6 Overrated Technologies and Their Overlooked Alternatives
PabloBD/CC BY-SA 2.0
One of humanity's redeeming qualities is the pursuit of more advanced technologies in order to be more efficient, to be more productive, or to achieve goals that just aren't possible with existing technology.
But sometimes, these new technologies are touted as better solutions for our needs, even if the low-tech alternatives already work just fine and adopting the new technology takes more materials, money, and resources.
In light of that, here are some of our culture's overrated technologies, and their overlooked low-tech alternatives:
Overrated: Digital Maps and GPS Navigation
If getting directions from Google Maps has ever led you astray or gotten you lost, or if following a GPS has ever left you hanging, you might start to rethink your navigation strategy. Digital maps are only as good as the original data, some details are not easy to convey on a screen, and a GPS unit by itself (while handy for pinpointing where you are now) can mislead you if you don't have coordinates for where you want to be. And of course, once your battery is dead on your phone, iPad, or GPS, the only thing they're good for is as a paperweight for holding down a paper map.
Overlooked: Paper Maps and Asking Directions
NYC DOT/Public Domain
Having an actual paper map with you, as well as getting directions from someone, can be just as effective (and sometimes more so) than trying to navigate with directions from a gadget. Paper maps can be folded up to fit in a pocket, don't need batteries, and allow you to more easily see your route in context. And asking someone how to get somewhere isn't a sign of weakness, it's another way to interact with a fellow human being and get personalized directions.
Overrated: Electric bicycles
Advancements in battery and electric motor technology have enabled a mini-revolution in bicycles, with new electric bike models being developed and marketed to commuters and pleasure cyclists alike. But with these e-bikes, many of the health benefits of riding a bicycle don't apply anymore, and it takes more natural resources to manufacture brand-new bicycle frames, electric motors, and batteries, as well as more fossil fuels to charge them up. If the battery goes dead, or a component fails, you're stuck pedaling a bike which weighs way more than a plain old-fashioned non-electric bike.
© April Streeter
Pedaling your bike to work, to school, or just for pleasure is good exercise. It gets your heart rate up and your muscles moving, and can be a great habit for a more healthy lifestyle. And because you provide the power, you're never going to be stuck on the side of the road because of a dead battery (although you might end up there when you need to refuel your body). Also, used (and even most new) bikes cost quite a bit less than an electric one, and are much more widely available (as are parts for them).
Overrated: Tablet and Stylus
There are many reasons to own an iPad or other tablet computer, as they are great for consuming media or for communicating. But they fall short for many other uses, even with advancements in screen and stylus and software technology. Need to write a quick note? You better hope your tablet is on and charged, and that you can open your favorite text app and type it in with your thumbs before you forget it. Want to sketch or paint something? Great, as long as it's smaller than your screen, you have the 'brushes' installed that you want, and you don't mind having to navigate through some complex menu options to do what would be simple with a lower-tech alternative.
Overlooked: Pencil and Paper
The humble paper and pencil or pen combination is reliable, fast, widely available, and cheap. Scrap paper works as well as new paper, and there's no need for a gadget in order to view notes, sketches, or lists, or to display them where you want them.
Overrated: "Recyclable" Packaging
This one may be more of a greenwashing issue than a technology one (although claims about new technology that can recycle new materials is a tech issue), but when consumers see "recyclable" on a package, they may automatically assume that it's better for the environment. The truth of the matter is more along the lines of "if recycling facilities for this material exist, and if the packaging is actually recycled, then it's slightly better".
Overlooked: Recycled Packaging
The greenest packaging is probably none at all (think buying in bulk, or products which don't require packaging), packaging which is minimalist (and easy to recycle), and that made from recycled materials (especially those made from post-consumer recycled content). It still takes a small effort to get those types of packaging in the right recycling bin (and without any contamination which may render it unrecyclable) and to the recycling center, but if you get familiar with the different types of everyday materials which can be recycled, it's a fairly easy and low-tech way to reduce our eco-footprint.
Overrated: Genetic Modification of Plants
Once hailed as the savior of agriculture and energy, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have now been found to come with all sorts of unintended consequences, such as enabling 'zombie weeds' and 'super bugs'. Besides the fact that GMOs are a patentable, controllable, 'product' and a fairly untested technology, the adoption of these types of organisms in our food system has led to an increase in chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides in our ecosystem, which is not a good thing for our natural systems.
Overlooked: Traditionally-Bred and Appropriate Plants
Breeding plants through the transference of pollen is the time-tested way to modify the genetics of plants, and is the way that man (and nature) has improved our food crops for a very long time now. This traditional breeding method is simple and cheap to do, even at home, and keeps the control of our seed stock in our own hands. And because the transference of genes is limited by what nature deems viable, there's no possibility of crossing the genetics of unrelated species and creating new problems. Instead of creating 'designer' plants with advanced technology, when we use traditionally-bred plants which are appropriate for the growing region, the growers, and the end-users, we can better work toward sustainability.
Overrated: Drugs and Cosmetic Surgery
Our modern culture, with its emphasis on instant and easy, has a tendency to choose the 'magic bullet' approach when it comes to health, including focusing on the symptoms instead of the cause. Add to that the desire to get a quick-fix for beauty (think boob-jobs, Botox, facelifts, and stomach stapling), and mental and physical health (think anti-depressants, sleep aids, and hypertension meds) and we've got all of the makings for an overdependence on drugs and surgery. But because these technologies are still so relatively new, we aren't really sure what the long term effects of many of them are.
Overlooked: Lifestyle and Diet Changes
© Florian Rivière
The more sustainable (and probably safer) way to health and longevity is through changing our diet and our lifestyle to those which support better physical and mental health. For much of what ails us, getting physically fit, eating a better diet, and dropping some of our bad habits can have a much longer lasting impact, and because these tend to be DIY-friendly options, there's no need to wonder "Does my insurance cover this?" or save up the cash in order to make a difference in our health.
Advanced technologies certainly have their place in our lives, but sometimes it's better to choose a simpler low-tech or no-tech solution. These alternatives can be cheaper, easier, and come with fewer side effects, and are generally more widely available (and with a smaller eco-footprint) than their high-tech versions.
What types of new technology do you think are overrated?