Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Technology’s Xmas Surprise


How many of you are wondering if that shiny new gift will turn out to be a lump of coal in disguise? You (and I) wonder because we’ve seen this happen often with technology. And not always with the latest or most sophisticated technology. It can happen with older, less-interesting technology, too.


Rather than explain why, I’ll give a simple (and recent) example. A truly minor example but one that illustrates a major problem. My newest water pick device just tricked me. I thought I was recharging it. The next day (yesterday, Xmas day), I went to use it and discovered it hadn’t recharged. Apparently, the fault was mine for not making sure the recharging plug was all the way in. No, change that: they wanted me to think it was my fault.


Why am I willing to shift the blame back to the manufacturer? Simple: the device has no light to indicate that it’s charging. My toothbrush, inches away, has one. My cell phones indicate they’re charging. Why not this device? Before you jump on me for making a big deal out of this simple mistake, let me tell you why it’s a big deal.


First, try to imagine how much an indicator light adds to the cost of manufacturing a device that retails for fifty dollars USD. I’d guess than one-half of one percent. But this rant is not about indicator lights or their cost. It’s about the backward slide of much of our technology.


For example, let’s again take the water pick. The plug is designed so that it can only be inserted the proper way. Can you remember when this wasn’t true for most devices? Someone had the bright idea and others learned from it and copied it. I know it’s a small thing, but it’s a small thing that happens thousands of times in a lifetime—a lifetime made easier by one-way plugs. So, I ask, why not indicator lights?


Before you think I’m trivializing technology, let me give another, larger example: my car. Twice in the past two years, my battery has run down to zero. The reason was the interior lights were left on. (The interior lights stay on for thirty seconds when you leave the car; so unless you stand there and watch you’ll never notice if they were left on.) Let me ask this question: if headlights left on warn you (or go off automatically) when you leave the car, then why not the interior lights? Both can run down the battery. A lot more annoying (and expensive) than an uncharged water pick, no?


My point here (the larger issue) is this: Why is technology’s progress so erratic? If we learn to make cars that warn us about headlights that can drain batteries, why not these interior lights? If we learn the importance of indicator lights on devices that recharge, what’s the excuse for no indicator light? And, for all I know, some one still makes plugs that can go in the wrong way. But mark this: these complaints are nothing compared to the backsliding of computer software I encounter everyday. Hence the larger question: Is progress this erratic really progress?

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