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The question of the Millennium for Amateur Radio

with 3 comments

I stumbled on this in an amateur radio discussion forum

The question –

I don’t get it. I know people, friends even, who shrug their shoulders when I talk about having talked to somebody in another country. “Big deal, I can do that on the Internet”. Well sure, anyone can do it on the Internet, but can you say that you sent a radio signal directly from your house? They insist that ham radio is obsolete, that cell phones are way better, and that we don’t do anything useful. I try to tell them about Skywarn, about public services I’ve helped out with, and they still just act like it’s no big deal. I just leave them with “Well, if we’re so useless, then what were hams doing during 9/11? The police and fire repeaters went down with the towers, as well as cellular services. Hams were helping out with communications.”. They still just shrug their shoulders. Then again, these same people shrug their shoulders when I say I make my own beer. “Big deal, you can get beer at the grocery store”. (faceplant)

A response posted in the same forum –

My hands-down favorite description of Amateur Radio is three paragraphs by Ernest Lehman, K6DXK (SK July 5, 2005) from his novel “The French Atlantic Affair”. The following breathless prose about the wonder of Amateur Radio is the opening of Chapter Seven of the novel. Memorize it and then recite it with appropriate passion when someone asks what you like about Amateur Radio.

Yes, Dr. Berlin, but what do you hams talk about? Is what they usually said to him, and he’d realize then that they’d never understand, and he’d change the subject. But sometimes, though rarely, he’d come across someone who really dug his hobby, and then you couldn’t get him off. He’d go on and on about the feeling it gave him of being able to move himself through time and space, annihilating time and distance, his mind, his body, his consciousness out there roaming the planet like some cosmic spirit, and the sense of power, benign power, not the evil kind, knowing that his voice was rattling a loudspeaker in a far-off room in Bombay, or going out through an open window in Johannesburg to someone walking by on the street outside, or filling a room carved out of ice below the frozen wastes at the South Pole.

The here and now, the physical and geographical limitations that all beings are stuck with, would fall away from him as he immersed himself in the action on twenty meters on a good night in spring when the sunspots were dancing and the ionosphere was in a reflective mood and the short path was open to Europe and the Middle East and the Antarctic and Australia, and maybe Africa would come sneaking in the other way around, and later the Far East and Indonesia, you never knew what. He’d close his eyes, or gaze hypnotized at the speaker, and he’d listen to them and talk to them, voices in the night, his night, that is, with the moon shining into the den through the great beam antenna that rose from the lawn outside…

…And while it was his night in California, it was tomorrow morning in Oslo and Hil was getting ready to shovel the snow from in front of the garage so he could go to work, and in Brisbane it was late tomorrow afternoon and Tommy had just gotten home from a rainy day at the lab, and Toshi in Kyoto had just finished tomorrow’s dinner, and then later, Phil was talking to him from his car speeding through the Malaysian jungles to pick up Margaret at her French lesson in Penang, and Phil would lower the car window and let him hear the street noises of Penang even as he sat in his den in the house in Bel Air while the guy right next door was listening to the eleven o’clock news on Channel 2, …

… for God’s sake, and you ask me what do we talk about? We don’t talk about a [darned] thing and it’s terrific.

So, what are we to make of this?

Why does the Millennial generation have a hard time understanding Amateur Radio?

Issac Newton wrote that in regard to his accomplishments he, “Stood on the shoulders of giants”.  Saying this is simply to recognize that one’s accomplishments are dependent upon all the work of individuals and generations that came before. One generation takes the creative genius of a previous generation and builds upon it. It’s true in science and every industry. We build upon the past, generation after generation.

A generation is a span of about 20 years.  During this period of time one generation seems to lose an identification with another generation even though individuals of multiple generations may be living side-by-side.  (Watch this short video)

What is new and fascinating to one generation is part of the taken-for-granted reality of the next generation.  So, in the 1940’s who would think twice about turning on the radio and hearing hundreds of radio broadcast stations?  1916 was the date of the first regularly scheduled radio broadcast – it must have been amazing to hear it.  But 20 years later in 1940’s with inexpensive radios at Sears and hundreds of broadcast radio stations – no big deal.

In 1973 Martin Cooper of Motorola invented the first practical hand-held wireless telephone – amazing.  In the 1990’s, 20 years later, who would think twice about using a cell phone?  Skip ahead another 20 years – 2010 – who doesn‘t have a cell phone?  What’s the big deal?

