April 2011

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A Victim of Progress

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

The other day I went out to buy a new cell phone. My old one had started behaving erratically: dropping calls, ignoring calls, and going straight to voice mail. Even worse, several times it wouldn’t inform me that I had a message for two days. My wife’s phone, on the same network had none of these problems so I concluded it must be the phone. It was time to replace it.

I decided that this was a good time to upgrade to a “smart phone:” One that would allow me to text, to access the internet with speed from anywhere. Armed with such a device I could send e-mails without having to ruin my kidneys (and my stomach lining) by drinking yet one more cup of coffee at my local wi-fi café.

After much research and shopping I decided on a touch screen model that seemed to have everything I was looking for: internet access, 8 gigabytes of memory, even an 8 megapixel camera. Surely, I thought, my journey into the brave new world of telecommunications had begun.

Not so fast.

When I tried to access the internet for the first time, I ran into a slight snag: I couldn’t make the touch screen keypad work. There was the familiar qwerty keyboard on the screen. However, when I pressed letters to try and type in an address, half the time I got the letters next to it and the other half the phone produced letters before my fingers even touched the screen at all. I tried everything. Using my thumbs, my fingers, my fingernails, a stylus. Each attempt met with the same result: utter and total failure. For all practical purposes my ability to enter information into the phone was as bad or worse than my old dumb phone with the standard number keypad.

Frustrated, I took the phone back to the store. You guessed it, the phone was operating perfectly – as the sales people gleefully demonstrated to me. Frustrated, I tried a few other phones only to find that the touch screen keyboards on all the other models in the store were even smaller than the one I had. I finally had to settle for a heavy remedial phone with an actual keyboard with actual real buttons.

As I left the store, I became more and more confused. Here was a brand new exciting technology, one which I was ready to buy and try out. However, due to what I saw as a design flaw, (a keyboard that was too small for my thumbs) the technology was useless to me. I wandered around for the rest of the day in a funk. Everywhere I turned I saw people typing away on their phones as easily as if they came into the world with an I - phone pinned to their diapers. I began to question myself. Maybe it wasn’t the phones. Maybe it was me. I was the dinosaur in the equation. The technology was OK. However, due to the combination of fat thumbs, shaky hands and poor eyesight, I just wasn’t evolved enough to use it.

This is not the first time I have experienced this feeling. There have been other technological advancements in the past which I have been unable to use. Gradated bifocals for example. I tried a pair when they first came out and nearly broke my ankle stepping off a curb. I tried regular bi-focals. They just gave me headaches. So I have had to go back to looking like an aging librarian and resort to two separate pairs of glasses.

When I complain about this phenomenon to the salesmen for these technologies, they virtually all say the same thing: “You just need time to adjust.” While this may be standard sales technique, it doesn’t fly with me at all. A new technology, any new technology, is no good unless it is better than what came before it. Hell, even changes to an existing technology are no good unless they actually improve upon the original idea. A “better mousetrap” is not better unless it costs less, catches more mice and, most importantly, is easier to use than the one that came before it. The more I think about it, the angrier I get. Technology’s purpose, its raison d’ętre, is to improve our lives, to give us more options and to make us better. Why then do designers insist on developing technologies that require us to adapt to them rather than the other way around.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about seminal inventions here. I consider it a given that when any revolutionary technology appears – language, the printing press, computers – it is going to require a fundamental change in the way humans perceive and interact with the world. No, what I am talking about is simple bad design. After all, gradated bi-focals are still just glasses. A touch screen phone is still basically a fancy phone. Ergonomically speaking, a piece of technology is only as good as the ability of the user to operate it.

Let me give you another example:

The original phone in my parent’s house – a rotary dial phone – weighed about eight pounds and was tethered to the wall. When it rang, you picked up the receiver and answered it. If you wanted to make a call, you picked up the receiver and dialed. True, there were no images of who the caller was. No call waiting. No star sixty-nine. On the other hand, it didn’t require computer chips or yotta-bytes of memory. And it certainly didn’t require a college degree or a 124 page PDF file to learn to operate all its functions. (As did the first touch screen I brought home.) Most importantly, it didn’t require the user to “get used to it.” You picked up the phone, you dialed the number, you talked, and then hung up. Simple.

My experience with the phone leads me to wonder if we aren’t letting our technology paint us into an evolutionary corner. When we produce technology that requires us to change the way we do things it is valid to question who is serving whom? In his book, “What Technology Wants,” author Kevin Kelly addresses this issue and comes out four-square in technology’s corner:

For as long as the wind has blown and the grass grown, people have sat beneath trees in the wilderness for enlightenment – to see God… Yet we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog. The phone extends the frog’s four billion years of learning and adds the open-ended investigations of six billion human minds.

Maybe.

As far as I’m concerned you can keep your cosmic view of technology. All I want is a damn phone that fits my fingers. Is that too much to ask?