people throw overboard in times of economic uncertainty.

Who am I to say, though? I have a long history of moving in the exact opposite direction of the crowd. Looking at a more familiar item through the clearer perspective of history, remember that flush toilets were once a novelty, almost whimsical adaptations of an emerging technology. Long ago they became the embodiment of necessity throughout the civilized world.

Feast ye then, if you wish. Revel in your gratuitous technology, but leave me out of it. The more I see of it, the more I appreciate the simple practicalities of an outhouse.

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