In 1991 we first heard the term “World Wide Web” from CERN.  Twenty years later, in 2011, everyone has it.  What’s the big deal?

So, when an Amateur Radio operator tries to tell a kid born into a generation where “radio” is a taken-for-granted part of everyday life to the point that radio is “invisible” because it is so common then wouldn’t “so what” be expected?.  The quote above ( “breathless prose”) about listening to people on radio at a distant location is simply not comprehensible to an individual where radio and global communications is taken for granted.  Nothing romantic or surprising about it.  These kids never knew a time when global communication was not possible.  The kid has a radio in his pocket – his cell phone – no FCC  license required and he can already talk to the world.  So what is this Amateur Radio operator talking about; the kid doesn’t get it – different generation.

The Synergy of Radio and the Internet

The combination of advances in radio and advances of Internet telecommunications have come together to give us something we never had before.  This new thing is nearly-free and frictionless global communications.  This is what is “new” to the Millennial generation.

So, in a sense, this generation (Millennial’s) are standing on the shoulders of the giants of radio and networked telecommunications.  This is their starting point for their genius and their creativity for the generation of the 21’st century.  It is no different than in the mid 1900’s when the pioneers of radio broadcasting used the foundational work of Hertz, Maxwell, Marconi, Sarnoff, Armstrong (read more) as the taken-for-granted reality to enable their vision of local and international broadcasting.

Amateur Radio today has taken the path of a focus on technology and engineering more than what can be done with this technology.  Radio broadcasters were no so much interested in the tubes and engineering that went into making radio possible – they were looking to generate value from the technology.

The reason why the Millennial generation and Amateur Radio pass as two ships in the night is because they ask different questions.  Amateur Radio, with a focus on technology and engineering, has no answer to a Millennial who asks, “What can I do with this”.  Millennial’s might reasonably question why Amateur Radio operators are so focused on a 100-year-old technology that is so well-known, understood, and heavily commercialized.

To give a contemporary example of the difference between a focus on technology and a focus on the use of technology we only need to look at the differences between the two founders of Apple – Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.  If it was not for the complementary genius of these two individuals working together then we’d probably have to wait longer for the personal computer revolution.  The Apple II, engineered by Steve Wozniak, was introduced in 1977.  But near the end of generation of the “two Steve’s” it’s Steve Jobs that rules the day and Steve Wozniak has faded into the past.  Why?  Because Steve Jobs has a vision of how this technology can be used to create and enable new opportunities and innovation.

Society is not interested in technology as an end in itself.  They are interested in how technology can make life better for them and create new opportunities.

So, to the extent that the Millennial generation is asking Amateur Radio about technology as an enabling capability for creativity and innovation and to the extent that Amateur Radio is responding with technical engineering then they will be as two ships passing in the night.

The Questions of the Millennial’s

The Millennial’s are standing on the shoulders of giants.  What they received from the previous generation is taken-for-granted global wireless mobile communications made possible by the combination of radio and telecommunications engineering.

What is of interest to these folks that stand at the intersection of wireless radio communications and the Internet?  Here is one example:

From the Open Foresight project –

The Big Picture Context

If you look around, it’s undeniable that there’s a new global narrative emerging in the way we fundamentally understand ourselves as humanity – how we do business, how we learn, how we generate value together, how we interact. This transformation is being driven both by new communication technologies, and by the emergent behaviors these tools enable. The context of our relationships is shifting, and we still don’t know exactly what that means for us as a species. We’re asking ourselves questions like:

  • What happens when social networks connect us on a global scale?
  • How do new social and virtual currencies challenge our ideas about what money is and how value can be created and exchanged?
  • How can we form globally distributed enterprises and collaborative teams?
  • What do these emerging business models look like?
  • How do we build knowledge together and become more effective learners?
  • How are our notions of democracy and governance evolving?
  • What role do social technologies play in the evolution of human consciousness?

These are all challenging questions, and we don’t know the solutions because we haven’t yet created them.

That may sound terrifying and disruptive, or like an incredible opportunity to shape and bring about the future we deserve. Or, most likely, a bit of both.

What is Open Foresight?

In simple terms, open foresight is a process for building visions of the future together.

The response from Amateur Radio

The question posed above from an Amateur Radio operator is: Why can’t I get people interested in Amateur Radio?  The simple answer would be that Amateur Radio does not address any of the questions the majority of people are asking in the 21’st century.  Millennial’s are asking about the use of technology whereas Amateur Radio is focused on engineering.  Further, Millennial’s may legitimately ask why Amateur Radio operators,  as hobbyists, are interested in a from of engineering (radio) which is now fully mature and been commercialized.

