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Archive for Tuesday, May 30, 2006

High-tech gadgets don’t simplify life

May 30, 2006

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— The origin of this species of rant was a toothbrush. A new toothbrush. A new toothbrush that came with an instructional DVD.

The owner of this advanced piece of dental equipment had been brushing his teeth lo these many years without any educational aides at all. But now he was the proud owner of an "IntelliClean System" equipped with packets of paste to be downloaded into the toothbrush's hard drive.

The good news is that his toothbrush - excuse me, his cleaning system - does not connect his fillings directly to the Internet or allow instant messaging with other people's bicuspids. But a toothbrush with a DVD and a "quad pacer" was the last straw, the final reminder of the ongoing "complexification" of everyday life - a word that can now actually be found in Wikipedia.

How did every simple piece of earthly equipment become stratospherically high-tech? How did more become more and progress become associated with the precise number of features whose main feature is frustration?

Have you seen my new cell phone that can take pictures, do e-mail, tell time, wake me up, get me the news, beat me in video games and generally make me feel incompetent? It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon of a man going into a store asking, "Do you have any phones that make phone calls?"

Once upon a time there were coffee makers that made, well, coffee. They now let you program, bump and grind more kinds of espresso, americano, latte, cappuccino at more times of day than a barista at Starbucks. You cannot drink that coffee while you are driving because you need that hand and a direct help line to Bangalore just to use your car radio, which is now located on a dashboard that resembles the cockpit of a 747.

Shall we tell the children about the old days when you could walk into any stranger's house and actually turn on their TV? The on/off button in my home has been replaced by three remote controls that must be operated in perfectly synchrony just to watch "Blue's Clues."

I could, of course, get a universal remote for the cable, VCR and DVD player that would make me unable to use them with one device instead of three. Or I could buy a new refrigerator which, for no apparent reason, has a television set where the kids' artwork used to be displayed.

And did I mention my new laptop?

The culprit of complexification is feature creep, a technological kudzu that has taken over the gadget near you. Feature creep has led to what Roland Rust of the University of Maryland calls feature fatigue, a phrase inspired by the gift of a mouse pad that had been loaded with everything from a calculator to a radio. The only thing it couldn't do was brush his teeth. Maybe.

Rust tossed the better mouse pad in the bin and wrote a report on feature fatigue for the Harvard Business Review. A complexificaton guru, he blames engineers who love to load this stuff. And he blames consumers whose eyes are bigger than their abilities. In the store, he says, capability is big deal. At home, usability is.

It turns out that getting any new equipment is rather like getting a new baby. It all looks so easy when you're in the hospital. But when you get home, you don't have a clue what to do with it. One survey showed that 56 percent of consumers who bought a high-tech device were overwhelmed by it.

Let's be frank. All of our daily lives have become more complicated. Americans moonlight in the self-service economy - pumping our own overpriced gas, checking out our own groceries, printing our own pictures. Not to mention picking our own Medicare prescription plans and 401(k)s.

But faced with gadgets test-marketed on 14-year-olds, we now blame ourselves for being tech-unsavvy rather than blaming tech for being user-unfriendly. The way I figure it, I could have learned Mandarin in the amount of time I spent updating software and hardware over the past decade. The difference is that I could still speak Mandarin, but the technological languages of the past three decades are now as extinct as the Xerox Telecopier.

Rust says that his model of simplicity is his automatic garage door opener. It goes up. It goes down. I don't actually have a garage. My model, I blush to confess, was always the toothbrush. It goes up and down. Of course, that was before it had a DVD.

Now I am sure that somewhere there is an engineer creating a toothbrush with an LCD, an MP3 player and the capacity to instant message from my mouth to yours. Beware, the feature creep is coming to a molar near you.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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