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The Most Complex Machine Ever Built

August 24, 2011 - 2 Comments

By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

If you read my prior story on this topic, and appreciate my love of conversations with cab drivers, then you’ll understand this cryptic note:

hi Steve, how are u, its been long time,

this is cab driver Masud from Vancouver, I drop at the airport, we discus many issue, I hope u remember me.

Any way if u have any thing to shear on new thinks, please don’t hegited.

That message is why I travel, and why I work in this field.

Masud did indeed drive me to the airport in Vancouver, during which time we chatted about a plethora of topics, including the following:

  • Globalization (an absolutely necessary, painful, but good thing);
  • Healthcare (Masud knew a great deal about healthcare because he had been a trauma surgeon in his home country of Iran before fleeing to the United States);
  • Government transparency (nobody does it right);
  • Education (all kids should be required to travel to a country where their native language is not spoken and should be required to do this immediately after high school for one year);
  • The Internet (a powerful tool, especially in the hands of kids);
  • Mobile telephony (the ability for people to post their feelings about government decisions, instantly and in large numbers);
  • Facebook and Twitter (the most powerful political weapon the world has ever known, except for the American Constitution — his words, not mine);
  • And food (there is nothing more delicious in the world than chicken fried steak).

Perhaps what moved me the most about my conversation with Masud was his broad knowledge of the technology industry, and his absolute acceptance of the fact that just because he doesn’t use certain technologies or applications, doesn’t mean that they’re bad.

At one point he asked me this question: “I know GSM and I know CDMA. I know GSM is world standard, and CDMA is little standard from San Diego. We have GSM in Middle East – works greatest. But what happens when Long Term Revolution (he meant Long Term Evolution) gets here? Big change? New phone? New plan? I hate new plan – cost me big monies.”

The fact that he could speak in some detail about the topic of mobile technology was amazing to me. Furthermore, the fact that he had such passion about the power of technology to change the world — and to REALLY change it — was quite satisfying.

Mystery Solved: the Magical Fax Machine

Next in this story, there’s a quick geographic shift. A few years ago, while filming a video in Texas about telephony, I interviewed a small-town sheriff about his use of telecommunications technology in his job. I wanted to know how it has changed the way he works.

“Well sir,” he began, puffing out his chest and sticking his thumbs into his waistband, “We use telecommunications all the time. We use our radios and cell phones in the cars, and our telephones there to talk here in town and for long distance. And now,” he said, patting a fax machine on his desk “we’ve got back-up.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, so I asked, and he elaborated. “We’ve always had trouble with the phones goin’ out around here, and that was a bad thing,” he explained. “Cain’t very well do our job if we cain’t talk. But now we’ve got this here fax machine,” he said, motioning to the device on top of a file cabinet.

I was puzzled — I was missing his point, so I probed a little deeper. He continued, “Don’t you get it, son? Before, if we lost the phone connection, we were like fish outta water. Now, I know that if the phones go down, I can always send a fax.”

Unfortunately, many peoples’ understanding of the inner workings of the telephone network is at about the same level as that of the sheriff (who was a wonderful guy, by the way. I set him straight on his understanding of the telephone network and he treated me to the best chicken fried steak I have ever eaten. Masud should have been there).

The telephone network and the Internet represent what many technology historians call the most complex machine ever built. So it’s natural that there would be a few misconceptions about how they work.

The truth, of course, is that the average person shouldn’t have to know. The fact that they DO is the amazing part — and every time I think about it, about all those moving parts, I get excited all over again.

I’ll tell you one thing, though: Thanks to my well-informed friend Masud, with whom I now carry on a regular e-mail conversation, the next time I have “any thing to shear on new thinks, I won’t hegited.” Perhaps I should learn some more Arabic expressions, insert a few in my next message and then he can smile at my use of his language.

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  1. Interesting column,. Just a correction since you obviously pointing out Masouds language skills... If he is Iranian then he does not speak Arabic so learning Arabic expressions will not help your communications in your future email correspondence. The Arabic expression to a Persian speaking person will be like using Russian expression to a English speaking person if you know what I mean?!!!

    • @Touradj, thanks for the clarification. Point taken.