Welcome to BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics. Your host is Rochelle Mazar, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Every month you can listen in as Rochelle talks about what’s new in technology and what academics should be paying attention to. It’s hard to keep up with all of the new software, tools and gadgets. That’s where Rochelle comes in.
Episode 18 – Retro tech
In this episode Rochelle looks at some of the hardware and web design technology that is experiencing a comeback. (Running time: 12:17 mins).
If you’d like to get in touch with Rochelle about something you heard in the podcast, please
leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
This episode features the following Creative Commons music and sound effects:
- How it begins (theme music) by Kevin MacLeod, Incomptech
Welcome to episode 18 of BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics.
Technology and the Internet is all about the future, right?
In this episode I look at some of the hardware and web design technology that is experiencing a comeback.
I think it all started with netbooks. For the longest time, the history of computing was fixated on moving forward; more memory, more storage, faster, bigger, brighter, better. Hardware development moved so fast that by the time you brought your new computer home it was already out of date. Hardware and internet culture grew and changed so rapidly, and we went through so many iterations and modifications, that sometimes I think we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We had some good ideas buried in there along the way, but we raced on past them.
I’m not sure if it’s true, but it feels like things are slowing down a little. Not that we’re any less interested in moving forward and having better, faster, and flashier devices, but we’re also getting more reflective. We’re looking back at where we’ve been, and we’re revisiting things we once threw away. We’re finding uses for things we once deemed useless.
Netbooks, I think, were the first bit of truly retro tech to come back into general use. Netbooks are smaller, low-power computers with a tiny amount of RAM that would have seemed suitable for a computer 10 years older. They seemed like a bit of an aberration in a landscape full of computers competing to be the fastest with the most possible storage space. But they filled an important gap: a netbook is a small, cheap computer ready to be used for low stakes, low power activities. They’re a good computer for children. They’re great for commuters and for students. If you lose one or break it, they’re relatively cheap to replace. Now that you can store so much of your stuff in the cloud, you don’t need a giant hard drive. With netbooks, we started to diversify our computing environment by looking backwards.
The original netbooks came from the One Laptop Per Child program, which set out to design a $100 computer that could be distributed in areas of the developing world in place of books. It was meant to be a constantly-new library in places where no library could exist. OLPC laptops can be hand-cranked for power and were designed to not only be ereaders and lightweight internet devices, but also to double as lamps in homes with no power. But the idea of a simple, light, cheap computer had appeal in the first world as well. Sure, it’s great to have a high-powered computer, but do you really need all that power all the time? Netbooks were the first big throwback: they were computers as powerful as ones we might have had a decade before, but they’re doing the simpler tasks of the present. The idea of going retro with your technology suddenly had merit.
What sprang from netbooks, arguably, were both very high end devices like iPads, and lower-end stuff as well. Netbooks showed us that our lives could embrace more than just the fastest and the most powerful.
One of the most exciting developments in computing at the moment is all the creation going on around Arduino. Arduino is a very cheap and very simple computer with no keyboard and no screen. You can buy one for about twenty five dollars, and then program it to do very simple things. There are some kits you can buy, like Raspberry Pi or Makey Makey, that make it even easier to plug these devices in and do some remarkable things with them. They’re about the size of a credit card, so you can tape them to the back of a monitor and have a very low-tech digital sign, or a display of constantly-changing information like bus schedules or room bookings, or use it to build a sensor to react to approaching visitors or record foot traffic. This kind of computing requires so little power, and is so light, it’s commonly used to create wearable devices.
This low tech revolution lets you turn basic computing into anything you want, including, if you were so inclined, a piano made of bananas. Rather than stuck in the realm of programmers and hardware geeks, these simple, cheap computers are finding their way into the hands of artists, teachers, children, and library patrons around the world with a yen to give them a try.
Computing you might have found basements in the 80s has become cheap, accessible, and a platform for practically anything. It’s like we’re starting over with computing, getting back to the very basics, and seeing what else we could have built. It’s from retro innovations like this that we’ll see more truly ubiquitous computing; walk up to someone’s office door and you might hear a recording of their voice telling you when they’ll be back. Walk through the stacks at your university library, and you may find the reference desk up there with you, displayed on a screen, just waiting to help.
Hardware isn’t the only thing we’ve rethought and brought back from the past: web design has taken a turn for the retro as well.
