When is a pencil and paper better than a computer?

In this article in MacUser Howard Oakley notes that a number of schools have recently banned the use of wireless networks due to the unknown effects of the radio waves used. He then connects this with the declining number of people taking science subjects at those same schools and their ability to understand the likely risks of said networks.

It’s an interesting piece, but what I find interesting is that as the general populations understanding of how the world works dwindles, so our reliance on high technology increases ((As this article asks, in relation to decreasing interesting in science degrees, “do they just totally not care about where things like web search and MP3 codecs and 3D graphics and peer-to-peer protocols come from”?)).

One incredible thing is that sometimes we start moving to a highly technical solution despite there being little advantage in it. Or at least as far as I can see, the advantage is that it is digital and new.

My favourite example is that of electronic voting machines. It’s easy to point and laugh at all the problems that they’ve been causing, particularly in the recent elections in the US. But despite the problems, despite every indication that they often choose who wins an election rather than the electorate, there is still a drive to increase their use.

The main thing that I want to know about the voting machines is this. What problem are they solving? What part of the old system was so broken that it required a complicated, flawed and unreliable new system? ((It’s also worth noting that before the new electronic machines, the US had problems. Remember the “hanging chads” problem with Bush’s first election? That was a flaw in a method of automatically counting votes.))

Some say that the current system is inefficient or labour intensive or slow. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, that’s either untrue or by design. The system needs to be both anonymous and yet track fraud, two ends of the privacy spectrum. The model in use is similar to public key cryptography in that working out who made a particular vote is not impossible. In fact, in principle, it’s very easy. But unless you have plenty of time to manually check thousands of ballot papers it’s going to take a while. This is by design.

Similarly, the effort required to count the votes in the first place is also a benefit. It makes it more difficult for any individual to have a dramatic effect on the final outcome. This is a good thing.

And slow? It’s simple to make quicker: throw more people at it. That makes it quicker and reduces any inherent bias.

I love new technology and gadgets, I’m fascinated by how they work and the effect that some of them have on society. But in the end, you have to use the right tool for the job. And the right tool does not always have an embedded computer.