On Mini-Discs, CDMA, and the Mass Effect

by Jinryu

Edit: For some reason, this post got eaten up to a much shorter earlier revision.  I have just restored the correct version. Thank you WordPress for having a revision history!!  (this might be what I get for writing posts via dictation on a cellphone…)

 

Whenever I plug my smartphone into the charger and I have WiFi, internet in the apartment grinds to a slowdown suddenly.   That’s because my phone is:

  • downloading all the newsfeeds I like to read
  • downloading video subscriptions that I have
  • downloading new manga
  • backing up any new photos and videos I’ve taken
  • downloading all the attachments to my mail (which don’t automatically download if I’m on mobile data)
  • updating whatever apps that have new versions
  • syncing contacts, updating calendars, etc

How much do I pay for mobile data per month?  Hmm… well, my current provider charges a pay as you go rate of 5 cents per megabyte.  I use about a dollar’s wroth per month at most.  Yes, just a dollar.  In terms of WiFi traffic, I use about 10 gigs of bandwdith on my cellphone per month (all of which are things I actually watch or read). I still manage to stay in touch with everyone in realtime– I’m just smart about managing my major bandwidth usage by having all the bulky data flow when I’m on WiFi.

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For that reason, I’m really into applications that have offline modes, because they just make sense.

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For the same reason, I think that any application that needs a persistent data connection is usually pretty stupid.  Yes, there is a lot of ad supported software which simply wouldn’t work properly– I suppose if you had banners taking up real-estate at the bottom 5% of the screen and someone tried to click it offline, it would just open up a dead browser.  I frankly don’t use a lot of ad-supported software though, for the very reason that all those banners cycling really grate on my nerves: that’s my bandwidth being eaten up.

 

I think part of the problem is that consumers just don’t care enough to save $20+ dollars per month.  Cellphone plans are just one of those thing things that everyone has nowadays, but which most people do very badly.

The typical flow of logic for most people I know is that they get a plan that is more expensive than they need, and then they find ways to use up the extra calling time or bandwith just because they already have it.  The availability of excess generates a need to feel efficient– but that availability in the first place costs them.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to just get as much as you need, and not drive up your own usage just to get your money’s worth because you overspent in the first place?

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Usually, the difference between making a smart choice, X, over a less optimal choice, Y, has to do with a few minutes of extra work.  Yes, in the long run, X saves you tons of money and time– but Y is something that gets their foot in the door in many cases because of a number of factors, most prominently, superior marketing and what I’m calling the  “mass effect.”  There’s a more proper term for it in economics, but the easy way of explaining the mass effect is that the more people use something, the more value (both perceived and actual) it has.

For instance– if you were the only person on the planet who used Facebook, and it had all the most awesome features in the world, it probably wouldn’t be all that useful.  But the usefulness of that utility goes up when one of your friends joins.  And another, and another, etc.  You get to where we are, where, even if Facebook isn’t all that useful, because of the mass effect, it has become important.

Technology is an interesting aspect of human society– it keeps getting better, but sometimes, the mass effect is so strong that we pass over better things for things that are more commonly accepted.  For instance, a few years back, Sony had this totally awesome data format, used mostly for portable music, before the super-popularisation of flash-based music players.  That was the MiniDisc format.  Robust, cartridge enclosed re-wrtiable optical media with excellent capacity for it’s time.  Alas, it fell into obscurity.

Similarly, a huge amount of phone networks globally use GSM based mobile-phone technology (if you have a SIM card in your phone, chances are it’s a GSM based phone).  This is despite the fact that in the early days of GSM technology, the CDMA standards were way better.

 

So why do we end up chosing the inferior Y option so much?  Because of the mass effect.  Support.  We want to know that everyone else is doing something the same way as we are, even if it turns out that it’s not actually the best way.  That’s why so many people might go to a McDonalds instead of a mom-and-pop restaurant across the street.   That’s why we wear impractical clothes and ridiculous fashions when we actively are aware of the fact that the only reason why “we like” this style is because we know it fits into a socially prevalent behavior.

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You always hear about these new startup companies who manage to really get a good crowbar in and exploit a niche market.  Very few of these businesses are actually super innovative– they’re just making a big deal out of an efficiency that most people are too busy to overlook, and giving it ligitimacy by founding a new, low level mass effect.

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The way that mobile phones (and their users) use data is one of those things that is extremely inefficient, because of the mass effect related to Western (as opposed to Asian) telecom providers who are charging ridiculous amounts for services.

If you’re on an Android, you might have heard the news a couple of weeks ago that the Chrome Browser now supports data compression.  Long story short: if you turn this feature on, Google will compress data before sending it over to you, and your phone will decompress the data.  This reduces the bulkiness of the bandwidth you use.  Depending on what you do online, I’ve seen it save anywhere from a modest 17% to 83%.  Pretty cool.

But the fact of the matter is, this is not new technology.  I remember using Opera Browser something like 5  years ago, and back then they were already long into the compressed datastreams.  Yes, five years ago.  Yet why is it that we’re only really hearing about compressed datastreams with Chrome, selling it as if it’s something new?  Keep in mind that 5 years ago, data costs were relatively pretty exhobirtant compared to what they are today.

Thing happen they way they do because people don’t ask– they just take what’s given to them.  We develop an appetite for table scraps, and the mass effect gives us a sense of security and validation because when we look over our shoulder, we see that people around us are doing the same thing.

Every now and then, a corporate entity sees that there are efficiencies to be gained– and so it instigates a trend for something “new” and claims the bragging rights for innovation: but perhaps rightfully so, since we were too lazy to do it ourselves.

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I got into a huge argument with [CaptainK] a couple of weeks ago about a recent push for a law in Australia that cars must give 1.5m of buffer space when overtaking.  I’m not sure what you think about this law, but I’m more or less against it, despite being an urban cyclist who last semester logged about 100km of riding through traffic with cars per week.  My reasons for being opposed to the 1.5 meter buffer can make up an entirely different post, but the reason why I mention it here is because the mass effect also applies to humanitarian causes and charities.

Everyone likes that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you’re thanked by someone.  Sure. I do too.  But how much of the good we do for society is actually good that we want to do, and how much of it is just because of the mass effect?

I’m not saying that the mass effect makes the value of your contribution to society any less– every little thing counts.  But what I don’t like is the growing culture of the convenience and transcience of doing good.  It used to be that you gave a donation, and that cash was used for something.  Or you went out and volunteered.

Online petitions?  Liking a page?  While this might do something to build awareness, awareness is worthless.  But the mass effect tells us that we’ve done a good thing, and I think that this actually does humanism a disservice– because if our sense of responsibility, citizenship, or guilt is so easily satisfied by a few clicks and an electronic signature, then our need to really look into ways that we can live a more socially sustainable lifestyle is lost.

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