Opening Comment: Arthur, considering your deep schedule, we appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
A: I'm very pleased to speak to you and your readers.
Q1: Can you tell us more about your award area as a Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and how you came to work in this area?
A: The area in which I have been awarded by the MVP program is called "Printing and Imaging". Microsoft's digital documents product group has a broad area of responsibility, so in spite of there being only a handful of MVPs in our area, we include a wide variety of competencies. For example, some have their expertise in printer, scanner or fax drivers, interfacing or networking, and others like myself, spend most of our time dealing with end users who are working with interfacing or managing non-Microsoft peripherals, (such as scanners, printers, and other imaging devices), within Microsoft operating system environments. I'm not the guy to ask if someone has an issue regarding coding or security, which may involve having to dig deep into the internal structure of a Microsoft product.
Over 20 years ago, due to some health related issues involving working with traditional photographic chemicals, I needed to adopt digital imaging solutions in order to continue working in my profession. Back then, options which today we would be considered totally inadequate, cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and were out of my price range. As an early adopter of home computers for graphic image-making and output, I picked up some knowledge and skills regarding, not only what software and hardware existed that could further a graphic artist or photographer interested in using computers, but also how to do so as a small business owner with limited funds. Along the way I also learned some of the pitfalls to avoid, and finally, (I have always had curiosity about how things work), I learned how to maintain and repair some of these peripherals.
I became attracted to the internet when it was still mainly a text communication tool, before the graphical web was accessible to most of us. It rapidly became obvious to me that the internet was becoming a wonderful learning playground. I absorbed a lot of information that others had taken the time and energy to provide, and I felt that since there was a demand for the information I had acquired from my own experiences, that I should "pay it forward" by offering what I knew to others.
I have always enjoyed doing research for my own needs, so as questions came up on newsgroups and lists that I could not answer myself, I began to research them so I could add that knowledge to my own. Over the years, I have amassed experience and information that seems to be valuable to a lot of people. I deal with people on all levels of involvement with digital images - from those buying their first scanner or printer to people who own commercial graphics businesses. Many are established artists who have been working in traditional media for their lifetimes and are now feeling the need or desire to expand or convert to digital technologies.
Many artists have very limited IT knowledge and even smaller budgets to work with in developing digital studios and labs. I try to help them slice through the hype and get what they need without spending money purchasing equipment with excessive specifications they aren't likely to need. I also deal with many established and older members of the arts community, who sometimes exhibit fear and reticence about moving away from traditional methods of doing their art, due to the high learning curve when switching to a computer. However, by communicating in plain language, (I'll admit to having little patience for people who speak in acronyms and code), I often can explain the advantages to using computer technology either as a substitute or in tandem with their more traditional materials and approaches. I explain how they can develop new workflows that are quicker and allow for more creativity and experimentation, easier correction of errors, reuse of previous works into new projects, and in some cases, a safer work environment which eliminates or reduces toxic materials and labor. Some artists literally discover completely new art forms by working on a computer interfaced "canvas". In some cases, artists who were struggling to produce profitable output, find that with computers they can produce quality product that they could otherwise not afford to pay others to do for them.
As digital imaging becomes part of broader areas of personal and commercial use, I'm helping people further afield. For instance, just the other day, a dentist asked about going digital with his X-ray lab.
Q2: What would make your list of the top technical challenges and how they can be resolved?
A: There are, of course, challenges in many areas within IT that we all face and then there are those that are specific to imaging. I will cover both areas.
Challenges specific to printing and imaging:
Challenges in the broader area of technology
Q3: Please make your top predications for 2007 and beyond in your areas of technical expertise.
A: Much within imaging technologies will continue in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary fashion.
Q4: What should businesses know about future trends in the Internet environment? What are the implications and business opportunities? Why should businesses care?
A: I believe one of the biggest movements taking place, especially among younger users of high tech, is the internet becoming a new place to "hang out". I don't just mean that people will spend a lot of time there, but that it is becoming a fully vicarious and virtual experience, and that virtual worlds are becoming acceptable places to exist within. This means people won't only be playing computer games with one another there, but it will become mainstream to go to concerts, experiencing virtual bands which only exist in cyberspace, shopping in virtual stores, buying virtual real estate and building a virtual home on it.
The internet will continue to play an important role in telecommuting. All the mass transit and alternative fuel cars in the world will not "fix" global warming, or clogged highways. Pressure from these quarters will make telecommuting even more desirable. In fact, I predict it will become mandatory as climate change forces us to make rapid changes in our use of fossil fuels to corporations to employ a certain percentage of telecommuting employees.
