Ward Nicholson

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Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 1

A tale wherein our intrepid protagonist, who in the past has eagerly tried all manner of high technologies, becomes grumpy at the failure of newer entrants in the lineup to live up to expectations. With examples of his sacrilege in returning to lesser methods of doing things, and pontifications regarding the follies of the tool-using species known as homo sapiens.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

I am someone who has always enjoyed new technology. Most of my life, I’ve typically been among the first of my friends and family to try out what’s new on the horizon when it comes to higher-tech offerings. Or at least those that are affordable to people like myself of modest means.

This inclination is actually more than just a technological leaning, and extends to other new things as well: I became a distance runner in the early 1970s, at age 14, when we skinny dudes (and it was in fact mostly guys) running along the side of the road were thought to be odd and sometimes harassed because of it. At age 16, I became a vegetarian when it was considered countercultural and effete (but which I abandoned 18 years later after it began taking a serious toll on my health, despite my best efforts). Following in succession after that were also yoga and meditation.

Later, I became aware of and got involved with the internet in the late 1980s before most people had heard of it. At this time, email and email list forums (plus a few walled-garden forums like America Online, The WELL, ECHO, and CompuServe) were “the only game in town” on the internet for the most part. The Worldwide Web had yet to be invented, which meant no blogs, e-commerce, news sites, or social media. So with the internet still something of a desert in those days except for a few such oases here and there, I was then moved to explore the alternative realm of underground zines and M2Ms (many-to-manys) — the paper-based forerunners of today’s online blogs and message boards, respectively— before moving back to the internet once it began taking off for good in the mid-1990s.

None of this was because of any desire to be “up” on what was in vogue (all of the above pursuits were very much regarded as fringe at the time), but just because I’ve always been one to periodically cast about for interesting or challenging horizons to explore.

For example, I’ve also been keen on the latest research findings in science my whole life — something which most of the American public is anything but interested in, to judge by our students’ abysmal science scores and general avoidance of elective science classes in school compared to those in other countries. (Except, of course, when it comes to the fruits of science in the form of catchy, often frivolous new consumer gadgets, which the United States is the undisputed heavyweight champion of.)

A souring mood

While I still look forward to trying out new things to see how they might enhance or reshape my experience of life, in recent years my attitude toward technology has been changing. I continue to try out new things these days to see what allure or benefits they might have, but more reluctantly at times, and I look at them with a keener eye.

Nowadays, I often find myself electing not to pursue some technology further — despite the initial enthusiasm I might have — or find it wanting after a time, casting it aside and turning back to an older technology that just works better, more simply, more reliably, or more cheaply. And while I do evaluate newer technologies on their own merits and may well continue using them on a case-by-case basis, a love/hate relationship with the continuing experience of it all is more common now.

I have given a lot of thought to whether this change in behavior might simply be the fact I’m hitting late middle age. Am I getting to be an old fogey a little before my time? I really don’t think so. Instead, I believe it’s that the tradeoffs (a key consideration) with technology no longer come down on the plus side of the equation in many cases. At least for me they don’t. The number of years on the planet I’ve got under my belt now have mounted up to where I’ve had enough with technologies that don’t live up to their promises or have too many unwanted or unintended side effects.

At the same time, I’m still much more involved with technology than most people I know. So it’s not that I take a pass on today’s latest technological solutions in all cases. Perhaps not even most — I am not sure.

Increasingly, though, I find myself asking tougher questions: Is this new, new thing really going to save me any time in the long run, all things considered? Is it going to be worth any extra, sometimes hidden hassles? How much is it really going to cost me? Not just in money, but in time, frustration, and added complexity in my life?

“All or nothing” with technology is not an option for tool-using homo sapiens. Instead: think “tradeoffs.”

Also, when I suggest here that we may have reached the point of negative returns with technology — whether some or most of it, or any given example of it — that doesn’t imply “giving up on” the very idea of any technology at all. One of the defining characteristics of human beings as the species homo sapiens is that we are tool-using animals. We can’t simply reject in toto something that is core to our very makeup. The question is, instead, one of balance and wisdom in relation to it.

