On Technology

Technology is a funny thing, especially for someone who’s actually working in the field. Obviously there’s the part of developing it (where I usually come in :)) but this posting is more about how technology is used in everyday life to make things easier. The focus naturally being on the three countries relevant to this year, i.e., Finland, Korea, and US. My intention is not to declare a winner, but rather to show how (the same) things are done in different countries and how they use technology.

One of the first things you come across are the travel cards for public transport. I already wrote a fair bit about how the system works in Seoul, but Helsinki and the Bay Area have similar systems; here in the Bay Area they call it the Clipper Card. All work exactly in the same way, i.e., you load money on the card and you use the money while traveling by showing the card to a reader. Alternatively, you can load a monthly pass, but effectively it comes out to the same thing (except that Seoul doesn’t have monthly passes as far as I know). Although the differences between the places are minimal, the system in Helsinki is, in my ever-so-humble opinion, the weakest of the three. First, we have the silly concept of different zones which requires you to press a button in addition to showing the card. No, I don’t have a good solution for getting rid of the zones. Second, the readers in Helsinki are way slower than in Seoul or the Bay Area. “Way slower” is of course a relative term, since even in Helsinki, the machine reads the card in about 1-2 seconds, but Seoul and Bay Area are simply faster. For example, when entering the subway, you can keep on walking and just swipe the card over the reader and the gates open quickly enough. The system in Helsinki wouldn’t be fast enough, but then again we don’t have real gates and the passenger numbers are so small that having a slow system maybe doesn’t slow everything down too much. Given that Seoul had this kind of a system over 10 years ago (and it was just as fast back then), we probably got the lowest bidder giving us crappy technology in Helsinki. (To be honest, I’ve seen part of the specs for the new travel card system they are planning for in Helsinki, and it seems to be more the case of the Regional Transport Authority not actually requiring the system to be fast, so it’s not really a fault of the provider.) But by far the niftiest feature of the three is the ability to have your travel billed on your credit card, like it happens in Seoul. No need to go somewhere to load money on the card. Clipper Card can be loaded over the net (but not instantaneously) so that’s sort of a compromise, but I just wish that in Helsinki we could get the thing as in Seoul.

Related to traffic, parking garages also work surprisingly differently, given that the functionality is pretty simple. In Finland, as in most of Europe in my experience, you get a ticket from a machine when you enter a parking garage, you pay for the parking at a machine before you leave, and you enter the “paid” ticket at the exit gate. The key bit here is that everything is automated and no human contact is needed, unless there are problems. In the US and Seoul, you very commonly need to interact with a human during payment. In the US, you either get the ticket at the entry gate and pay to a human when exiting, or you pay a flat rate to a human upon entry (common in a bit more touristic areas). Yes, there are some garages that work like in Europe. Both US and Europe still make you carry around that small piece of paper, though. In Seoul a very common solution seemed to be that a camera takes a photo of the license plate of the car and another camera at exit takes another photo and then a computer tells the human in the booth how much you should pay. Yes, this needs a human at the exit (or some kind of an automated payment system like for highway tolls) but removes the need for carrying around that piece of paper. Korea has such an automated highway toll payment system, but I didn’t see any parking garage taking advantage of that. One place where this Korean system showed a huge advantage was on SNU campus, where visitors needed to pay to enter with a car, but registered users could drive on a different lane and not be stuck behind the visitors. For those with their tinfoil hats (too) tightly on their heads, yes, I see the obvious privacy implications of keeping track of cars via computers, but if the data is actually deleted when exiting the garage, then I think the good outweighs the bad. (No, I don’t know for sure what happens to the data, but the cynic in me doesn’t believe that it gets deleted, so the privacy concerns are probably valid.) Overall, all three are pretty much the same, with Europe having gone furthest in eliminating need for humans in the process.
However, Korea does use technology in some other areas way more than US or Europe. These are best shown with pictures.

If you go to a Starbucks (or any of the local Korean coffee shop chains or similar places), after ordering you’ll most likely get a large, plastic thingy, like in the photo below.


