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Dangerous at any throughput

May 3, 1999
by Zac Belado

When I was in elementary school I had a rather traumatic skiing accident that left me in a cast (from toes to hip) for six months. I spent almost a month trying to get used to the fact that I could no longer walk unaided. And then, when the cast was taken off, I spent a considerable amount of time getting used to the fact that I didn't have use crutches to get up and could scratch my toes again.

A few days ago I moved to a new apartment. It has a much nicer view, is in a more conveniently located neighbourhood and it is going to take the local phone company some time to get my ADSL line reconnected. I am, by the time it finally gets reconnected, going to spend almost a week using a modem, and it is driving me insane. There are revolutions that occur from time to time that totally alter the way we work. ADSL (or even cable modems for that matter) is one of these technologies that introduces changes that are as close as one can get to a paradigm shift outside of a breathless Wired article. A wide data connection gets attached to your house or apartment that gives you 24/7 broadband access.

Think of it as heroin for computer geeks. And I've been "jonesing" for 4 days.

It's rather suprising how easy it is to get used to dramatic increases in computing power. I got my ADSL connected on December 22nd of last year (and to prove just how much I depend on my ADSL connection, let's remember that this article is being written by a person who forgets his own birthday but can remember the exact day he got his ADSL connection) and I think it was only about a month before I stopped even looking at the sizes of files I was downloading. It was irrelevant. 600K, 2 MB, 50MB. All downloads become equal when you average 150K a second throughput.

It also changed the way I worked. Almost all my work is web related so I am frequently uploading pages to servers, testing pages and doing 101 things that require an Internet connection. Before I got ADSL this would require the establishment of a modem connection. A process that is, to be blunt, a total pain in the ass. I would also invariably forget to do something (like check my mail, or upload a .gif file) and would then have to reconnect with my modem. Sometimes I spent less time online than it actually took for me to get a connection.

Once the ADSL line got connected this changed. When I wanted to view a web page I just opened up the browser and looked. If I forgot to upload a file it wasn't a big deal because I was still connected. As well, I have several apps running that assume that I have an active net connection. ICQ and a heavily modified version of tik (the TCL version of the AOL Messenger app that I use to browse news) are the two I use most frequently.

And then there is the fact that my ping in Quake went from 450+ using my modem to 40 using my ADSL connection.

And, of course, one gets very used to this sort of connectivity.

Not that this process is terribly unique.

128K? Who needs that much RAM?

Moore's Law states that the computing power of CPUs doubles every 18 months. Zac's law states that it will take you 18 days to begin to take your new hardware for granted. If that long.

I'm sure that everyone has experienced this. You get a new computer with a blazingly fast CPU and within a few months you're pulling your hair out complaining about the speed. The 56K modem you got is outrageously fast one week and then a slug the next. Our new technologies become the status quo quicker than technology companies can spin out new products. This is a common enough process that most of my friends joke about it. Comments about the speed of a new computer purchase are invariably countered with jokes about how long it will take the purchaser to begin complaining about the same product.

The inverse is also true. We never appreciate our ability to fill seemingly enormous technological capacities. When I bought my first 2GB hard drive I wondered how I would fill it up. Now, not even a year later, most manufacturers don't even make 2GB hard drives anymore. The smallest drive I was able to find recently was 4GB.

My favourite example of this is a conversation I had with a friend who was upgrading his Apple II+. He was planning on purchasing a 128K RAM upgrade. "What," I asked him, "could you possibly do with 128K of RAM?" My laptop now has 48 MB of RAM, although I run Windows 98 on it so maybe that's really not so hard to understand.

But why does this happen?

Markets and desire

Part of the problem is the economic system that drives the computer industry. Companies need to create new products to continue to make money so they need to generate a demand for their products. The simplest way to do this is to convince consumers that their existing products are obsolete. The more oblique approach is to develop and expand markets for applications that drive consumer demand for other products. Look at Intel and Microsoft's effort to develop desktop 3D applications and interfaces, the Chrome project. Consumers don't need faster CPUs for word processing apps (despite the best efforts of Microsoft to develop an office suite that needs a 400 MHz CPU) but they just might need them for a 3D UI that does ray tracing. Or at least that was the idea. Chrome was shelved and Intel is now trying to sell CPUs by getting consumers to use streaming Internet video.

Either way, it's rather hard to stay satisfied with your current hardware if you're bombarded with a series of ads telling you it's garbage.

We also just get used to things. The same cerebral process that makes us tune out background noise and events after prolonged exposure also makes us begin to assume that all net connections are 150K/sec. In much the same way that we soon tune out a ringing alarm after 15 minutes we also tune out the novelty of a fast CPU or wide bandwidth.

Which doesn't explain why we always seem to under-estimate our ability to fill up hard drives and fill bandwidth.

Road to nowhere

Bigger hard drives just let us be less fussy. I'm sure that if you were hard pressed you could find 50-100 MB of space on your drives taken up by things like sounds, movies and other digital flotsam. I have over 500 MB of movies on my hard drive, including a 51MB QuickTime movie of the Spirit of Christmas cartoon that spawned Southpark and several Itchy and Scratchy cartoon from the Simpson's. Do I need these things? No. But I have the space so I keep them around. Lets not even start to discuss the 1.1 GB of mp3 files that reside on my server.

Our inability to comprehend our storage and bandwidth needs is also complicated by the fact that we are on the cusp of a technological revolution and we are still trying to determine what we are going to do with our computers and how they are going to evolve. The last 20 years have seen the development of individual computing stations and what we are currently experiencing is the evolution of a global network. Not only does this network expand the amount of material we have access to (and therefore the amount of data we want to store) but it also increases the amount of material produced.

This website is a product of that network. The principals live in different countries, the writers are spread out all over the globe and the site is viewed through a network infrastructure that didn't exist 5 years ago. 5 years ago the opportunity for the material on this site to be created and published didn't exist. So the 260+ articles on Director Online and the hard drive space they take up are a direct result of the expansion of the Internet.

An expansion that continues.

Which hopefully explains why I get all weird when I think about having to use a modem and why I am going to be a very, very happy geek when the phone company comes around to reconnect the ADSL line.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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