So when we talk about getting to the point of negative returns with technology, we’re usually talking about the tradeoffs of technology that has become overly complex, of having reached a point where the downsides come to outweigh the upsides. And, after that, making a conscious decision to establish a more sane relationship with it. If doing so suggests that perhaps we ratchet back down the technological hierarchy to make that possible, it shouldn’t be taboo. But in today’s world, unfortunately, it usually is except by those considered to be malcontents or “out of step” with the society around them.

What the decision to discard the use of a technology typically comes down to for me, along with the accompanying shift to a simpler technology — perhaps one that may have come before it — is the increasing array of undesirable side effects embedded in many of today’s “higher” technologies: the complications, incompatibilities, breakdowns, unrepairability, detrimental impact on our health, or the maintenance cost, subscription cost, or replacement cost just to keep them running.

Another way of saying this is to ask: Where is the “sweet spot” with technology? For my part, we are well past it now in general, but that doesn’t mean I don’t use it as may be required. Often one has no choice, and you just have to live with it. But one can still ask: what type of technology, at what scale, with what tradeoffs and consequences, and at what ultimate cost not only in dollars, but time, satisfaction, health, and balance in one’s life?

And you can begin to change what you accept and reject, or rework your relationship to it, as time passes. In doing so, even within the constraints society imposes, perhaps we might thereby gradually begin to exert some back-pressure on things and slowly provide impetus toward larger change. Even without much success at this on a larger scale, though, there are still benefits to reap at the personal level.

Individual technologies: embodiments of the whole

Here is a critical point: Technological artifacts do not exist on their own. Instead, they’re embedded within an entire overarching, technological ecosystem they must function within, and that provides the support necessary for them to function successfully. If either the artifact itself or the surrounding ecosystem breaks down or malfunctions, then you have a problem. Not to mention that if technological systems cause breakdown or destruction in earth’s natural ecosystems — which support our civilization — which is happening ever more frequently today, then we have an even bigger problem.

When an artifact breaks down, rarely is it something isolated to just that specific instance of the artifact, but to a shortcoming in its design, in the manufacturing process behind it, or in the various links in its supply chain or support system, all of which reflect the entire soup-to-nuts functioning of technological society itself. The problems we are experiencing with technology today aren’t simply issues with certain specific technologies or individual examples. More and more, it seems that the overarching technological system behind them is breaking down or failing us in other ways.

Here are some examples from my own life of technologies at the point of negative returns, some less serious perhaps, others that when unraveled have more to say about our technological civilization itself.

Automated home theater system: partial success, eventual fail

Five years ago, when I happened to be slightly flush with cash for once in my life, I splurged on a large flat-screen television and separate sound system to cobble together a home theater system in our living room. This despite the fact that I watch very little to no TV.

As an aside here, I’ve actually never watched much TV — there are just too many other things going on in my life I find more interesting or compelling. However, several years ago I got into the habit of watching two or three weekly hour-long programs with my wife that we both enjoyed. In the last few years, though, with the demands of my self-employment, I haven’t watched anything other than the occasional show here and there with her a few times a year.

I do like movies, though — today’s form of storytelling around the campfire — which was the primary reason for plunking down the cash for the home theater. Over the years, I had gotten weary of the moviegoing experience at local theaters: Too many jerks talking during the film. Getting stuck in seats with a bad viewing angle if we didn’t arrive early enough. Sound systems turned up too loud for my ultra-sensitive ears so that I was often forced to wear earplugs. Et cetera.

I could go on, if you like… To wit: Screaming babies and their clueless parents who thought it would be a good idea to bring them along to the theater rather than getting a babysitter. People texting or taking calls on their cellphones during the movie despite signs and policies prohibiting it. Crowded rows of seating that make it difficult to get in and out for a quick bathroom break. Even just the experience of having to endure the general mass of humanity in attendance… (That’s probably enough for now. Really, you don’t want to get into a griping match with me, I can assure you. ;-) )

The promise: integrating six remote controls into one

By the time all was said and done putting together our home theater, there were six remotes needed to run the system, for the following components:

  • Vizio flat-screen television
  • Apple TV box
  • Cox cable box
  • Denon receiver
  • Oppo DVD player with onboard enhanced video-processing unit
  • Standalone DarbeeVision video-processing unit with added picture enhancement

The first downside we encountered was the complication of dealing with all the remotes to get each device turned on and set up properly for any particular viewing/listening activity. So in order to (supposedly) simplify things, I researched a way to integrate all the remotes into a single device, and decided to go with the Roomie Remote system (now called Simple Control).