When your “whatever you ordered” is done, the device will blink (but not beep :)) to signal that you can go pick up your stuff. No need for hanging around the “Pick up order here” counter, no need for the people making the food to yell “Item X for person Foo is ready”. Just relax, sit down, wait for blinking, and go get your thingy when it’s done. I don’t remember seeing these kinds of things in Europe, then again, places like Starbucks work at a very un-European principle, and are only recently taking hold. The European way is to have a real waiter ask for your order after you sit down. The Finnish way is to do everything by self-service. 🙂

I have seen similar things used in the US, but only when you are waiting for your table at a restaurant. You go to a popular restaurant, you didn’t make reservations, the place is full, and you need to wait N minutes, where N is typically quite large. Instead of waiting right there, the restaurant gives you a thingy like above and when your table is ready, it’ll blink (and maybe beep). It obviously works only in cases where you have another place to go nearby while waiting, such as shopping or a bar.

While the above thing is nice and nifty, the next one is even better. Here’s the picture:


These are extremely common in Korean restaurants. Instead of needing to flag down a waiter, there is this kind of a small thingy at the table, you press the button, and soon after a waiter “magically” appears next to your table. The thingy in the picture has three buttons. The one at the bottom left is “soju”, the one at bottom right is “beer”, and the one at top is “Other request”. Yes, this was in a restaurant with separate rooms, so having a dedicated button for the most common things is an obvious optimization. In more open seating areas, there would be only 1 button.

In Finland I’ve seen similar arrangements in restaurants with separate rooms, but in Korea you can find these in most restaurants. I did see such a thingy in a Nepalese restaurant in downtown Helsinki on my last visit and this was not in a separate room. I’ve never seen them in the US. I can imagine them not fitting at all with the local style here, since there are enough people with a feel of entitlement that they would time the reaction times of waiters and complain if they exceeded X seconds (where X would now be rather small).

Finally, we come to home appliances. Microwaves? The same in all countries. (Not a surprise since especially some of the microwaves sold in Finland are made in Korea.) Fridges? Pretty much the same in my experience. There are differences in fancy features, but those seem to be more between low-end and high-end models and not between countries. Dishwashers? Well, this is more interesting… In Seoul we didn’t have a dishwasher, but of course the In-Laws have one. I don’t quite remember how much noise it makes, but I don’t recall being overly disturbed by it, so it’s probably about the same as our cheap Siemens dishwasher in Finland. The dishwasher in our current apartment here in Berkeley? The owner had just remodeled the kitchen, the dishwasher is brand new, and the manual was in the drawer. When I read through the manual, I couldn’t help but notice how it vaunted the quietness of the dishwasher. B……t! The damn thing is louder than our cheap Siemens dishwasher back home in Finland. Way louder, as in being in the kitchen at the same time as the damn thing is running is uncomfortable… If this is truly a quiet model, then I can only feel sorry for the people here.

Washing machines… don’t even get me started on those… Compared to Korea, Finland is behind in one respect. The fanciness of features is about the same (with many washing machines sold in Finland being manufactured in Korea…) but the sizes are different. Typically in Finland a washing machine has been for 5 kg, maybe 7 kg for a “big” washer, but in Korea, no manufacturer dares to sell anything with capacity less than 10 kg. Oh, and a Korean washing machine will play music when it has finished (although I’m not sure if this should be counted as a positive thing). Other than that, they are pretty much equal and light years ahead of the US. Here you get a big, bulky top-loading monster, which you need to stop and open to add detergent, start again, let it run, stop, open, put in clothes, start again, let it run, stop, open, add fabric softener (in some cases), basically a major pain. None of the nice automation of load clothes, load detergent and softener, program the washing cycle with whatever options you want, press start, and wait. No, this thing is a giant leap back towards the stone age. And you’re telling me that these guys went to the moon… Well, the washing machine technology currently in use here in the US is from the same era as the moon landings, so…

Admittedly, besides our current washing machine, I’ve only experienced US washing machines in laundromats, but they all fit the above description. I’ve also used a fair amount of French and German laundromats and they fit the description of automation above, so I don’t hold much hope for US in this regard. (Yes, I’m aware that front-loading washing machines exist here, but if you need arguments like this to convince people to buy them, I’m still not holding much hope for these guys.)

