Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is technology good for ham radio?

Several ham radio blogs have linked to the Wired article Why Ham Radio Endures in a World of Tweets. "What is it about a simple microphone, a transmitter-receiver and the seductive freedom of the open radio spectrum that’s turned a low-tech anachronism into an enduring and deeply engaging global hobby?" the author asks. He goes on to describe the thrill of establishing a direct, person to person long distance contact and exchanging QSL cards, which he contrasts with "a world of taken-for-granted torrents of e-mails, instant messages and Skype video-chats." It's a point of view that QRP enthusiasts and many others will identify with.

In the comments to the article many have been keen to say that ham radio is not low tech, citing "VoIP Radio" and digital techniques as examples. They may be true, but I'm afraid the commenters miss the point. The more high-tech ham radio becomes, the less magic there is. Developments like D-Star are about as far from the concept of a simple transceiver and the freedom of the open radio spectrum as it is possible to get. It isn't simple, it isn't free (since it depends on a network controlled by someone else) and it isn't open. Which is why it is anathema to many of us.

There is a danger that the pursuit of technology could turn ham radio into a poor copy of existing communications networks. Ham radio has endured because it has held on to its traditions involving relatively simple technology that most hams can understand and even build for themselves. If we ever lose sight of that the hobby is as good as dead.
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