What software systems like Roomie/Simple Control do is to consolidate all remote-control functions into an iOS application that runs on an iPhone or iPad. When you tap a remote-control button within the app on your iPhone/iPad, the signal is transmitted over the home’s wireless network to a “bridge” interface box (that you buy separately), which then relays the signal to the home theater components themselves.

Assuming you get everything programmed properly, which I did initially, but which took a lot of doing, it does work pretty well. It didn’t work perfectly — there were hiccups with Roomie in getting the home theater components powered on initially for each TV-viewing or sound-system listening session, and sometimes I would have to intervene manually via one of the separate remotes.

But with a few such caveats, it did simplify things. Or at least it did for a while.

A single broken link borks the system

What eventually happened was one of those typically “unforeseen” gotchas with technology — but that are in fact all too predictable in their random way. Due either to a Roomie software update or just some errant technological glitch (whichever it was, I can’t recall), the Roomie app or system could no longer communicate with one of the home theater components. This essentially ended up blocking just about everything, since the various components all had to work together in concert.

By this time it was two or three years after I had programmed the system. At the time I had originally set things up and programmed them, everything made sense to me, and at least didn’t appear terribly complicated. All the same, it also wasn’t easy, and had taken quite a bit of time back then to understand the ins and outs.

Now, a few years down the road, I could not easily figure out how to reprogram the command sequence that had stopped functioning. I tried two or three different times, but it quickly became clear that unless I were to completely reimmerse myself in all the details of how the (supposedly simple) programming steps worked, and learn them all over again almost from scratch, I was not going to be able to fix it.

Snap: after years, a new attitude kicks in

Normally I am like a bulldog or a tiger in these situations and will do whatever is needed to wrestle something like this to the ground and subdue it, however long it takes. But after years of these sorts of experiences, something inside snapped or clicked that catapulted me out of my usual modus operandi, and a new idea presented itself: No, I don’t have to make this work. It’s become more trouble than it’s worth! I don’t have the time, nor do I have the money to pay someone else. Screw this obstinate technology. I am a smart-enough guy that if I can’t make it work, then things have just gotten too complicated.

The upshot? We are back to using all six remotes again. Or rather I am back to that, since doing so has still been too complicated for my wife to master. And yes, dealing with all six of the remotes can be a bit of a hassle too. I do have to remember which “input” setting to select on one of the components to set things up for either (a) cable TV vs. (b) playing DVDs vs. (c) watching Netflix or other movie subscription services vs. (d) listening to music piped into the sound system from iTunes on one of our computers. But at least if you push a button on a physical remote, something happens, and you can eventually figure things out from there. And you can always make a brief “crib sheet” with appropriate pointers to help out.

Another issue is that since my wife doesn’t know how to deal with all the remotes, I’m the one called in to get the home theater set up if she happens to have guests over and needs to get things rolling for a group viewing session. But overall it’s less hassle than the more complicated technology that’s just not working any longer. And as a bonus, now we’re no longer paying the recurring subscription fee for the Simple Control app and licensing every year either.

What this example suggests about the bigger picture

I think this is clearly an area where technology has gotten overly complex to the point that even the solutions themselves are beginning to founder on their own complexity.

Roomie Remote/Simple Control is based on the premise of being a relatively simple way to integrate complex things into a sort of “higher simplicity,” so to speak. And from what I saw having compared it with a couple of other similar applications before committing to it, it’s definitely simpler than the others (which sometimes bordered on labyrinthine), or it was at the time. But the reality is that the vaunted simplicity of the app is only simple in a relative sense for people who are already comfortable with a lot of complexity to begin with. And that’s only a certain fraction of the population.

I have been present doing work in some higher-end homes in our area undergoing remodels, when other workers from home automation and audiovisual companies were on-site installing Simple Control-like solutions for home theater and home automation systems.

Two things struck me that were humorous. First, not only could the owners not have done the programming themselves, even the workings of the integrated remotes themselves had to be explained to them by the installers. Or in one case, the teenage kids had to explain to their parents how the remotes worked, even though the kids very likely would not have been capable of performing the programming of the remotes.

