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Is technology simplifying our lives?

From the _New York Times, April 28, 2002:

Comforts of Home Yield to Tyranny of Digital Gizmos


Last Christmas Eve, just as Lynne Bowman was preheating her oven to roast a turkey for 15 guests, her daughter accidentally brushed against one of the new oven's many digital controls.

"We heard this `beep beep beep,' " recalled Ms. Bowman, a 56-year-old freelance creative director who lives in Pescadero, Calif., "and no more oven. After that, we couldn't get it to work."

Ms. Bowman's husband, an engineer, was unable to fix the problem. Nor were any of the assembled guests, half of whom were also engineers.

Desperate, Ms. Bowman resorted to the small, simple 1970's-vintage Tappan electric oven in the guest house, which worked like a charm.

Of all the forces that permeate daily life, perhaps nothing has become more of a tyranny than the bits and pieces of technology that are meant to help one get through the day more easily, but instead are a source of frustration.

Relatively simple devices that were once controlled by twisting a knob or pushing a button are now endowed with digital commands that can take hours to master.

[rest snipped]

J. D. Trollinger
Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Or how about this

4 of my friends wanted to meet for dinner.  We all agreed we would meet at Joe's at 7pm and then take one car.  3 of us got there by 7pm.  We waited for person #4 10 minutes late, 20 minutes late, 30 minutes late.  Should we just go without or should we wait another 5 minutes?

Of course person #4 is one of those people who shuns technology so that he doesn't have a cell phone.  If he did he could have just called us and told us he was stuck in trafffic.

I could come up with thousands of examples of ways my life is easier / more flexible because of technology vs making it harder / more complicated.

That doesn't mean their won't be the occasional glitch but I'll still take all the good for a little bad.

Contacting my family daily from 7000 miles away without going broke is hard without technology (e-mail)

Sending photos to them used to be hard and expensive (take, develop, get stamp, envelope, mail).  Now it's shoot, e-mail (note: Sony makes cameras that will e-mail directly from the camera and there are cell phones with cameras too )

It used to be the only way to see a movie was to go to the theatre or wait for it to be broadcast on TV.  Now I can rent tapes, rent DVDs and get them on the net (hopefully legally)

It used to be that I only got news once a day in the newspaper.  Then it was twice a day, morning news, evening news.  Now it's when I want it instead of when they give it to me (the web)

It used to be that to play a particular song on an album you had to manually move the needle over the shiny part of the vinyl and try to set it down without skipping.  Now I just press the track number (CD)

It used to be that in order to have 800 albums worth of music I need 3 shelves full of CD (yes, I have them).  Now I can put it all in one iPod have have access to all of it instantly instead of the 2 or 3 I currently have in the CD player.

It used to be to warm some food required pre-heating an oven for 5 minutes then setting the food inside for 10 to 20.  Now it's push a button and in as little as 20 seconds I have hot food.

It used to be that to pay a bill I had to write a check, fill out the bill form, put it in an envelope, find/buy/use a stamp, and mail it.  Now it's click a button, type the ammount, click send.  I just got back 2-4 hours of month of my life back.

It used to be that the only way to know if a fire was happening was to see it.  Now we have $20 smoke detectors.

etc., etc., etc.

Gregg Tavares
Wednesday, September 11, 2002

These are certainly all examples of how technology is enriching our lives. That doesn't mean that it will simplify them.

It's the unnecessary complexification and obscure interfaces that are the problen, not the technology itself. The oven is a perfect example: All it really needs is temperature control and perhaps a _very simple_ timer. You can argue that the option to leave something in the oven and have it start cooking in four hours is useful, but ovens that are difficult to reset from this state are just silly, and frankly I think _very few_ people would ever use it.

Adrian Gilby
Wednesday, September 11, 2002

"Complexification"-- is this 'invent a new word every day' something that's sweeping the US? :-)

We have a comedy program on the radio and TV here in the UK where the guy impersonates George W Bush doing just this sort of thing. [ ]

(what's wrong with "complication")

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

...or complexity

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

simplification doesn't mean simplify though. Complification suggest that they should be simplifiying it, but they are actively making it more complicated, probably on purpose. Slwords have massabilites : ).

What's wrong with new words anyway, don't you think languages should be allowed to change over time?

Americans would have more shows making fun of the way the queen speaks if she had a bit more 'brand recognition' there I'm sure... Canada does it a lot. The "anus horbillus" speech was a classic, he he. If you guys could get her to mix up thing like gwb, humor could be taken to new levels : ).

Robin Debreuil
Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Personally I prefer "complexificationalismness" :)

Wednesday, September 11, 2002


Ironically I'm from the UK, not the US! And I'd like to apologise for "complexification". I honestly didn't realise it wasn't in the dictionary until I read your response.

Take it to mean a mixture of "complexity" and "complication", which was what I was trying to get across! Actually, I've decided I quite like complexification now. Much like "disambiguate", which sounds horrible when you first come across it but is actually quite a useful word. Anyway.

