Ham Culture

Trashing The Old

I’m going to veer off my normal blog fare a bit and get into a topic which might be slightly controversial, but has been buzzing around the ham blogosphere lately. I make it a personal goal to not delve into political topics in my ham radio activities, but I’ve been finding this increasingly hard given that current political events have seeped into virtually every ham blog that I read. So I will fully admit that I’m a flawed man, and I’m going to break my own rule this time. Relatively speaking, my place in the ham blogosphere is as a plankton next to the ham radio minnows that are the big boys in our corner of the Internet sea. I know that this is probably an exercise in futility and might drive off a portion of the small number of readers that I have. Sometimes, you just have to speak out if you think your community is going off the tracks. I’ve had no epiphany, just an increasing desire to put out a counterpoint to a meme which is picking up steam in our community.

A good portion of the ham blog intelligentsia have been riding the currently popular “change” meme right through our isolated little corner of the net. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about how we need to turn our backs on our past, discard nostalgia, and make the great leap forward into the future. The theory is that all of the old farts pining for the “good ol’ days” is driving away much of the new blood needed to revitalize the hobby. It is claimed that if we fail to make this fundamental change in our focus, ham radio will wither and die.

I will be the first to admit that there are two very unappealing aspects of ham radio for me: the cranky curmudgeons and the whacker brigade. The first group seems to have taken up a second home on the Internet when not on 75 meters, berating all lesser beings and regaling the rest of us mere mortals with their tales of heroics. The latter group pretty much speaks for themselves. Every time I tried to get involved with EMCOMM (before I became wise to the realities of that world), I came away severely discouraged about the clique mentality and the lofty goals coupled with the laziness of the majority of members. That said, most of the hams that I have met do not fit into these categories. Sure there are plenty of nutjobs in our hobby, but show me one hobby (especally a geeky one like ours) that doesn’t have their share of cranks.

The question is then whether abandoning our history is going to change these aspects of our hobby for the better. No, it’s not. The two have nothing to do with each other. Yes, the curmudgeons invoke The Past as it were the golden age which we will never obtain again. Does that make the past inherently bad? Of course not. Nostalgia in itself is not a bad thing or a good thing, it just is. It has its place in reminding us where we came from and what makes our hobby a special thing. As with just about anything else in life, it can be used postitively or negatively.

One problem is the growing number of people in our culture who want to banish something because they don’t like the negative aspects of that thing. Part of being a responsible adult is recognizing that when you have the freedom to do something, you have to accept the good and bad aspects of that activity and deal with them accordingly. I don’t need someone to decide what’s best for me, and I suspect that you don’t either. The last thing we need is some kind of reality bubble to eliminate the things that make us uncomfortable.

Another thing that bothers me is the nebulous aspect of this desire for a shake-up in the hobby. There seem to be no concrete proposals for how to improve things, other than sending our past down the memory hole. Change simply for the the sake of change, in any endeavor, is insane. I’m not on board the change bandwagon. Too many incredibly destructive and stupid things have been done in this world in the name of progress.

If something works, you don’t just throw it out because it is old. What is wrong with enjoying something just because you enjoy it? You always hear about non-hams who ask hams why we use amateur radio, when we could just pick up a cell phone. The answer, of course, is that we do it because we enjoy it, not because it is superior. Why go fishing when you can just buy a fish at the supermarket? Same principle. It seems that we lose sight of this concept in our own little ham radio subgroups. So what if you think CW is the only true mode. What does it matter if you think life is too short for QRP? Who cares if you don’t like boatanchors and AM? There are plenty of hams who do, and they should be able to pursue their interests as long as it stays within the rules. I’m sure that for each ham who likes a particular aspect of amateur radio, there are plenty of others who hate it and want it to go away. If there’s anything this hobby needs, it’s more of the live and let live attitude.

There is another reason why we shouldn’t just throw away our past. Recall the old maxim: KISS. Many times, the simplest solution is also the best. Just because a technology is old does not make it inferior. I won’t belabor this point, since it has already been thoroughly covered in other places (especially with the CW aficionados). But we should not act like children with ADD, discarding the old because we like the new, shiny toy better.

Let’s get down to the bottom line. The magic of radio is reason that most of us are in the hobby. Sure, there are those who got a ticket because they are weather spotters, because their spouse has one, because someone at the ARRL told them 10 years ago that it was just as good as having a cell phone. However, the majority of us are into amateur radio because we like radio for radio’s sake.  The stories of our illustrious past remind us of this, which is why we enjoy them. Gutting our history will remove the soul of our hobby and take away that which makes us unique. Might as well just trade in our Elecraft K2s for Motorola TalkAbouts.

What we need is advancement of the radio art, not undefined change. There are areas where we are still making progress in developing the art, although not nearly as much as we used to. But how can we compete with the rapid development pace of the old days? We can’t. As with any nascent technology, radio was pioneered by the tinkerer and the amateur. But radio has now matured into a multi-billion dollar industry. There is no way that we can compete with the R&D resources that industry can pour into new product development. Most of the leading edge ham technology these days often comes from those who already work in the radio industry and have access to many resources that the average ham does not. This does not make us worthless, but we have to be honest about our place in the world of radio.

No, we are never going to live up to the glory days of our predecessors. No amount of progress will ever get us back to the same level as the commercial radio industry. But that’s OK; it means that we did our job, and that radio is one of the most successful and transformative technologies in the history of mankind. Wireless is becoming more and more important each day. We should take pride in knowing that we paved the way, and that we still have a link to that spirit of radio which brought us such wonderous inventions.

One thought on “Trashing The Old

  1. You covered a lot of ground here.. My gut reaction is that I agree that we need to work together, and not let our different interests divide us. As with most technical things there seems to be a fair level of cliqueness, but I do think that hams are more likely to cross those barriers.

    I do believe that many die hard CW operators will always feel that the true hams use CW. In time the number in this camp will go down and we should just ignore them.

    The bigger issue is where amateur radio is headed. Your points regarding technical superiority are great; our radios really aren’t as useful or convenient as a cell phone. So the people interested must be interested on the technical merits.

    In my mind, the people who want to know how things work will always be interested in radio. I believe many of those same people will want to know about Major Armstrong, regenerative circuits, and how radio has been the silent revolution. The history of radio is an essential backdrop to what we do, and we should always hold it dear. At the same time we need to look forward and embrace where we are.

    -Jeremy
    N1JER

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