Willful technological ignorance

How IT marketing pap is making us dumber

"When ignorance gets started it knows no bounds" -- Will Rogers

A few weeks ago I came across a neat piece of public relations fluff by GE. This is part of the company's "Smart Grid" campaign, a catch-all program for promoting GE's smart power meters, alternative energy products and power management technologies. All good stuff.

If you go to the company's Web site you will experience a truly slick Flash-based presentation, and the piece of fluff can be found on the right side of the home page: a proposal to "see a digital hologram of Smart Grid technology come to life in your hands."

Click on the link and you'll be given instructions; all you need is a Webcam and a printer. You print a PDF that displays a diagrammatic solar panel then click on either "Launch Wind Turbine" or "Launch Solar Energy" and hold the printout with the diagram facing the camera.

If the gods of demos smile upon you (you mainly need good lighting on the printout), on your screen you will see a real-time video image of you holding the printout with an apparently 3D, animated model sticking out of the paper. As you move the paper the model will also move so that, within limits, you can pan and zoom around the simulation. It is, without doubt, really, really cool.

But here's the thing: GE refers to this as a "digital hologram." Now, according to Merriam Webster Online, a hologram is "a three-dimensional image reproduced from a pattern of interference produced by a split coherent beam of radiation (as [from] a laser)." In other words, the GE presentation is not a hologram at all. It is, in fact, an example of "augmented reality."

I must digress for a moment and note that augmented reality has been around for a long time, mainly in the field of virtual reality. Most recently I've seen a couple of really impressive augmented reality applications on the G1 mobile phone.

The first of these was Mobilizy's Wikitude, which overlays the real-time image from the camera with labels indicating the points of interest in the direction the camera is pointing. Amazingly cool.

Another augmented reality application on the G1 was the recently released Google Sky Map. This software displays a diagram on the G1's screen of the planets, stars and constellations that should be visible behind the phone as you move it around. Insanely cool (although it sucks up battery power like a fiend).

Anyway, GE has been throwing around the term "digital hologram" with wild abandon and I have yet to see anyone take them to task for using the term incorrectly.

Does it matter? I think it does because it is an example of how being willfully ignorant about technology makes us all a little dumber.

Take defibrillation. If you believe what you see on the TV show "House" or on a score of other medical dramas, a person's heart stops and whap! One or two jolts and no more flat line. The reality is that defibrillation is only, at best and under ideal circumstances, about 74% successful.

When we make stuff up for the sake of marketing hyperbole or entertainment, then tens of thousands of children and uneducated adults accept these erroneous terms and ideas as if they were the truth.

Is it any wonder that lawmakers so often make such whopping gaffs when they try to write legislation that involves anything to do with technology, and that most of their constituents let them get away with it? None of them know better!

This kind of mangling of how we understand technology just holds our society back and keeps us collectively slightly dumber than we ought to be. It may well keep us entertained but would we be less entertained, informed or persuaded to buy if all of this needless and pointless inaccuracy, this willful ignorance about technology was missing?

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Mark Gibbs

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