Adrian Gilby
Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Technology only increases humans' ability to complicate things.  the more technology we get, the more complex life will become. 

Bella's Corrolary:  Humans will make things as complicated that humanly possible.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

To me, the interesting part of the story is not that technology can sometimes make life harder (and sometimes make it easier, of course), but this observation:

"Relatively simple devices that were once controlled by twisting a knob or pushing a button are now endowed with digital commands that can take hours to master. "

I bought an MP3 CD player for my car last year, and I specifically chose one that offered a volume-control *knob*, rather than up-and-down buttons, because I find a knob much easier to control, especially while driving. In general, devices like knobs and buttons often seem more intuitive than digital controls because they are usually single-function and non-modal.

Similarly, I find it interesting to contrast my digital camera with my Nikon N70 SLR. Even though the N70 is fairly highly computerized and has a bunch of features that are sort of menu-driven, the basic camera functionality -- aperture and exposure selection, zoom, focus, and so on -- is (or can be) largely controlled by dedicated dials. On the other hand, my digital camera often drives me crazy, because to change the exposure or aperture or focus options I have to navigate through a series of hierarchical menus.

Of course, there's an obvious problem with dedicated dials and buttons, which is that complex multifunction devices would end up with a gazillion adjustments on them. The key is probably exposing only the core functionality through dedicated controls, and leaving the esoteric and rarely-used stuff for menus. I think Donald Norman discusses these tradeoffs in his excellent book The Design of Everyday Things.

John C.
Wednesday, September 11, 2002

The other thing to keep in mind is that many people refuse to sit down and spend some time figuring out the optimal way to use a new tool (I'm sometimes guilty of this myself).

I know someone who types URLs into the search box of rather than into the address bar of the browser.  It works maybe 90% of the time, but it didn't work when I e-mailed her a link to a web page that I had just finished designing (god only knows why she didn't just click on the link in the e-mail message).

I think there's something like the Peter Principle at play, here.  People tend to use technology that's a step or two above their capacity to grasp it intuitively.

J. D. Trollinger
Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Robin, Dunc et all,

As much as I too like to laugh at peoples invented words, I think Adrian has a point there.

I got picked on today for using "implementable".

Nope, it's not a word. (I still think it should be though...). It also might explain why all these technological gizmos and inventions occasionally confabulate our lives - because somebody decides that the oven's pointless timer feature was  'implementable'.

It's like opera (the art, not the browser). Just because you can sing like that doesn't neccesarily mean you should.

Humans tend to fall into a trap where 'One solution fits all problems' -  You see it all the time in the software's that XML based CRM Knowledge Management Portal internet web service coming along?

Gordon Taylor
Thursday, September 12, 2002

technology may or may not simplify lives, but once it got into mass acceptance, it's hard for people not to use it. Most of the times because if technology alreayd got into that stage, many other aspect of live will be related to it.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Sure, "implementable" is a word. It may not be in the dictionary, but it is not generally wrong to take a verb and add "-able" to it.

Furthermore, its meaning is clear: it describes something that can be implemented. Therefore, it would be perfectly good style to use this word in the right context.

That's why the good Lord gave us morphemes.

Fernanda Stickpot
Thursday, September 12, 2002

"Complexification" is the title of a book published in the 90s when chaos theory was fashionable, so some one must have thought it was a valid word.

It used to be that I knew how to operate my car radio and my home stereo system. Now the manufacturers have put so many features in I have to ask my 12 year old son how to do anything. Even he can't figure out the video recorder.

I'm with Dave Barry on this one - I generally only want two features in an appliance, the "on" feature and the "off" feature.

Andrew Simmons
Thursday, September 12, 2002

Yes and no.

Genuine technological advancements definitely simplify our lives.  Once you adopt these pieces of technology you wonder how you ever did without them.  For example, I can't imagine living without my cellphone.  It is far too convenient for me.

However, there are many examples of technology gone too far.  I despise technology for technology's sake.  A simple toaster comes to mind:

- I decide I'm hungry
- I extract one slice of bread and place in the toaster
- I set the desired darkness level and depress the lever

Bang - 53 seconds later I have a perfect piece of toast - ready for the PB&J to be applied.

Sure my $25 toaster could be engineered into a $225 monstrosity that contains a microprocessor with full TCP/IP connectivity and a Java runtime engine.  Imagine how convenient it would be if I could send a request through the Internet before I leave my office so that a hot piece of toast would be ready for me the minute I walk through my front door.  Of course this would entail pre-loading the bread before I leave my house in the morning (ensuring the bread would be stale) and accurately anticipating drive-time trafffic on the way home (hard to spread the PB&J on cold toast).

Clearly my contrived example illustrates technology gone too far.  Is it possible?  Yes.  Is it practical.  A huge, resounding "hell no".

Just because technology is possible does not mean it should be adopted.  Ask yourself "What exactly does this 'advancement' buy me?"

Keep it simple, stupid.

Newbie Poster, Hope You Appreciate My Input
Saturday, September 21, 2002

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