Virtual products are becoming acceptable, especially to younger people. If one thinks about music downloads, one sees a vast change in the philosophy of ownership. While many people from my age group still want to own a physical product, like a CD or DVD, younger people brought up on the internet have no problem with paying for their music or movies as a download. They don't feel the need to get a physical product for their money. In fact, as media content has become more transient due to the quantity available, many don't want to be burdened with its actual physical presence. The same holds true for software. A good example is what happened to the encyclopedia market in less than 10 years. One summer, years ago, I sold encyclopedias door to door. My job was to convince families that they should lay out thousands of dollars for a large set of books that was so voluminous that it came with it's own set of bookshelves. It would be updated once or twice a year with an add-on yearbook, which cost additional money. With the advent of CD storage most encyclopedias were transferred to software versions. They were made affordable and were completely replaced with updated yearly versions and some versions took advantage of the multi-media capability of computers to include video, and audio information. Although some are still available, most people now just use the internet to acquire this type of information, either from wide sources or from on line free or by subscription encyclopedias . We have become quite willing to pay for consumables and in fact most hard product have some gateway to more consumables.
Until recently, corporations owned access to the media, and therefore they were able to control how they marketed their products and services and their image. The internet has become a great leveler of communications. The voice of the disgruntled consumer can be almost as loud as the advertising campaign of the corporate giant. The internet has become a tool of democracy and the town meeting may now encompass a great deal of the industrialized world. If I wish to make a purchasing decision, besides going to the manufacturer's website or listening to a salesperson at my local retailer, I can now poll the opinions of thousands of people on a list or go to a website that specializes in collecting opinions. And further, I can add to those voices. I am no longer a lone voice telling my friends and acquaintances about a product or business.
As some products or corporations may suffer from this, products and service that meet or exceed expectations, can prosper from this new democracy. Praise and recommendations can also sway potential clients and purchasers. Businesses need to understand that how they treat a client may be broadcast to a great many potential customers, now that the internet allows for wide access with minimal cost. Each client now has the potential to make an impact on how a company is perceived in the internet community.
In terms of opportunities, never before in the history of business has the ability to create a niche market out of thin air been so available. A creative and unique idea which in the past might have required a local client base to be successful, no longer is limited by geographic boundaries, since the internet connects much of the industrialized world. If one is marketing a service that can be delivered via the internet, clients can be solicited from anywhere with few addition costs, and in many cases, with a well designed and functional web presence, the client may operate in a self-serve setting requiring little manpower. Providing services to a multi-lingual client base may create some challenges or be as simple as having the content translated. And being a 24 hour operation is the nature of the web, so the store can be open world wide, regardless of time zones.
Still other major benefits are the ease and minimal cost of updating or changing content. Furthermore, the impression left with a potential client isn't based upon how many employees one has or how large the factory or warehouses are, but how effectively the website functions, and quality of the content that will attract people there. In some ways, the new flavor of customer service is not about airy surroundings, plants and clean bathrooms, but instead, attractive and interesting information, eye appealing design, effective functionality, and creativity. These are all things that don't require huge bank loans to create, just the right mixture of personnel.
Q5: If you sum up your life experiences with some career tips for the ICT professional, what would be your tips and the reasons behind them?
A: Firstly, let me say that I may be the wrong person to ask, because I don't consider myself an ICT professional. I work around the periphery of this area and so I speak more as an observer than as an insider.
I know this expression is overused regularly, but I believe it needs to be emphasized: "Think outside the box." Computer technology, particularly the internet and whatever it will evolve into, is still a new medium. Part of working with any new medium is seeing how it compares with older ones and if it can accommodate or emulate what came before it.
A perfect example is when photography was introduced as a new medium. Until that point, images were drawn or painted. When the photographic process became available, the first thing that happened, besides it being questioned as a legitimate art form, was for artists to attempt to emulate all the compositions and techniques used in drawing and painting. Historically, paintings were uses for portraiture, still life, landscapes and grand iconic images. Indeed early photographers principally used those same subjects to create photographic art. Even today these are considered valid images, however, as photography has matured as a separate medium, new methods of expression have been discovered and promoted. Today, there aren't many households without a camera and personal photo collections.
So, I suppose what I am saying is that besides developing methods of emulating what already is and translating it using current technologies, we need people who will unleash new capabilities and societal expressions and who will take their creative vision forward.
