Jane Wakefield: The great British tech turn-off

Are we beckoning new technology with open arms or are we drowning in a sea of devices and acronyms?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Do we love our mobiles and PDAs in the way that, as teenagers, we loved our cuddly toys and action men? Or do we wish we could go back to the days when no-one knew we didn't have any friends because the incessant (or not) ring of the mobile was yet to be invented?

According to a survey out last week, it is the latter. We are all sick and tired of technology. We are aware of the increasing march of technological know-how but we are at a loss to understand how it relates to our everyday life.

Writing about technology every day is bound to make someone a little complacent. I no longer question the spaghetti soup of tech acronyms and the inevitable need for new devices, new platforms and new ways of communicating. I can get bogged down in the political issues affecting broadband, 3G and unmetered Internet access but less often do I stop to question how this technology is being received by the people that it is intended for -- those ordinary members of the public whose technological know-how ends with the satellite dish on their roofs.

Like the good Samaritan helping a blind person across a road without even asking if he wanted to cross it, the industry has assumed that the great British public has an insatiable appetite for gadgets and gizmos. We can't wait to surf the Internet from our armchairs, download music onto our phones and set up a wireless connection throughout our houses that will control everything from the time the oven comes on to how often the family dog barks.

In fact, the reality seems to be that as a nation we might just not be that bothered about technology. Except -- bizarrely -- in Yorkshire and Humberside where, according to the survey, the residents are the most tech-savvy in the UK. The author of the report is at a loss to explain why these areas of England should be so full of such tech-heads. Maybe it is because BT breakaway telco Kingston is based in Hull and has been offering ADSL through the TV for several years now. Or maybe someone has invented a technology that tracks whippets and homing pigeons which has proved particularly popular with the flat-cap brigade.

Of course, the pace of technological change has increased immensely in recent years as tech firms become hot properties on the stock market. The pressure is constantly on companies to come up with new ideas, different platforms and innovative ways of communicating information. But perhaps technological developments are out of pace with human tolerance. Perhaps there is some law somewhere which says that the more devices that are thrown at the public, the less they want them.

Human beings are notoriously good at adapting to their environment but when it comes to technology there is a distinct apathy and resistance to change. It never ceases to amaze me how many people I know who are intelligent and resourceful in all other areas of their life still have no idea how to programme their video. They would rather miss their favourite TV programme than sit down for five minutes and learn how to press a few buttons.

Among the male population there is a sub-species of geek who secretly takes pleasure in learning everything there is to learn about technology, who take pleasure in the idea of installing a wireless LAN in their homes and who have been given a whole new lease of life since Linus Torvalds gave them Linux to install on their PCs.

But for the average member of the public there is no such joy in technology for technology's sake. Things must have a purpose and an application that is exciting, fun and, most important, easy to use. Too many devices on the market today do not conform to this criteria.

Setting up a WAP phone, for example, requires effort -- and once it is done you might be justified in wondering why you bothered given the download time and the lack of interesting WAP sites. It is certainly not going to encourage people to learn about the wonders of GPRS and 3G. Despite the fact that mobile firms have shelled out a small fortune for spectrum, most people would probably think that 3G refers to the amount of money David Beckham earns per second rather than an exciting new mobile platform.

Personal digital assistants are another example of a product which is not exactly crying out to the average consumer. They tend to be aimed at business people and have a very unsexy acronym. PDAs are too often sold on their ability to organise your diary and connect with your PC rather than as a consumer device. Manufacturers would do well to think back to the Christmas when they unwrapped their first Game Boy and sat transfixed through dinner and the Queen's speech building a never-to-be-finished wall.

While we may not understand tech acronyms and devices there is no question that Brits do seem to be embracing their PCs and the Internet. This is probably because PC World is just a stone's throw from B&Q and the other stores that are a staple of an Englishman's Saturday afternoon shopping expedition rather than because of all the Net hype.

What is most worrying, though, is that we are not using the Internet as much as our European counterparts. While Germans enjoy up to thirteen hours per month surfing, Britons give up after just seven. Considering that the UK is the only place in Europe that offers unmetered access -- as much time as you like online for a fixed monthly fee -- this is rather strange. AOL and other ISPs fought BT tooth and nail to get it to introduce unmetered access and now it seems we aren't grateful for it.

Despite all the efforts of the press and the industry to get us clued up about the Net, as a nation we may just be less keen on technology than our German neighbours who, apparently, love learning about technology and love downloading software. At the end of the day, love of technology may be a cultural thing and while German culture embraces it, British culture would rather be sprawled out in front of the telly or down the pub.

Broadband is the next big step for the infant Internet and here we are also falling worryingly behind. Bottom of the league table for high-speed Internet services we seem to be a long way from Labour's vision of a broadband Britain.

While half of the online families in Korea have a broadband connection, only 3.1 percent of Internet-enabled homes in the UK boast the same thing. This probably comes down to another British obsession -- value for money. We do like a bargain and at £39.99 a month there just aren't enough people willing to stump up the cash. The consequences are serious though, as it means the kind of media-rich content the rest of the world is developing and enjoying will be lost to us.

With tech gloom darkening the doorsteps of everyone in the industry, the fight is on to find the killer app that will have us rushing to the shops to buy PDAs, Internet phones, Web pads, MP3 players, Bluetooth enabled PCs and digital TV. So, what is it that will get back the British interest in technology?

Ideas on a postcard. Personally I think someone has to think of a way of wiring up football, pubs and programmes about DIY. Then us Brits will be REALLY interested in technology.

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