Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

How More Becomes Less


This is not the post I planned to write, but sometimes the pain of reality provides an epiphany. This happened, of all places, at the VA. Stranger still, all I was trying to do was use the bathroom.

The sign on the button by the door said push to “Operate.” I did; the door opened. Now, I’m waiting for the door to close. And waiting. It’s a big door, a small bathroom, and I need to go. I try pulling the door from the wall, but there’s a lot of resistance.

Then I notice the same button on the wall inside the bathroom. I push it, hoping “Operate” means close the door. Wrong. Push means open and wait for closing. So I pulled the door hard, it came away from the wall and continued to close on its own.

What’s wrong the word “Open”? Because that’s what pushing the button does. My local VA has more of these signs than I can count, in many buildings, saying “Operate” but meaning open.

A very, very simple device, far stupider than it needs to be. If you think I’m just bitching, then you haven’t read any of books by Donald A. Norman. A recent title is Living With Complexity.

That title epitomizes what we’re up against in this ever-increasingly complex world. My eventual epiphany was how this has come about, and how it (more) is getting worse (less).

For our devices, we are not only the user, we are also owner and operator. The distinctions are important. Owners shop, return items, and arrange repairs. Operators do required maintenance.

To use more devices, we must either make more time for the these functions, hire some help, or shrink the time we use each device. Instead we cheat, not doing everything that’s needed.

The end result? The more devices you have, the less effective each one is. This has already happened to most of us. The more things we interact with, the simpler they have to be to use.

Every new device claims it will do more. Why do we think it will take less time to get these extra goodies? The complexity of each new device—and their buildup—is consuming all our time.

The reality is we use less and less of the capabilities of all our devices, old and new. Yet, we keep buying new devices. The more devices we buy, the less each one does. Is it an addiction?

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