Friday, September 23, 2011

Luddite or Traditionalist?


There is quite a debate raging over on about a service provided to amateur radio operators by our national organization, the American Radio Relay League.  For those unfamiliar with the working of hamdom, when two stations contact each other, since the early days of the hobby, they often exchange a confirmation postcard to confirm the contact.  Called a "QSL card," these confirmations have often been colorful and informative "souvenirs" of the conversation, sometimes featuring pictures of the stations, local geography, and more.  Those cards also serve as verification for a long list of awards that hams can earn.  "WAS" signifies that a station has confirmed contact with a station in all 50 U.S. states.  "DXCC" is an award for confirming contacts with at least 100 countries around the world. 

Now, with the Internet and computer being an integral part of most amateur radio "shacks," the ARRL created an electronic way to do these confirmations.  Some say they went overboard on the security aspect of their "Logbook of the World" system.  It does require a security certificate with an applicant's call sign and location verified through the Federal Communications Commission before it is granted to the user.  Many hams have had difficulties setting up the system on their computers or moving it to a different machine when necessary.

The thrust of the eHam comments--and those with a negative view tend to dominate this discussion just as they do any Internet forum--is that LoTW is too complex, that it threatens the traditional printed, post office-delivered QSL card, and even that it threatens the "privacy" of anyone who uses the system since the League could sell that info or it could be subpoenaed by some nefarious government agency.

This type of debate seems to be quite common these days anytime there is a new-fangled way to do anything in our society.  I suspect a big part of it is simple resistance to technological change.  People still have a choice in most things technical.  You don't have to use a smart phone, join Facebook, have an email address, or use an online QSL service.  But I understand why anyone with an aversion to change or a distrust--however well founded or dismally unfounded it might be--of all this technology is reluctant to accept it.

I enjoy getting a QSL card from a new country in Africa or one that bears a picture of a ham's antenna farm in rural Belgium.  I hope we never lose that personal touch.  But I also enjoy the convenience and cost savings of being able to confirm contacts electronically.  Stamps to mail to some parts of the world are expensive.  It can take years to send and receive back a card.  Stations in rare locations get tons of requests for confirmations and that can run into big expense for them, too.  Some even ask for "green stamps"--U.S. dollars--to offset their expenses, but putting cash into an envelope is risky, especially in some spots where an envelope bound for a ham radio operator is routinely opened because everyone knows there are bucks in there.

But the real reason I endorse LoTW and similar services is that it allows me to easily and inexpensively extend the courtesy of a confirmation to anyone and everyone who wants it for whatever reason.  I still get paper cards and I display them on the wall in my office/"shack."  I enjoy looking at them.  I hope they never stop coming.  But I also recognize that there is a way that is better in most aspects and that allows me to benefit from the service.  And I believe there are enough people like me who still like the card that they will probably not go away.

And isn't that what new technology is supposed to do?  I love the fact that I can download a book on my Nook, but I also still enjoy the traditional book.  I also think both methods will still be around for a long, long time. 

But I also understand that all this change is scaring the bejesus out of some folks.

Don Keith N4KC

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