Do you remember iFrames? There was a time many of us may wish to forget when iFrames were used to structure websites. iFrames are basically windows cut out of a page where other web content loads. It was like looking at a wall with three or four windows in it, each with a different view. It used to be fairly common to see side navigation show up in it’s own window, and another window next to with content from somewhere else in it. You’d be looking at your screen with all these frames in it, all with their own scroll bars. We dispensed with iFrames many years ago, because they were bad design, they were annoying, and they were ugly.
But interestingly, iFrames have made a comeback. The most obvious example is YouTube.
In my role as a librarian who helps faculty with technology, you won’t be surprised to hear that I frequently get asked about YouTube and copyright. Can you put a YouTube video on a webpage without violating someone else’s copyright? Because YouTube uses iFrames, you absolutely can. Because you aren’t actually making a copy of it. As I said, iFrames are a way to make another page load inside of yours; that’s what YouTube does when you embed a video. You’re still playing the video on YouTube, but it’s sitting in the frame of your own webpage. So iFrames are a great way to ensure that the original owner of the video retains control over it while you get to put it on your own course web page or your blog. You can iFrame pretty much anything into pretty much anywhere; if you want to include a Google document into, say, Blackboard, you can iframe that in and make it look like part of the system. What was once a horrible design fad has, years later, become the cornerstone of our current embed culture. Embedding content with an iframe lets content creators maintain ownership and control of their work while still letting them share it widely. If we hadn’t looked back and pulled out this kludgy old web design tool, we might have a much harder time integrating resources where we want them.
Perhaps the most intriguing bit of retro tech comes in the form of an image format. In the early days of the web, it was common to see animated “under construction” images, or rotating envelopes as email links. The animated GIF, which its creator would like us to pronounce “jif” in spite of the fact that it’s spelled with a G, was a common eyesore on early websites around the world. They disappeared as we got more sophisticated about our sense of esthetics and web design. However, the animated GIF has made a serious comeback.
In structure, an animated GIF is simply a series of layered images, moving from one to the next either in a straight line or in a loop. Each image has a timer that determines how long it will display before the next one replaces it. An animated GIF is very much like a notebook with drawings in the corner; flip through them and they give the appearance of full animation.
It used to be that animated GIFs were very simple and conveyed only a sense of an object moving. But that simple technology has returned with a very new look. You can make an animated GIF out of a bit of film, and display a scene from a movie, someone’s facial expression, or a sequence of steps. Animated GIFs have become works of art; there is a trend of beautiful animated gifs using film stock to show a scene with, say, the movement of leaves on the ground, or the wind through curtains, or the rattling motion of a train from the inside of the carriage. Animated GIFs don’t need to be played; they are old tech, so all browsers can automatically play them. Unlike a video where you opt to switch it on and watch it, animated GIFs are just there, displaying motion, a human moment. We’re using them right now inside of courseware documentation on our website to help faculty visualize small but critical tasks; click here to do that, that kind of thing. A short visualization is often much more powerful than a paragraph of description. Why use words to explain things that are better shown? A video is a commitment; an animated GIF is just right there. You don’t so much watch it as see it.
One of the most fascinating uses of animated GIFs is how they’re used to do critical media analysis on sites like Tumblr. You’ll often see them placed in a set, showing dialogue or action, along with commentary, or as a commentary itself. Rather than describe a very visual scene in words and rely on the reader having seen it and remembering it, a series of captioned animated GIFs lets you see a piece of film in action. I’ve seen this done to demonstrate themes within a film, or to make comparisons between characters and settings, or to superimpose the events of one film onto another. Sometimes a scene from one television show will be displayed along with the dialogue in captions from another television show to make a point. I think it’s only a matter of time before animated GIFs show up in dissertations and articles. They’re heavily information-bearing, help demonstrate points clearly and accurately, and they’re beautiful. When scholars talk about post-literacy, I’m reminded of how much information and thought is conveyed in these artfully-created and curated animated images. What once was annoying and silly is now beautiful, creative and informative.
I’m sure this isn’t the last of the return of things we once thought were useless. As fast-paced as we are in the information age, it’s worth taking time to rethink some of the things we’ve thrown away.
That’s it for this episode. Are there other technologies that you think we should be revisiting? Let us know by posting a comment at the bottom of this podcast’s page at University Affairs dot CA. Until next time, I’m Rochelle Mazar.