Debate Question: In light of the potential hazards that automatic electronic controls pose in the home and in the car, would it be ethical for the government to institute tight regulations that would eliminate these options from consumer appliances?
A Tyranny of Digital Controls Invades the Comfort of Home
By KATIE HAFNER
April 28, 2002
Last Christmas Eve, just as Lynne Bowman was preheating her oven to roast a turkey for 15 guests, her daughter accidentally brushed against one of the new oven's many digital controls.
"We heard this `beep beep beep,' " recalled Ms. Bowman, a 56-year-old freelance creative director who lives in Pescadero, Calif., "and no more oven. After that, we couldn't get it to work."
Ms. Bowman's husband, an engineer, was unable to fix the problem. Nor were any of the assembled guests, half of whom were also engineers. D
esperate, Ms. Bowman resorted to the small, simple 1970's-vintage Tappan electric oven in the guest house, which worked like a charm.
Of all the forces that permeate daily life, perhaps nothing has become more of a tyranny than the bits and pieces of technology that are meant to help one get through the day more easily, but instead are a source of frustration.
Relatively simple devices that were once controlled by twisting a knob or pushing a button are now endowed with digital commands that can take hours to master.
Many televisions, inextricably joined with the VCR, DVD player and 500-channel receiver, are now impossible to turn on or off without first scanning a cryptic array of choices on any of several remote control devices.
If a newer car's "check engine" light suddenly goes on, no longer can a mechanically minded car owner simply pop the hood and have a look. A special-purpose computer is needed to make a diagnosis.
To some extent, consumers have only themselves to blame, said Dr. Edward Tenner, the author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" (Vintage Books, 1997), and a visiting scholar at Princeton University.
"Things are so needlessly complex because featuritis sells products," Dr. Tenner said. "People buy them for a feeling of control, then complain that they are so hard to manage. But show them something simple and rugged, and most of them will call it boring."
Consider the recent "spring forward" for daylight saving time. That Sunday morning, households throughout the nation set about changing the time on their digital timepieces, VCR's, car clocks, oven clocks and other devices. Many people have more than a dozen, and few are set in quite the same way.
The tyranny of the digital control is perhaps at its most conspicuous in BMW's new luxury sedan, the 745i.
The car has a premium stereo system with crystalline sound quality. But try turning the radio on and tuning it to a favorite station and the owner is in for a lengthy session with the instruction manual.
Storing that station for future quick access is another multistep ordeal that requires pulling a joystick-like knob on the center console, which is part of a system called the iDrive, to the radio portion of the entertainment function, then twisting it to select either FM or AM, then scrolling through commands to turn the iDrive knob into a tuner, then finding the station, then assigning a permanent spot to the station in the radio's memory.
In the course of a 15-minute crash tutorial on operating the 745i preceding the test drive, Mike Fritz, a sales manager at a BMW dealership in Berkeley, Calif., proudly pointed out that the iDrive had some 700 functions. At the same time, he conceded that most drivers would use only a small fraction of those functions.
Part of the problem could be generational. Consumers in their teens and 20's seem to have a more instinctive feel for how to conquer complex gadgetry than their elders. Yet they, too, can grow impatient.
Marc Laitin, 28, a teacher in Washington, said he had no particular problem figuring out how to operate the various gadgets in his life, but frustration set in when he was forced to deal with the learning curve presented by gadgets owned by friends and relatives.
When Mr. Laitin visits his parents in Menlo Park, Calif., he quickly grows annoyed by the multiple remote controls governing the various entertainment devices. "You have to hit 15 buttons in sequence on three different remotes to watch TV," he said.
And when Mr. Laitin's 92-year-old grandfather visits Menlo Park from Brooklyn, leaving him at home for too long can be a mistake. "It takes 15 minutes to unravel what he does to the TV," Mr. Laitin said. This despite color-coded dots that the family has put on each of the remote controls.
Alan Cooper, whose consulting firm, Cooper, in Palo Alto, Calif., helps companies make their technical products easier to use, said the profusion of digital options often creates what he calls "mode confusion." This syndrome is known to afflict pilots who become dangerously befuddled by on-board automation, where a single control or sign could do or mean two different things.
Mr. Cooper, formerly a programmer, recounted having been a passenger one night recently in the sleek Mercedes that belongs to his wife, Sue. In the process of seeking the map light, he inadvertently switched on the dome light overhead, blinding his wife as she drove.
"You have this assortment of controls which somebody really put an enormous amount of thought and design into making beautifully and sensually curved," Mr. Cooper said. "But the amount of thought that went into how they behave is ridiculously amateurish and silly."
Mr. Cooper recently purchased a new $600 Nikon Coolpix 885 digital camera that came with a 205-page instruction booklet. The camera has some 200 functions, Mr. Cooper said, yet it lacks the ability to rotate an image 90 degrees.
One challenge, Dr. Tenner said, is in the multiplicity of products, sometimes with different control conventions, which can receive and misinterpret others' signals if kept near one another.
"When I point the remote of my Toshiba TV in a certain direction while ending the mute command, for instance, I also turn on my Cambridge Soundworks table radio nearby at full volume," Dr. Tenner said. "Yet I've found nothing on the TV remote that will turn the radio off or make it do anything else."
A popular Sony product is its $150 universal remote. "It's supposed to be programmable for most equipment," Dr. Tenner said. "But even if it is, the consumer has some work to do before it's fully usable."
Carol Chapman, a writer in Austin, Tex., is often unpleasantly surprised to find that formerly simple things in her life have suddenly become more complicated. Ms. Chapman said she and her husband recently bought a small digitally controlled bathroom HeatSafe space heater, which works on a timer.
"It's like a VCR," she said. "I used to be able to go in the bathroom in the morning and turn on the heater. But with the new one, which we've lost the instructions to, there are all these buttons to push, in some arbitrary, mysterious order." More often than not, Ms. Chapman said, she gives up and takes a shower in a cold bathroom.
Some consumer electronics companies are noticing some resentment of gadget complexity, and building products accordingly, in a vein similar to the re-emergence of single-speed fat-tire bicycles and crock pots, now called slow cookers.
Teac, the Japanese consumer electronics company best known for cassette decks, carries a "Nostalgia" line of stereo systems, the PT Cruisers of the audio world. Some of Teac's retro radios feature the curves of the 1930's while others have the chrome-plated grilles of their counterparts from the 1950's. All have simple knobs for analog tuning, complete with the static between stations.
Joe D'Angelo, hi-fi group manager for Teac America Inc., called the Nostalgia products "a rip-roaring, unbelievable success."
"They've touched a nerve," Mr. D'Angelo said, "and it has to do with the desire to have products that do the things you want them to do without being overwhelmingly technological."
Some consumers manage to hold onto their old ways in spite of the complexity built into new products. Eighteen months ago, Dorothy Berson, who lives in Oakland, Calif., bought a Frigidaire washing machine with at least a dozen possible permutations on the typical wash cycle. But Ms. Berson ignores most of the machine's buttons and stubbornly sticks to the same simple wash-and-rinse cycle she has been using for decades.
"I put all my clothes in and put it to the one setting and that's the end of it," she said.
Four months after Christmas, meanwhile, Ms. Bowman is still without a functioning oven, as her husband remains convinced that he can fix it. "Here we have this modern, shiny oven, and it's just taking up space," she said.
While she waits, she has turned her attention to the microwave, and has expanded her repertory of stove-top dishes. The electronic ignition for the burners gave out months before the oven did, Ms. Bowman said. She lights them with a match.
Last modified: Wed Sep 13 14:57:24 EDT 2000