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
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
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
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
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.