Technology We Hate

Technology is driving the big changes in society faster now than at any time since the decade after World War II. Back then, a raft of discoveries--atomic power, jet transportation and rocketry, television, mass immunization, and early steps toward reliable birth control--had enormous political, cultural, and demographic impact around the world. Now, there are two main drivers: information technology in all its aspects, from chip design to the Internet, and rapid discoveries about cell function and genetic structure, which a decade from now may well make the computer revolution look tame by comparison.

Because such changes, like their counterparts in other ages (steam power, movable type), really do affect life on the large scale, it is natural to discuss them in sweeping world-historic terms. But technology also matters on an immediate, personal level, depending on how well it suits the patterns of an enjoyable, productive life.

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The social history of the car is a reminder that the same machine can be better or worse designed to match ordinary convenience, depending on the forces acting on the designer. The car has obviously had huge policy-scale effects on our culture at large (rise of the suburbs, demand for oil, etc.), but it has also been the most personal of machines. A generation ago, the typical American relationship with the car was love-hate. Love, for natural reasons (the '64 Mustang!). Hate, because cars through the mid-1970s were designed for the manufacturers' convenience, not the customers'. They rusted out quickly; they broke down often; and when they got into a crash, their innards became death chambers for hapless passengers. Because of regulatory and design changes stimulated by Ralph Nader and Japanese competitors, today's cars last longer, work better, and are less than one-third as lethal, per mile driven, as in the 1960s. Now some people love cars and others just tolerate them, but the hate quotient is way down.

To make up for it we have ... all our other modern technologies. Most members of the professional class simultaneously rely on and hate their computers, the software on their computers, their cell phones, their e-mail systems, e-mail itself, the Internet, airline travel, phone-answering systems, user IDs and passwords, and the many other connections between modern technology and daily life. The history of the car suggests that some of the hatred can be bled away, if manufacturers and designers try. The solutions may involve regulation (rules establishing "No Cell Phone" zones in restaurants or concert halls). They may include passive design (walls in concert halls thick enough to block cell phone signals). They may require more active innovations (the impending "single number" phone system, in which one phone number can reach you wherever you are, with a system smart enough to know when you shouldn't be disturbed).

In all cases, they start with an understanding of why, exactly, a certain technology has become hateful. Here are a few of the traits and symptoms of technology that need to be changed.

Nuisance Shifting

Economists recognize the concept of an innovation that does not raise overall productivity--but is attractive to the party that implements it, since it shifts costs to someone else who cannot resist or complain. Communications technology has brought us cost-shifting in the forms of spam e-mail, computerized telemarketing, and "press zero for further options"-type menus on the telephone. All of these make it cheaper for a firm to sell its product--or staff its headquarters, since more menus mean fewer human attendants. All shift the cost, in time and neuralgia, to an unhappy public.

Spam e-mail seems to provoke the most emotional reaction, followed by telemarketing. (On picking up the phone recently, I heard a computerized voice asking me to "please hold on for an important message." After I slammed the phone down, it rang again with the same message--and wouldn't give up until I waited to hear the guy with the credit card spiel.) But these are areas where a technological arms race may allow the public to fight back. For spam, there are spam filters. For telemarketers, there is caller ID. Sooner or later, all our incoming calls and messages will automatically be sorted into "first class" and "junk" categories. When working on a project at Microsoft last year, I saw a version of this: Important managers there never even see e-mail that arrives from sources they don't know. It's shunted to a "low priority" box and eventually purged.

The most objectionable and most widespread development is the "press zero" menu. This is cost-shifting in its purest form since it treats your time as a free good. We could kid ourselves that this is a sign of progress: A tight labor market has bid up the cost of human beings to answer the phones. But it appears to be technology we have to endure until we find an alternative.

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Tyranny of Choice

Maximum possible choice is a goal of our economic system, and in politics we assume that more choice is almost always good. But in day-by-day life, extra choices about technology as often seem a headache as they do an opportunity.

A homely example is the dancing paper clip, the "Office Assistant," in Microsoft Word. It pops up and moronically observes, "It looks like you're writing a letter!" when you type "Dear" and someone's name at the top of the page. If you complain to the company, as thousands do, its representatives act puzzled that you should consider this a problem. If you don't like it, why not turn it off?

The immediate answer is that turning it off is not exactly an intuitive process. (1. Press the F1 key. 2. Press the "Options" button under the Office Assistant. 3. Make sure the box next to "using features more effectively" is unchecked--this controls the "Letter Wizard," though the menu says nothing about letters.) The larger point is that today's high-tech world is pulled in opposite directions about how much choice to ask of the user.

On the one hand, being able to tweak and customize programs--to have choices about them--is much of what makes them attractive. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet program, but Lotus 1-2-3 soon left it in the dust, largely because it made it easier for people to customize their spreadsheets with macros. IBM-style personal computers swamped Apples in the market because they offered more and cheaper choices about memory, disk drives, and monitors.

On the other hand, the software industry knows from studies that nearly all users leave nearly all settings the way they come out of the box. Most people place great value on not having to learn enough about the system to make choices about it. (The flashing 12:00s on VCRs across the country illustrates the point.) In his influential book The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman explains how much less frustrating people find it to deal with clearly labeled, single-purpose controls--a button saying "Send" on a fax machine or "Eject" on a VCR--than with all-purpose "function keys." In principle, the keys can be programmed to do whatever users want; in reality, what people choose is not to bother with them at all. For every person who learns how to program numbers into a cell phone's memory, a thousand know how to push the "Redial" key.

Two recent developments show how Norman's principles can extend to the computer world. One is the Palm Pilot, which is actually building its lead over Microsoft's hand-held "Windows CE" devices. The Palm can be programmed, with thousands of add-on programs, but it doesn't have to be. You push the button with a picture of a calendar, and the calendar comes up. (The WinCE devices are more computer-like, thus more complex.) The other is the "Bookmark" function of Web browsers. This is a choice of a powerful sort--you can go back to any site you find interesting--but it requires no up-front customization, nor any mastery other than clicking on the "Add" button.

Tyranny of Padding

Watch for current ads introducing Microsoft's "Digital Dashboard" software, which is meant to display all the information you consider most crucial, in one place. If you look carefully at the ads, you'll see that the crucial data occupies about one-third of the screen. The rest is used up by scroll bars, icons, and other padding and chaff that add no information.

Computer hardware is more than 100 times faster than it was a decade ago, but programs barely run faster than they did before. The processing power has been gobbled up by simi-lar chaff and padding in the software, the equivalent of the mighty fins and bumpers of cars in the bad old days. This is one reason "broadband" Internet access, via cable modem or other means, is so significant. It is the first speed increase in many years that has made it all the way to the user.

Delusions of Scale.

The interactions that matter to people have a certain overhead to them. It takes time to maintain a friendship or listen to an idea. It requires face-to-face contact for people to feel that they have "met" each other, or for parents to communicate meaningfully with little children.

Communications technology can augment this process: Cell phones let a wife say that she's stuck in traffic; e-mail lets students at college stay in touch with parents who live by an entirely different clock. But it can't abolish the rules of scale. E-mail becomes frustrating when it tempts people to try to manage more friendships than they have time for. Conference calls remind people why meetings are necessary. The more we pretend that technology can replace real contact, the more we'll view it as the enemy--rather than as a tool that can be well or poorly used.

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