If Amateur Radio operators could explain to Millennial’s how Amateur Radio can enable some sort of new capability, innovation, creativity, collaboration, or otherwise create a value or benefit to them then Millennial’s would show some interest.

As an analogy, if you wanted to get someone interested in a personal computer there no lack of interesting and creative uses of computers.  The mass of people don’t care about CPU chips, RAM, motherboards, or anything else that goes into the engineering of the computer.  They want to know what they can do with it.  The computer did not become mainstream until there was an operating system and a wide variety of applications.  Before that, computers were just a collection of chips that could perhaps blink a few lights in response to a program hand-assembled and toggled into the computer with switches. To Millennial’s Amateur Radio might just be this collection of antennas, radios, feed-lines, and other artifacts with no real use that they can discern.

… for God’s sake, and you ask me what do we talk about? We don’t talk about a [darned] thing and it’s terrific.

This sentiment from an Amateur Radio operator is difficult to understand for anyone carrying a modern mobile device that they are using to: send text messages to a friend or family member; find your kids on a map based on the GPS location of their cell phone; post pictures and video while on vacation to an Internet site like Flickr or YouTube; check up in real-time using Twitter with people globally with which you share a common interest; find out the weather at any place on the planet; see a map of any place on the planet and get directions from you current GPS location; stream a video or listen to music you’ve uploaded to the cloud; read a kindle book stored at Amazon.com; tell the world via Twitter or Facebook what world event is happening before your eyes – send an image or video; or perhaps find out the status of a project that you are working on collaboratively with other people around the world.

All of the above can be accomplished from a device that fits in your shirt pocket.  And if the capability that you imagine in not available  it can be created (“there’s an app for that”) by programming an app on these extensible devices.  The capability above, available to a kid with no FCC license, far exceeds the capability of any Amateur Radio station now or what could be imagined given the trajectory of Amateur Radio.

Millennial’s are simply asking Amateur Radio, “Thanks for your genius in the development of radio over the past 100 years – we now take it as our starting point and taken-for-granted reality of the world that we live in and what we want to build upon.   What benefit, value, or capability can you help us enable given the global communications that you made possible?  How can you help us answer the questions that are important to our generation?  How can you be relevant to us and how can you enable us to do more with wireless technology?

And the response from Amateur Radio in the 21’st century is…

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Written by frrl

July 17, 2011 at 3:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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3 Responses

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  1. … because it’s fun, and it’s occasionally useful. That’s it, no apologies, no over-sell. Millennials have a very accurate BS meter.

    Elwood Downey, WB0OEW

    July 18, 2011 at 9:50 am

  2. Stay tuned …

    How often have you heard about — or read about — someone who supposedly said
    in the past that the patent office should be closed because there is nothing further
    left to invent?

    If there supposedly are ‘millennials’ who believe that Amateur Radio has nothing left
    to discover it is part of the same thought process. And I think it is because most
    people are afraid of what the future may hold … so they to freeze things as they
    are.

    This is NOT a virtue or flaw of either the right or the left side of political spectrum.

    Instead, it is a question of Dynamism vs. Stasis. See Virginia Postrel

    That some ‘millennials’ may feel that way comes as no surprise. Certainly not all
    do. Certainly not those who are members of my radio club, those most of us are
    well seasoned :-}

    The answer to your question is, simply, Stay Tuned!

    Anonymous

    July 18, 2011 at 3:13 am

    • “If there supposedly are ‘millennials’ who believe that Amateur Radio has nothing left
      to discover it is part of the same thought process. And I think it is because most
      people are afraid of what the future may hold … so they to freeze things as they
      are.”

      Are you expecting the Millennial’s to “step in” and articulate the vision of Amateur Radio for the 21’s century? … while Amateur Radio sits on the side waiting to find out what it should do for the next 10,50, or 100 years? That’s like an entrepreneur waiting for a flash-mob collection of people to get together and write a business plan for the entrepreneur while s/he sits in a chair waiting for it to happen. The probability of the Millennial’s – who currently have no interest in Amateur Radio – getting together and creating a vision for amateur radio is the same probability that a tornado passing through a junk yard would assemble a Boeing 747.

      If Amateur Radio has a vision for the 21’st century, that is not a rehash of the past, and will engage the Millennial and future generation, then where is it?

      Anonymous

      July 20, 2011 at 4:53 am


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