Smartness Is Dumb

Isn’t dongle a lovely word? It has no sexual connotations; at least not as far as I’m concerned: it’s a purely techy word. An old-fashioned comedian – Lee Mack or similar – could do a couple of hours on the word, easily. A USB memory stick is a dongle; a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth adaptor is a dongle. Or, does a dongle, necessarily, dangle? I used to have a dongle which added a TV aerial to my laptop, and allowed me to watch TV on it. So cool.

I enjoy technology, and I always have. I aspire to new kit and I lust after shiny objects. We are all but magpies after all. I sit here in my well-filled office, with two screens in front of me, and three to my right. There are three computers arrayed over two desks and a TV equipped with functionality which could best be described as “Smart”. There is also a smartphone, a smart watch and several Tardises.

The Tardises are purely decorative, by the way; so are the large collection of sonic screwdrivers my daughter is so entertained by. Then again, so is the smart watch, now that I have deliberately let the battery die. Oh how that felt so very very good. That’s partly the story I am here to tell you today. I just have a couple of other things to mention along the way. Let me tell you about my experiences.

It takes time for a new piece of technology to make its way in to my usage. Smartphones I got fairly easily; but I didn’t particularly trust them with the internet. My smart watch now hides at the back of my desk, behind my calendar: paper and folded. It didn’t add anything at all to my existence, and it annoyed me more than a bog standard watch ever could. I may try again in a few years. Possibly.

I have never taken to using a tablet – yes my fingers are fat, but my eyesight is good enough to use a phone. The tablet I do have languishes in a decorative storage box, only to be brought out for family holidays, whereby it becomes a glorified TV screen, loaded with ”content” for evenings in a flat in a foreign land. Other people swear by their tablets, but I’ve never understood what the need was.

And that is a core aspect of my relationship with new technology: unless I can imagine a situation where it would add a great deal of value to my already technologically enriched existence I can’t, in all good faith, allow myself to purchase such a thing. How many bottles of good whiskey could I get for the price of an iPad or a Surface? Give me the whiskey, and don’t let the door hit you on the arse.

Time for some evidence: I recently bought an HDMI splitter, and it had one empty port on it. I went looking for another device to plug in to it – even going on to Amazon to find more HDMI connected dongles and gubbins, scrolling through cast sticks and HDMI-connected PCs. It took me a good hour or so of searching before I eventually realised that I didn’t actually need to fill up the third port.

I had need for two HDMI devices in to one port, and that was sufficient. Although, the fact that it switches itself may make me route all of my main HDMI devices through that. It will save me from looking for the TV remote ever again. That’s a small benefit of writing all of this down for you.

We use an Amazon Fire Stick: That’s what one of the HDMI ports was for. We’ve had the stick for a while now, but Amazon are having a colossal spat with Google, and so YouTube is no longer available on the Fire. I therefore bought a generic cast dongle to put YouTube on to the TV via my phone. I did not have a free HDMI port, and I didn’t want to keep swapping them over. I’d bang my head on the fire place for one thing: I keep doing it, and it really hurts. I hate exposing children to bad language.

Why don’t I just get a smart TV I hear you ask. The fact of the matter is that I have no need, no desire to upgrade my TV just yet: it has a lovely, warm picture, and works like a charm. When my daughter, in trying to switch it on, pulls it on to the floor (and narrowly evades her own demise, I must add) we will get a new TV. At the minute, there is no impetus to upgrade, so no impetus for a “smart” TV.

I say “smart”, rather than smart, not to add extra space in the line above, but to make a point. I hate modern TVs: I find their picture quality intimidating; I find their proprietary functionality infuriating. I was tasked with helping my mother get more TV through her TV, via the web. I fiddled with it for an hour, before giving up and resorting to the internet for research purposes. The internet is flexible.

What I found was that, although she could use a limited array of apps, including a dreadful browser, her “smart” TV was in fact pretty much useless for a great many things she wanted it for. I’m buying her an Amazon Fire Stick in a few weeks to get her the things she needs. It costs a tiny fraction of the price of the TV, and is practically disposable when new improved technology inevitably comes out.

New technologies are at their best when they are lithe, and not lumpen. A dongle is lithe: it can be moved from screen to screen, with negligible set up, and only occasionally in need of power supply. A TV is lumpen: it is rooted to one spot, it is long in the setup, and in need of a beefy, fixed power supply. We need the flexibility to switch between devices: TVs should only be screens, not devices.

Other people are very fond of those KoDi boxes. I’ve never really been behind them. It seems to me that they are the kind of thing which the semi-criminal seem to favour. I have no interest in paying too much for “content”, or in paying every time, but I don’t want to steal anything. They feel thievy. It reminds me of when the original digi-boxes could be chipped to allow access to all channels.

That’s all well and good when you’re a student, living a crazy after-hours life of partying and silliness. Now imagine you have a four year old demanding her favourite programmes, and you have a joiner about to walk through the door to quote for building some alcove units. At that point you need the most dependable system possible. And for that you need Her Majesty’s British Broadcasting Co. Ltd.