Technology We Hate

Article excerpt

Technology is driving the big changes in society faster now than at any time since I the decade after World War II. Back then, a raft of discoveries--atomic power, jet transportation and rocketry, television, mass immunization, and early steps toward reliable birth control--had enormous political, cultural, and demographic impact around the world. Now, there are two main drivers: information technology in all its aspects, from chip design to the Internet, and rapid discoveries about cell function and genetic structure, which a decade from now may well make the computer revolution look tame by comparison.

Because such changes, like their counterparts in other ages (steam power, movable type), really do affect life on me large scale, it is natural to discuss them in sweeping world-historic terms. But technology also matters on an immediate, personal level, depending on how well it suits the patterns of an enjoyable, productive life.

The social history of the car is a reminder that the same machine can be better or worse designed to match ordinary convenience, depending on the forces acting on the designer. The car has obviously had huge policy-scale effects on our culture at large (rise of the suburbs, demand for oil, etc.), but it has also been the most personal of machines. A generation ago, the typical American relationship with the car was love-hate. Love, for natural reasons (the `64 Mustang!). Hate, because cars through the mid-1970s were designed for the manufacturers' convenience, not the customers'. They rusted out quickly; they broke down often; and when they got into a crash, their innards became death chambers for hapless passengers. Because of regulatory and design changes stimulated by Ralph Nader and Japanese competitors, today's cars last longer, work better, and are less than one-third as lethal, per mile driven, as in the 1960s. Now some people love cars and others just tolerate them, but the hate quotient is way down.

To make up for it we have ... all our other modern technologies. Most members of the professional class simultaneously rely on and hate their computers, the software on their computers, their cell phones, their e-mail systems, e-mail itself, the Internet, airline travel, phone-answering systems, user IDs and passwords, and the many other connections between modern technology and daily life. The history of the car suggests that some of the hatred can be bled away, if manufacturers and designers try. The solutions may involve regulation (rules establishing "No Cell Phone" zones in restaurants or concert halls). They may include passive design (walls in concert halls thick enough to block cell phone signals). They may require more active innovations (the impending "single number" phone system, in which one phone number can reach you wherever you are, with a system smart enough to know when you shouldn't be disturbed).

In all cases, they start with an understanding of why, exactly, a certain technology has become hateful. Here are a few of the traits and symptoms of technology that need to be changed.

NUISANCE SHIFTING. Economists recognize the concept of an innovation that does not raise overall productivity--but is attractive to the party that implements it, since it shifts costs to someone else who cannot resist or complain. Communications technology has brought us cost-shifting in the forms of spam e-mail, computerized telemarketing, and "press zero for further options"-type menus on the telephone. All of these make it cheaper for a firm to sell its product--or staff its headquarters, since more menus mean fewer human attendants. All shift the cost, in time and neuralgia, to an unhappy public.

Spare e-mail seems to provoke the most emotional reaction, followed by telemarketing. (On picking up the phone recently, I heard a computerized voice asking me to "please hold on for an important message." After I slammed the phone down, it rang again with the same message--and wouldn't give up until I waited to hear the guy with the credit card spiel. …