The Hassle Factor or Delusions in Technical Adequacy

As I get older, one of the things that strikes me is the prevalence of poor design in technology and (unfortunately) human affairs. It may just be a fundamental shortcoming of ourselves as a species — this overweaning sense of self-importance that gets attached to everything.

Take product design, for example. For a number of years I have been a robot vacuum cleaner owner. It may just be that I am lazy and more than a bit of a technophile. But having that little plastic trilobyte scuttling around and picking up the pet hair and crud seemed to be pretty cool. But this love affair has cooled with the latest model, a 500 series Roomba. This model is much more effective at collecting pet hair and dirt than its predicessor, so much so that it requries cleaning before and after every use to remove the stuff that winds around its closely spaced moving parts. It has a scheduler function but why bother with so much ongoing maintenance requried to keep it from stopping, yes, stopping, under a bed when it feels the level of crud in its innards is too high. Seems the designers in their hubris forgot why people use cleaning machinery — it is to make their lives easier. This level of fiddling is not required for either our central vac or my wife’s beloved floor cleaner. In the end, I have almost stopped using Roomba because the ongoing hassle factor of keeping it going simply overwhelms the pleasure of its use.

Computer software is another place where the self-importance of the designers overwhelms product functionality. I have piloted a number of system management applications in our little home network (as a lifelong computer geek it is probably a bit over the top for the needs of a semi-retired couple, but what the heck…). A common factor of all of them is that they demand continuous attention for their own issues to a degree that the operational simplicity that should have been delivered is overwhelmed. Why, for example, should I care if a resource sampling job that runs every 5 minutes did not respond in time once or twice during the night — how much should I care to dismiss the critical alerts that this spawned or the lengthy recovery processes that I was forced into? I just wanted to see a summary of the error logs across the systems, not be drowned in the neurotic details of the collection process. There are too many examples of this to count. It really makes me wish for the simpler days of booting off paper tape (yes, I have been screwing with computers for that long).

Similarly in the arena of human affairs, the province where I live is entertaining a new law that will allow wind farm developers to push local interests out of the way so they can dispoil endless tracts of farmland and nature reserves with 500 foot monoliths. Its called ‘green energy’ but the only thing that is green about it is the money this will transfer from the public purse into the hands of a few. Is it worth mentioning that the party in power has a number of close connections with the wind turbine industry? What I find fascinating about this is that by tagging it ‘green’ the rules of common sense are suspended. In order to connect all of this wildly variable power to the grid a big buildout of gas turbines will be requried to keep the inevitable voltage swings from taking the provincial power grid down. So in the end the greenhouse gases the wind towers will supposedly save us from will be more than offset by the waste from burning natural gas. And when the developers have gotten their money back, the municipalities will be left with a landscape covered with these huge rusting towers — guess the next round of glaciers will clear that mess.

The common factor I see in all of this is that the perpetrators have lost sight of ‘what problem are we trying to solve’ and become self-absorbed into their own solutions. And don’t dare ask about life cycle costing or whether the solution (including all the ongoing fiddling) is better or worse than the problem it is intended to solve. What would I rather have, cheap electricity from a nuclear plant down the road or the (birdless) sky filled with rumbling windmills? After all, nuclear waste will last for thousands of years… (I suppose that extinction is better?)

Just calling the later green does not make it so, pity I get to pay for it anyhow. I just wish that the folks dreaming up these solutions could lift their heads up every so often and check whether the solution they were creating was better or worse than the problem they were (supposedly) trying to solve. Instead, they seem to have fallen in love with their solutions (and themselves) and become THE PROBLEM.