Secondly, we need to understand more about how humans adapt and learn. Cultural and age-related differences mean different methods and rates of learning skills. While younger people, who have had contact with virtual tools like the internet may have complete comfort with them, there is always a large segment of the population who work with an earlier set of tools they have collected over the years. We need to be aware that the process of assimilation does not take place evenly within a population Some people are ill at ease with new technologies, in fact, some fear it. That doesn't make them foolish or less intelligent. People learn to embrace those things that best fulfill their needs and desires and to effect change, there needs to be a worthwhile reward at the end of the process. Therefore, sometimes the best method to get someone to integrate new technologies is by offering them something that they see as too valuable not to take advantage of. This may be something as mundane as on-line banking or searching genealogical databases.
Those of us who work daily with IT often become intolerant of people who are less comfortable with it and we need to remember we are ambassadors of these technologies. After all, in many cases, our livelihood is dependent upon the agreed acceptance of the personnel who use it.
I've met too many people who feel a right to be arrogant about their IT knowledge and even to belittle others who are less proficient. At a time when a great wave of change is at work, we need to recognize that not only is our method not necessarily superior, but that some earlier systems and concepts are still used today because they work. I don't know how many times I have seen a perfectly functional infrastructure become ruined by trying to "modernize" it. It is easy to become wide-eyed over new technologies, and ICT professionals are particularly vulnerable to this, not only because it is challenging, but because it involves bragging rights and a sense of being on the cutting edge. Sometimes ICT personnel are new to the particular workplace or as consultants have minimal background or history with the company. It is critical for ICT personnel to survey and query those who will be using new technologies as to what they need it to do and to encourage those staff members to provide input into what features they would like to see implemented to improve their jobs.
As an observer, I have seen overbuilt solutions, costly technology being incorporated which is only being partially used when less costly solutions are available to accomplish the same thing. Sometimes it makes sense to build larger for later scalability, but not in every case. Some businesses can't wait to eliminate ICT consultants to lower their project budgets, or they allow rapid personnel turnover to lead to costly errors. Most employees who use technology learn through repetition and correction of errors. If the ICT personnel is no longer readily accessible, new technologies may fall out of use once employees forget some of the complexities, or errors become ingrained.
I tend to think that at times, not enough effort is made to understand the broader opportunities some technologies can offer businesses. If the ICT professions don't themselves fully understand what is being acquired, how can they possibly train, and more importantly, include the non-technical staff in helping them to develop solutions with that technology. I don't place the responsibility for this only at the feet of ICT professionals. Management needs to provide enough time for the technology to be evaluated and experimented with so that a discovery process can occur. Once an ICT profession becomes friends with a technology it becomes much easier to introduce it to those outside of the technical circle.
Q6: You have a passion for consumer advocacy. Can you tell us more about this?
A: I have always been a bit of an anti-authoritarian and someone who finds injustice and industrial manipulation difficult to accept and I tend to stick up for the underdog. I have become a strong advocate for informing consumers about what I feel are poor business models and practices. If the energy, time, materials, and a certain environmental cost are required to produce something, that item should be of value equal to or beyond the fundamentals that produced it. It offends me when manufacturers release products that are not properly implemented, incomplete, over-hyped, or of poor quality. Sadly, I seem to be a dying breed, which somewhat surprises me in this age of environmental awareness.
I note a tendency of products to last just beyond their warranty period, and as warranties become shorter, this is particularly concerning. Many of the younger people I correspond with seem to have become jaded enough that they don't expect anything from a product in terms of reliability, nor any truth in advertising. If it doesn't work correctly or breaks, it goes in the trash, end of story. To me, that's just too easy. It lets manufacturers off the hook. I feel the same way about software. I understand that almost all software leaves the manufacturer with some bugs. The complexity of code today, followed by the amount of interaction with other code in the computer setting, makes it nearly impossible for it to be bug-free on first release. However, again, that doesn't excuse the manufacturer from correcting it, rather than expecting us to buy the next version to resolve the problem.
In the printer industry, some hardware is literally booby-trapped to stop functioning after a certain period or is designed to work sub-par if one uses non-OEM supplies. This is not because the supplies are of diminished quality, but apparently it is punishment for buying a consumable which will not provide profit for the printer company. There is legislation in some countries to protect consumers from this, but it is rarely enforced.