Second, in at least half the cases, with the owners away or out of earshot, the installers themselves could be heard talking on the phone in frustrated tones, trying to get answers from personnel in tech support, either from those in their own companies or from vendor partners whose equipment they sold and represented. If the installers themselves are having trouble installing and getting things to work and needing help, that says all you need to know about how much things like this have exceeded any reasonable level of complexity.

Locking athletic shoelaces that don’t stay tight

Here’s something at the other end of the spectrum that you wouldn’t think qualifies for the label of “overly complicated technology”: locking shoelaces. But even apparently simple technology can be more failure-prone than it should be, due to inadequate implementation stemming from the tradeoffs or constraints that govern technological design today.

This past fall, after I had ramped up my distance running and begun doing more higher-level training than in recent years, I started getting tired of having to stop and periodically retie my shoes when out on the roads. So I thought I’d try the newfangled type of shoelaces you can get these days that lock in place and don’t need retying. Theoretically, anyway.

There are a few different brands on the market with slightly different designs, but I went with Nathan Lock Laces, the market leader, guessing or hoping that they would be more reliable and trouble-free. The basic idea is a dual system of highly elastic, super-stretchy shoelaces combined with a locking device that keeps the laces from slipping once you’ve got them set to the level of tightness you like.

The locking device is a spring-loaded piece of plastic containing two holes for the shoelaces. You open up the holes by pushing down on a button, which compresses a coiled metal spring inside the device. Once open, you thread each end of your shoelace through the holes, then release the coiled spring/button, and it clamps down on the inserted lace ends, “locking” them in place. The elastic laces are resilient enough to hold the shoe firmly on your foot, yet stretchy enough to allow you to work the shoe off and on with the locked laces clamped tight, so they always remain positioned at the same level of tightness that you set. Clever idea.

Cheaping out on product materials

So yes, a peachy-keen solution in theory. Except I found that the spring in the locking device eventually wears out, at least in my case. After a few short months, I found that the laces would begin loosening up during a run, and that I was actually stopping more frequently to tighten them back up than before I’d gotten the Lock Laces.

This wasn’t simply a single errant pair of Lock Laces either. I had bought two pairs of them — at different times, from different retailers — since I alternate pairs of shoes across successive workouts. (A basic “Injury Prevention 101” rule of thumb is to swap out the shoes you train in each session to vary the stresses on your feet and legs from one run to the next.) And I’m paying $8.00 per pair for the privilege?

Granted, perhaps the problem could be solved if Nathan were to utilize a stronger spring in the locking device. But the fact is, they don’t. And I’ve seen reviews on Amazon about Lock Laces from other buyers who had the same problem I did.

So… thanks, but no thanks, I’ve gone back to good ole regular shoelaces. Yes, it does take some time at the beginning of each run to get them adjusted to the right level of tightness, since you have to start from scratch each time. (Made more difficult in my case since I wear orthotics when running, for which the margin for error is less in terms of “too loose” or “too tight.”) I might have to stop two or three times within the first mile or so of a run to stop and readjust them. But once you get them where you want, a good double-knot will usually keep them in place for the rest of the run — something I’ve gotten religious about now, since coming back to regular laces. Is having to do that really so bad?

The bigger picture

While you might think Nathan could spend another five or 10 cents, or even 50 cents to a dollar (whatever the cost may be) for a stronger spring, you see this reluctance or economic pressure in all sorts of products where a few extra cents or bucks would presumably solve such idiotic glitches. But the underlying conditions in our technologically driven world that lead to companies making things too cheaply, so as to eke out every last stinking penny of profit, are not going away anytime soon.

Resources are getting more costly, and incomes of all but the upper 10% of society continue to erode, putting pressure on companies from the consumer side as well. There just don’t seem to be enough people like me who will pay more for a better-quality product to support very many companies who might uphold the same philosophy when it comes to “incidental” consumer items like these.

None of these issues are coincidental: they are “all of a piece.” Indicators like the proverbial “bean-counter” behavior here of shaving off a few pennies in cost even at the expense of the core integrity and functionality of a product — when looked at in context — are indicative of a civilization in decline. In our case, the fundamental economic cause of this is that our worldwide civilization is in the process of overrunning the planet’s resource base, so corners are being cut, and the pressures are inexorable. Shoddier products in general, some occasional bright points to the contrary, are the inevitable result.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

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