Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ham Radio vs The Internet

Since getting back into the hobby a few months ago I've occasionally pontificated about the relationship between 'recreational radio' (mostly what Hams do) and the internet. There are lots of dimensions to this of course, and I'm sure this has been a subject pretty much done to death in the various Ham forums as well as on the air.

Taking a quick look around the club during regular meets, you can't help notice a certain skew in the demographic. The hobby has always been male dominated, and certainly the membership is also skewed according to those who have the time to spare on the hobby. Nevertheless, there are surely far too few young people in the mix to ensure a healthy future (it seems to me anyway). Maybe this isn't as bad as it might seem - perhaps the stats would show that enough people enter the hobby in their 40s and 50s when career and family demands begin to lessen a little. On the other hand, there might be a genuine crisis about to break.

Of course, one of the reasons that young people mightn't be quite so motivated to learn about radio and participate in the hobby is that radio is no longer the only/dominant communications medium if you are initially open to be hooked by the promise of being able to make friends at a distance. I think this was one of the real attractions for me - or perhaps in my case it was more the wonder of being able to do this.

These days, with broadband into essentially every home, with the web, email, instant messaging, chat boards, forums, mailing lists, Twitter, Skype, etc. etc., one is hardly starved of communication channels. Moreover, these cover a whole gamut of 'modes': written, audio, telepresence, video etc., so you are even presented with options to suit your preference - even mood!

The computer has become a window on the world like no other tool in history, and is the ultimate communication and information device, as well as providing for more 'traditional' processing requirements. Indeed, the biggest uptick in computer usage has not been with applications to enhance productivity per se, but rather with applications that amplify social and information bandwidth.

Every one of my kids has grown up with the computer and they have always considered it a way to interact with their existing friends, keep in contact with old friends and even make new ones - irrespective of any issues of locality. They hold essentially uninterrupted dialogues and conferences with their entourage, even when circumstances such as vacations dislocate parties. I'm sure this is a pattern that they will expect to be a constant factor in their lives - in other words they now treat constant high-quality communication to anyone, anywhere at anytime as essentially a 'right'.

A related observation about the 'next' generation (my perspective), at least in the West, is that they have a tendency not to want to wait for anything. They are a consumer generation, wanting the end, and seldom being concerned or interested about the means. They also live in a time of wonders, when new 'superpowers' are regularly bequeathed them through the means of new technology - it all happens so quickly and effortlessly, so I suppose there's little need to want to learn how it works, as it will all happen without this!

Bringing this back to amateur radio, the contrast is quite stark. The hobby is of course rather more than simply providing a way to chat to friends and learn interesting tidbits along the way, but that's still why many people got into it at the beginning, even if they subsequently get hooked on the technical aspects of what makes it actually work.

Still, many people in the hobby today are there because they enjoy the science and technology itself (not just what I'll call "the gadgets", and socialising). I'm sure this will always be the case at some level, because there will always be engineers, scientists, educators and others who will enjoy the 'how'.

As a technical hobby, there is a corollary challenge here. Amateur Radio enthusiasts have historically been at the forefront of advances in radio communications technology, but like every other scientific endeavour, the advances create ever depth, complexity and the need to specialise if you want to stay at the forefront. This makes it increasingly difficult for the larger population to contribute at this level - and perhaps you could argue that this is a dynamic that turns the hobby increasingly away from pursuits around technical advancement and more toward other aspects: social, sport radio, emergency support, etc. If that's true, then the hobby is really less and less about the brass tacks of radio per se, but rather more about learning to operate in various ways. Perhaps the hobby should more openly promote those aspects to the great unwashed, rather than allowing the persistent external perception that the hobby is actually all about obscure electronic circuits.

From a purely technical perspective, the internet (and its modern access points such as mobile phones as well as 'regular' computers) wins hands down over technologies currently deployed in amateur radio. Of course, the internet can sometimes 'go away', leaving other media as superior for a time, but in general it's easy to see (and my kids tell me!) that my iPhone is the pinnacle of communications devices while I'm in range of a functioning network.

On the social side, in comparison with the general internet at least, I do think that Amateur Radio has something special to offer in terms of creating a self-selecting community that by and large has a genuine interest in technical and scientific matters (by they radios, propagation, space, engineering, genetics, whatever). My experience, at least, is that you at least get to start a conversation in areas that are a common interest by definition, and thereafter you often learn interesting new factoids in topics that are much removed from the obvious radio-oriented subjects. I find that this existence of a 'starting point' of common interest, coupled with the fact that most participants are relaxed and in a frame of mind to simply enjoy contact with another human being, is quite a differentiator compared to the internet. For all the hundreds of thousands of communications channels and forums offered by the internet, all too often the kind of conversations had there are characterised by less positive dynamics: grandstanding, competitivity, prima-donna attitudes, and other things besides. The internet is not predominantly used in a spirit of fraternity, and that makes a big difference.

So, it will be interesting to see how Amateur Radio evolves in the future with all the pressures and challenges it will face. Hopefully though, at the very least, the sense of camaraderie can be preserved however the technical backdrop evolves, so it remains a positive experience on balance, and in particular a way to discover new friends and learn new things without so much of the noise, uncertainty and 'temperature' of the internet.

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