We are presented with software licenses which we must agree to before proceeding to use the product. In some cases, just opening the package is tacit approval of the license. Yet, I know of not one person who has the time to thoroughly read, let alone comprehend, the content of these licenses, some of which are thousands of words long.
Although there are stellar examples of companies who take their clients' concerns and interests very seriously and go beyond the call to resolve issues that may come up, there are still too many examples of product releases that are either not well executed or which have intentional dysfunction designed into them.
Q7: What are your views on the environment and e-waste?
A: As is probably relatively obvious by now, I have a strong set of beliefs about this. I was involved in the very first Earth Day in 1970. I was just graduating from high school at that time and it was obvious to me even back then, that human pressures were having an effect on the environment of this planet. Species were being lost to pollution and habitat loss. It is now over 35 years later, and although a greater awareness exists, I am quite disappointed in the lack of progress in this area. While some of the dirtiest industries have closed down, others have moved into the developing world where they are less regulated.
Earlier, I spoke about the limited lifespan of printers. E-waste is a growing concern, inclusive of desktop and laptop computers, monitors, storage devices and even storage consumables. As someone who stores some rather large image files due to my graphics and photographic work, I have gone through many hundreds of pounds of different storage media that are now obsolete because the materials are no longer reliable. The drives or storage readers no longer work or the data density is so limited that the space involved in archiving older methods is no longer worthwhile. How many billions of floppy disks are floating around or now in landfills? Individuals, small businesses as well as corporations and governments are saddled with the responsibility of trying to maintain or eventually discard millions of tons of no longer usable e-waste.
Both hardware and software manufacturers have a part to pay in the raising pile. How many of us have stored away in our closets and basements perfectly usable peripherals that have been forced into obsolescence by lack of drivers, or change in a plug or interface? Each time a new operating system goes through an introduction, it negates hundreds of thousands of otherwise usable peripherals. For lack of a small bit of code, millions of otherwise perfectly functional devices will be forced into the e-waste stream.
Some might consider me a Luddite, or someone who is just trying to slow down progress, but I am simply trying to get people to expand the usable time period for their technology, and to try to encourage OS writers and other manufacturers to support their products through a greater lifespan.
The EU is legislating some segments of hi-tech to "take-back" their products after their usable life is over, at the manufacturer's expense. This has caused a change in production standards and products are being designed to last longer and break down for recycling more readily. Some provinces in Canada are charging taxes or fees up front on the purchase of some technology, in order to raise money to pay for breakdown or recycling. That's a first step, but it still doesn't address the basic business model of driving sales through forced obsolescence of drivers.
Some of the questions that come to mind are:
The current business model tends to encourages manufacturers to produce cheaper quality produce that doesn't need to last, yet little consideration is given to the real costs of this "throw-away" technology. Metals have to be mined, sometimes in politically sensitive areas, sometime at health or security risk to workers. Petrochemicals make up a great deal of the materials used today (plastics) over which wars and world political destabilization is occurring. With global manufacturing facilities, product needs to be shipped great distances, using energy and fuel. How can it be good to then just toss technology into landfills and replace them while they are still otherwise functional?
There is a certain irony that while the high technology industries try to imply that technology will saves us from our environmental difficulties, we are drowning in technology that was leading edge a few short years ago.
We have come to accept that businesses, governments and even schools must budget and expect to have to replace their computer systems every few years, due to loss of functionality and compatibility. Backward compatibility is rarely given a thought in production of new products. Why is this considered acceptable in this one industry? If the gasoline you needed to run your car became unavailable after 5 years, the auto manufacturers would be punished by consumers. Radio technology has been basically unchanged for nearly 100 years. Telephones from the 1920's still function on most phone systems, and the television in my living room, which by the way, has never required a repair since it was purchased, is over 20 years old.
Millions of tons of e-waste are sitting in basements, closets, warehouses and landfills. While great numbers of people have no access to technology at all, we are aching for a place to dump it. And although many industrialized countries (including Canada) are signatories to UN agreements that should prohibit them for exporting high tech waste, investigative reports have found tons of old technology from the Canadian Government being "recycled" in China.
For those who are unfamiliar with this "recycling" process, perhaps I should paint a picture. Mounds of computers, monitors, and other high tech equipment are shipped to small impoverished villages in countries like China, where families, including young children work at pulling apart these items, often without proper tools. Sharp pieces of rusted metal, broken glass and plastic are everywhere, including in the water they use to drink and bathe. The water is further contaminated with lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metal compounds from the solder, batteries, hard drives and monitors. Once the materials are separated into piles, the insulated copper wire is burned to remove the insulation while big black clouds of acrid, toxic smoke cover the landscape and the living areas. Again, children are working there, and breathing it in. The only benefit these villages receive is a small wage for their work; no environmental regulations or health benefits here.