Yes, as is customary here in the US, there is a dryer right next to the washing machine. Yes, it is nice to get clothes dried without having to hang them up to dry. Yes, we’re going to buy a dryer when we get back to Finland, in fact, pretty much the only reason why we don’t have one yet is that the top of the washing machine made for an ideal changing table for babies. It’s solid, it’s stable, it’s sturdy, and with a waterproof padded cushion, it was ideal for the job. Now that the Younger One is out of diapers (well, has been for a while), the need for a changing table has disappeared and the top of the washing machine can now be used for a dryer. 🙂

Another water-related weakness in the US are the showers. A friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to this story about a guy taking a shower wearing his Google Glass and commented that maybe the Americans should first fix their showers and only then move on to developing more advanced technology. I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. Seriously, what’s the fascination with the “shower head attached to the wall” thing? Not to mention the myriad controls for hot and cold water or water pressure. Every time I travel to the US, it always is a pain to figure out how the shower works. Every other country I’ve visited has pretty much an intuitive, almost standardized system. Get on with the program!

So, why is it that the US is, IMHO, among the last of the industrialized countries in the actual adoption of technology? Don’t get me wrong, these guys here do develop a lot of stuff (especially high-tech stuff), but it’s usually the other countries where the stuff is actually used to make life easier. To be honest, I can’t think of a single thing where US could be considered to be at the forefront of technology use in everyday life. (Yes, I probably have missed something painfully obvious, feel free to post a comment.)

I can think of a few reasons why that is so. One is that the US is a really big country. This is obviously an advantage in that it creates a vast, single national market, but at the same time creates a large inertia for changing things. Europe, in contrast and notwithstanding any “progress” towards a single market by the EU, is fragmented, which creates many small markets, but as a positive feature, allows each of them to develop individually, e.g., Finland can adopt technology X, regardless of what the Spanish do. The inertia is that in every country there are certain cultural expectations on how things should work, and changing these expectations takes time. With a large population, it takes longer, unless an authoritarian approach enforces the migration (obviously a non-starter as a solution in the US and in Europe as well).

Yet another reason could be the first-mover disadvantage. Wait, disadvantage? Isn’t it usually called first-mover advantage? Well, yes it is, but it’s sort of a double-edged sword. Being the first to adopt or build something new gives you a short-term, maybe even a medium-term advantage over those not doing it. However, especially in technology, things evolve at a rapid pace and those who waited will have access to superior solutions at lower cost, whereas the first-mover has to invest again. A classic example of this is buying let’s say a computer. You set aside a certain amount of money for buying a computer. Do you buy one now or wait 6 months and get a better computer for the same price? Buy now and miss out on all the new stuff that comes out in those 6 months, but get to use a computer now, or wait, without a computer and get more for your money? What is the value of having a computer now? (Yes, you need to assign a value to “having a computer” since otherwise you’d just wait, since waiting gives you more bang for the buck.)

Likewise in society, do we build a large infrastructure with current technology or wait for better technology to emerge? I leave pondering of the answer as an exercise for the reader.

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4 Responses to On Technology

  1. Toni Ruottu says:

    Hesburger Kamppi in Helsinki, Finland uses the same wireless device to inform customers that their food is ready. Of course it could have different electronics inside, but it looks exactly the same.

  2. Saku Hieta says:

    The table tracker in Panera Bread is the most convenient system I have come across – order at counter and within a few minutes of sitting down at the table the waiter will find you and bring your order, even if you are sitting outside.

    Fully agree with your comments on showers though. Public swimming halls (uimahalli) in Finland have better showers than five star hotels in the US. Oras could enter the market and position themselves as the “Apple of shower heads/mixers” – beautiful design, intuitive UI, great experience with smooth waterflow, precise and consistent temperature.

    • Jussi Kangasharju says:

      Saku, that Panera Bread system looks nice, I should go check them out while I’m here.

      I agree that Oras could make a killing in almost any market in the world with the right marketing. Long time ago I took a user interface design class in France and the professor used water taps as an example, with the most sophisticated example being the usual Finnish thing with separate controls for pressure and temperature. Everyone was astonished at the coolness of this solution. 🙂

  3. Toni Ruottu says:

    Hakulaite is the Finnish company selling the devices. http://www.hakulaite.fi/ “made in Korea” is written on the device. 🙂 It is not silent however. It beeps when the food is ready.

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