Never Not Online: The Marches of Sousa

When the gramophone was first introduced to the public in the late 1800s, American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa had few good things to say about the new technology. He predicted:

“a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestation, by virtue – or rather by vice, – of the multiplication of the various music-producing machines.”

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Sousa wasn’t the first or the last person to eye new technological advancements with suspicion. With each era there are usually critics who rush to nay-say whatever current innovation placed before them.

Radio was criticized as an unnecessary distraction, as was the telephone. The television was initially laughed off as unable to compete with radio. Arcade machines and home videogame consoles were derided as passing fads, brain-rotting children’s toys, and are blamed for everything from falling grades to mass shootings to this day.

As time passes, the criticisms fades, and society absorbs new technology, making it the norm. It’s a historical pattern that I try to keep in mind as I enter the my late twenties. I try to be careful not to dismiss offhand some new technology or idea simply because I am starting to getting older. After spending some time in journalism, I’ve come to actively hate curmudgeon editorial writing: cranky men and women wasting precious column inches longing for forgotten, “simpler” times and lamenting the downfall of human society as evidenced by “those darn kids and their cell phones”.

As a child who grew up both with and without the internet, I am amazed and excited about the advancements in technology that we have seen. I love my iPad, my wireless internet, my smart phone and my high-definition videogame console. But despite my best efforts, as I look at the firestorm currently surrounding the possibility of the newest iteration of the Xbox being an “always online” console, I find myself feeling a little like Mr. Sousa.

When I first heard the rumors (and that’s really all they are at this point) that next-gen Microsoft console would require an “always on” internet connection to play any games, my gut reaction was that of many gamers: a pledge to jump ship and spend my money on the PlayStation 4.

The “controversial” Twitter remarks from the MS Studios creative director Adam Orth, did little to quell that initial, knee-jerk reaction.

Courtesy of NeoGAF

Courtesy of NeoGAF

In the end, I was able to stay away from the keyboard long enough to settle down and reflect on the issue. I had ask myself if I was just being a stick in the mud and thumbing my nose at innovation and the future of gaming because its something new and unfamiliar?

Currently, I need to be “always” connected to some kind of network in order to use my phone. If I want to stream YouTube or Netflix on my iPad, it needs a constant wi-fi for at least the duration of the film. So why not the gaming console? As much as we may not like the idea, it’s very possible that in the future some gaming systems will require us to be constantly online, even if Microsoft scraps the idea for the upcoming console generation.

Is it possible that those of us upset at the possibility and vowing to side with Sony this go-around are simply Luddites, and the folks like Orth are heralds of cutting edge come to drag us kicking and screaming into the future of gaming for our own good?

I really, really doubt it.

Most of the arguments against “always online” have been made ad nauseam pretty much everywhere online at this point. You know there are people and places all over the world that have poor-to-nonexistent internet infrastructure. You know that even the best high-speed broadband service can be spotty or even non-functioning.

The bigger problem, in my mind, is that advocates of “always online” have yet to explain to skeptics like me just how,exactly, it provides any kind of advantage to consumers. Sousa may have felt the gramophone would be the downfall of music, but it succeeded because it gave consumers a way to listen to music they liked in their homes for the very first time. The television allowed consumers to see their favorite actors and entertainers in their own living rooms, and brought them images, news and information from places they had never seen before.

Even cell phones, which need towers and a network to function, allowed us to cut the cord from our home phones. 3G and 4G networks now allow us to use the internet nearly anywhere. Even when the network goes down or reception is slow or poor, the trade-off is clear. Those who marketed and sold the technology convinced us that the advantages of incorporating the tech into our daily lives outweighs the disadvantages.

I’ve seen no such argument made for creating a console that required to be connected online to play games. In fact, it seems to run counter to most of what is offered to us today. Sure, I need a wireless network to access the internet from my tablet, but the manufacturer has given me a choice to either go without until I find a wi-fi network or hotspot, or to pay an additional cost for a service plan. Even when I can’t connect to a network, I can still use my apps, listen to music and yes play games on my device.

What advantage to I gain having that choice taken away? Why ask me spend money to limit how I use my gaming console? Anger over SimCity’s always online requirement raised a similar issue. Why limit gamers to only playing one way when it doesn’t make the experience any easier, accessible or fun?

Selling new technology isn’t just about making something “new”. If you want it to become a household name, it’s got be useful. And as consumers we want to know what’s in it for us.

In the end, if Microsoft decides to take the “always online” route with their next console. They are going to have to make one hell of a convincing case. They will need to tell potential customers why they need this feature and what advantage, convenience or value they will get out of it. They need to give consumers, gamers in particular, a reason why this function is necessary other than “because it’s the future and it’s what we want to do”.

Until they make their case, I’ll be waiting, and feeling an admittedly uncomfortable kinship with the late John Philip Sousa.

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