My home arcade is better than Galaxy World!

A Word on Blinky Flashy Useless Technology

Stacy loves Asteroids - she is in charge of hyperspace.

While walking to my terminal in O'Hare airport one morning, I stopped in the men's room. As oftentimes men do, I laid my coat on the basin next to me while washing my hands. Problem was, the O'Hare men's room comes equipped with fancy automagical faucets controlled by sensors, motion or optical or some such. So now while I washed away, the thing, convinced my coat was someone's dirty hands, poured water all over it. Eventually noticing the catastrophe in motion, I jerked my coat out and onto the counter - where the automated soap dispenser then deposited a large dollop of pink foam onto the collar for good measure. As I blotted the frothy mess off of the ruined suede, I couldn't help but review the whole deal over and again in my head. I started thinking of design: The "old" faucet design pours hot water when someone opens the "H" valve, and cold water likewise with the "C" valve. The deluge turned back off when a user closed the valve. Simple. And it has the virtue of not deciding to do anything on its own. Why then, would someone decide to make it "smart"? Is that an improvement? What advantage does that get anyone? Preventing absentminded flakos from leaving the faucet running? Tech for the sake of jacking the fancy-neato factor (1)? Maybe it's actually an NSA listening device! Allright, discounting my paranoid leanings, by my account we're now either designing things to prevent idiots from doing what they do, or we're designing things just to impress people with the kitchen-sink full of blinking LEDs and techno doodads piled upon the product. I did by the way not overlook that there are "dumb" designs that turn off water automatically, water-wasting flakos be damned. All this leads me to conclude my favorite coat-soaking techno faucet was designed to be as technology-saturated as utterly possible in order to maximize the "neat-o" factor. Bathroom of the future? Hardly. Designed and installed for some other reason than to be useful? That sucks. And it isn't an isolated example of needlessly complex "solutions" making broad assumptions by design and ultimately making life more tedious instead of more comfortable.

Why would anyone want a gadget to think for them? The part that's perhaps the most troubling in this whole fiasco is there are apparently designers out there who design for a populus incapable or abhorrent of independant thought. Maybe the they believe not having to think is some sort of luxury? Perhaps this errant thought causes them to glom on useless techno features by the heapful in hopes of becoming the toast of the gadget-consuming elite? If so, it is a misguided endeavor. Real luxury must make the user experience not just nice, but exceptionally so (2). I think we can rule out enhanced user experience when thinking about the motivation for our "men's room of the future." In fact, the smart design provides less overall comfort, control, convenience, and reliability than the old mechanical design. It sure contains a lot more neato sensors and blinkenlights though, doesn't it? But it's a pain in the ass; it makes bad assumptions and no one wants that.

I have created a little grey area I need to clear up before we proceed. Not all "smart" systems deserve the criticism I am leveling. There are plenty of well designed systems which do a wonderful job of calculating and executing the correct response in a given context. These systems employ AI to solve highly specialized and complex problems, at least a lot more complex than whether or not to spray water on someone's filthy hands. Of course, these systems are costly to design and produce, which brings me to a point of differentiation: producing a needless automation could be expensive, unless you decided to cut corners when designing in some automated assumptions in a given solution. Sense motion? Turn on water. Sense change in light level? Turn on water. Count to 45. Turn off water. Simple? I guess so, but potentially fraught with mishaps, and not really an improvement on just letting people turn on their own damn water. So in that respect, it's worse than what we had, which wasn't a bad mechanism to begin with. So to be clear, I have a beef with automation and technology which worsens our experience, doesn't help, or compounds complexity. I have no beef with automation which solves real problems, recognizes many contexts and variations within, and can respond appropriately to each while also providing for manual override should the user wish it.

Onwards. Have I mentioned all this shit will malfunction one day? I repeat - all this shit will malfunction one day. And then what? Designers and engineers must ask themselves how eventuality of failure will impact users. There are windshield wipers that sense moisture and switch themselves on (another problem that didn't need solving, but I digress). Wouldn't it suck if you had to take the day off of work because it happened to be *raining* and a sensor crapped out? How about this one: It's zero outside and you roll your power window down to pay a toll. After leaving the booth, the motor dies, leaving the window down while you hurtle down the interstate, freezing your everliving ass off (This actually happened to me. In Chicago. In January). How do you like power windows now? Betcha you'd wish you had crank. Now I am not advocating crank windows, but when the automatic thing malfunctions, then what? Like I alluded to before, how about a manual override? Not a terrifically new concept, but it seems the manual override has become a largely forgotten concept. Why couldn't we have a crank behind a panel? That, my friends, would add convenience, control, comfort and reliability. Gosh it would even be neato too. Sounds like true luxury.

Yes I want something. I wrote this whole dang thing because chux0r wants something. I want engineers and designers (hell, and even the stylists out there) to think about how everyone will use their designs. I want them to think about giving control to their users, because control is luxury. I want them to think about giving manual overrides to their users, because a gadget that doesn't leave its owner in the lurch even when it breaks kicks ass. I want them to keep designs simple and reliable, because needlessly complex stuff sucks. I want them to stop solving problems that aren't really problems. I want them to stop designing stuff to be restrictive, or to force narrow usage contexts. I want a lot. I want true luxury. Please and thank you.

Chuck Geigner is an information security professional by day, and was a commercial product designer in a former life.

(1) Incidentally, tripping the sensor is not always the easiest thing to accomplish on the first try (unless of course you are a suede coat!). Sensors can't enhance something that wasn't ever a hardship, a problem, or even a minor inconvenience.

(2) Some designers might argue luxury is having stuff done for you automatically, but I say bullshit. Real luxury exists where an individual feels privileged materially, socially, or financially, and maintains a sense (real or perceived) of control.

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