Even in the best case scenario, where these products are properly recycled in a modern plant in the industrialized world, there is considerable waste. Many mixed plastics cannot be recycled into anything more than low quality toys, if that. The mixed metals require considerable reprocessing to separate out for reuse. Again, heavy metals are involved which require special handling. The process is costly. The materials, in most cases, had to be shipped to the recycling depot, and afterward will be shipped yet again for reclaiming and eventually will end being shipped back to Asia to make into more products. All of this movement uses up oil and other energy sources. And the sad part is that in most cases, the products hadn't reached an "end of life" point, but had simply become obsolete due to newer product being made available, or the older equipment no longer being supposed. We are all responsible for this. We feed the continual demand for new and faster, even when our needs may not require it. OS manufacturers provide the engine of change, and that offers the hardware companies their cue. And the cost to replace this equipment takes away from potentially more pressing social needs.
I am not suggesting we should sit stagnant without moving forward, but we do not all have to move lockstep if we have equipment that is adequate for what we are doing with it. It is not just a matter of financial resources, but of planetary resources. I'd like to see more IT professionals telling their managers, "You know what, what we have right now will do what we need for a few more years".
Q8: You have a remarkable history. Please share this with our audience.
A: Well, I'm sure most of us have interesting backgrounds. I was born in New York City, but luckily, my family moved to a more rural area when I was an infant, where I had the opportunity to commune with the natural world and indulge in drawing and painting. Once I got a camera in my hands, I became enthralled with photography, and put together my first darkroom when I was about 11. I wrote my first published article when I was 13, about tropical fish I had bred. As mentioned earlier, I became involved with environmental issues in high school and by university was involved in creating some of the early recycling programs and writing an ecology column in the campus paper. I began university as a pre-medical student, but soon became disheartened by the attitude of many of the student and professors who showed a highly elitist attitude and what I felt was a lack of respect for nature, so I moved into sociology, ecology and psychology.
My very first experience with a computer was in the early 1970's, learning to program a mainframe in basic, using IBM cards. The program involved research into conflict resolution (war, aggression, and global trade), followed with another research product regarding human ethical development, which required computer analysis of the data. I still recall carrying around the large boxes of punched cards, always concerned I might drop them and have to resort them. Over the years, I worked in drug and rehab counseling and a number of business settings, including co-developing a co-op university bookstore and managing a grocery. Later on , I took courses in music and theater, before managing a poster manufacturer for several years. We produced our panoramic poster series in Milwaukee on the same presses that were used to print Playboy Magazine's centerfolds.
A few years later, I decided to travel for what was supposed to be a 3-6 month trip, but ended up three years in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa. I spent much of that time in small villages, many without running water or electricity, (which was a much greater eye opener than anything I experienced in formal education or business), discovering the majority of the world's inhabitants do not maintain our standard of living. I did quite a bit of photography while there. When I returned to North America, I moved to Montreal to be with the woman who would become my wife, whom I had met while traveling in Spain. We then moved to British Columbia where we now live.
What finally brought me back to computers in the early 1980's was my interest in music as well as the ease in writing with a word processor, since I am dyslexic. I had begun to do some music composition using MIDI technology using a Commodore 64 controlling several music keyboards. At that time, I was managing a commercial color photographic lab and began experiencing some health symptoms. It took months to narrow it down, but it turned out I had developed a potentially life-threatening allergy to a chemical used in almost film developers. That seemed like a career stopper. What it ended up being was a forced entry into the early realms of computer graphic arts, which ultimately give me an early leg up on using computer technology in art and photography.
My company, Artistic Communications, came out of my interest in computer graphics and manipulated images. We do a mixture of image and graphic work, producing fine art imagery and some consulting. Currently, I spend more time on my MVP related interactions, working with a number of non-profit groups in the areas of environment, habitat loss, endangered wildlife, and social justice.
Q9: What are your "burning" questions that you want answered?
A: There are several. I won't guarantee I have the correct answers, but hopefully the questions have resonance and will bring people to thinking about them.
Closing Comment: Arthur, you provide a thought provoking perspective on technology, the environment, our responsibilities and the world. Thank you for sharing your time and insights with our readers.
A: Thank you for providing me a forum to express them.
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