The Over-Improvement of Everything

By nature, I am not anti-technology. As a child, my favorite

toy was a screwdriver. I’d spend my afternoons taking apart-and putting back

together-all the telephones in our house. In college, I helped cover the cost

of tuition by working weekends rewiring tenements in the slums of Boston.

I started writing on a computer when they were still called

“word processors.” I own a Palm Pilot and a cell phone. I’ve been a beta tester

for Microsoft, America Online and the Final Draft screenplay-writing software.

And to this day, my telephone rings at all hours of the

night with calls from friends and relatives, asking for help with their

telephone, cable-TV and computer problems.

In short, I have always

been at home in a Home Depot and undaunted by the salesmen at 47th Street

Photo. I understand 99 percent of what’s written about in the Circuits section

of The New York Times . I’m the one

you’d call for advice about which TV, stereo or computer to buy.

Until recently, that is.

Because I’ve suddenly found myself overwhelmed-hitting a

wall, as it were-and wondering about the value of all this technology.

The tipping point was my pilgrimage to purchase the

obligatory video camera required by the birth of our twins. After being buried

by the salesman with a blizzard of options-digital versus analog, internal CD

burner versus tape, High-8 or VHS, optical versus electronic zoom-he asked one

question too many:

“Do you want one with a

built-in FM radio and MP3 music player?”

“Wait a minute,” I said, deciding to begin my next question

without the phrase “maybe I’m an idiot.” “But what do I need a radio-and a

music player-in a video camera for?”

I only wish I’d had the camera running, just to record the

amazingly patronizing smile that crossed his face. “To make broadcast-quality

rock videos,” he said, implying, but graciously leaving off, the final unspoken

phrase “you idiot.”

Either way, it was at this moment that I began to wonder:

Exactly when did we begin to over-design and over-improve almost everything?

Yes, I have a cell phone that works  in London, holds 500 numbers and plays

solitaire-but it took me six months to memorize the eight steps it takes to

retrieve my voice mail.

On the side of our bed, I count six remote controls-for the

VCR, the TV, the DVD player, a cassette deck, the surround-sound receiver and a

cable box-but I’m the only one in the house who knows the exact sequence of

buttons to press to watch TV, and even then I only get it right 20 percent of

the time.

In our kitchen, there’s

a Krups programmable coffeemaker that came with a 200-page manual detailing all

the features that are too complicated to use; in our back hallway, there’s an

18-speed mountain bike that has never seen fifth gear. Our neighbor moans over

his high-tech golf clubs-forged from strategic metals-that haven’t improved his

game by a solitary stroke. I can’t figure out how to program our car radio,

which, given its function, should at least appear to be significantly less

complicated than the cockpit of the B-1 bomber I flew in last year-but it

isn’t.

Would it have killed the

radio designers to include a simple “memorize” button? Am I the only one who’s

terrified by the idea of automobile designers trying to integrate a Web browser

into the dashboard of a 5,000-pound Ford Explorer? (“Wait! There’s more: It

cruises the Internet! It does your e-mail! It rolls over on major highways!”)

So again, I’d like to pose the question: When did we start

to over-improve everything? Why are so many smart products so stupid? When did

the Sharper Image catalog become the guiding ethos for product development?

Was it the introduction

of Ben & Jerry’s designer ice cream? The rise of Starbucks? The almost

religious-like belief in Ron Popiel’s golden promise, “But wait! There’s

more!”?

On the one hand, this is all easily explained by the growth

curve of technology: As the power of computer chips rose and the price of the

now-obsolete older chips dropped, it became easy to pack more and more features

into a product for less money. (For a truly depressing demonstration of this

process in action, visit a Toys “R” Us and try to find a toy that doesn’t

light, bark, talk or otherwise discount a child’s own imagination.)

And then there’s the demographic explanation: Nobody really

needs 18 speeds on a mountain bike or titanium golf clubs. But with the general

growth in population, combined with targeted media, niche marketing and the

rise of the “striving accumulator” class (read: upwardly mobile baby boomers),

it became possible to make money creating these premium products-which

eventually drop in price and become objects of mass consumption. What was once

cutting-edge sooner or later becomes standard-issue.

In truth, I bear some personal responsibility here. Just out

of college, I was a copywriter on the BMW “Ultimate Driving Machine” campaign

introducing the first Yuppiemobile, the 320i. My job was to flatter consumers

into thinking they were too smart to accept the conventional definition of

“luxury,” and that this relatively Spartan car was worth aspiring to. But for

me, the real genius was in the pricing: The car was allegedly pegged to be just

beyond the means of a first-year associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher

& Flom.

In the end, we are

surrounded today by products that can work miracles, if only we could figure

out how to work the products themselves. It’s the gizmo society. And I can’t

help but wonder how much of our current economic woe can be traced to people

like me-both at home and in the corporate world-who’ve finally had enough: I’ve

been through too many software upgrades, and I don’t need any more bells and

whistles. The computer works; the word-processing software does its job. I’m

not buying a new computer, or going through the pain of new software this year.

Recently, that sage of daytime idiot TV, Rosie O’Donnell,

suggested there’s no reason to teach children math anymore. It’s a colossally

dumb idea. Especially since I’m counting on the fact that by the time the

twins-Thomas and Elizabeth-graduate from pre-school, they’ll both have advanced

degrees in engineering …

So they can help their father finally buy that video camera.