After reading Starre Vartan’s post, Why is it that so many basic things don't work as well as they used to? I wanted to complain to my editor that “Hey, I cover the cranky-curmudgeon-yelling-at-clouds beat on MNN.” But I got over that and thought I would actually look at her thesis: Has technology made things demonstrably worse?
Starre begins with a lament about the telephone:
I used to gab on the phone for hours every night with my friend Liz. There was an attached-to-the-wall, landline phone that I would hold to my sweaty ear as I paced back and forth while chatting away…
It's true. Those old Western Electric telephones were fabulous, with great sound quality. That’s because people didn’t actually own the phone; they rented it from AT&T, which told their subsidiary, Western Electric, to build to high standards so that it would go a very long time without maintenance or replacement. I still have one in the bedroom up north in my cabin that is 60 years old and works perfectly. They were mechanical and electrical, not electronic, with enough power coming through the wires to jiggle magnets moving diaphragms to make the analog sound that was so good.
Then the government broke up AT&T because they believed in giving everyone the choice to pay as little for the phone as they wanted to pay, and nobody was willing to pay the cost of a big heavy Bell phone when they could get a cheap transparent neon Conair plastic phone that would last a couple of years if you were lucky.
And, if you can remember that far back, you were tied to the wall by a stupid wire. Now phones have changed; you can use them anywhere. Starre writes that “I won't even get into how obnoxious it is to hear other people yelling into their phones to be heard in public places, degrading public spaces as well as the calling experience.” Yes, it's obnoxious and I hate it too — but what a wonder it is, that you can make a call from anywhere. The technology we rely on hasn't gotten worse; it has gotten amazing. You can’t blame the phone for people’s rudeness. (Besides, people are texting more and talking less, so that’s becoming less of a problem.)
The wonders actually never cease. Look at this Radio Shack ad from 1991; dozens of devices, all requiring a learning curve, all ending up in the junk pile in relatively short order. Except for the super-het radar detector, I don't believe there is a single thing here that cannot be done on my little iPhone. What could Starre’s little Conair do? It could do one thing — and only when connected to a legacy network of wires built over generations that could do nothing but carry noise.
And quality? I hate the land line now because it's not connected to my hearables, which feed directly into my head. It goes to one ear instead of two. It’s not Western Electric but an upgraded version of her Conair that has crappy sound. Given a choice, I'll take my cellphone over the land line any day.
Meanwhile, in the bathroom...
Then there are the toilets and sinks. All of Starre’s complaints about toilets that flush too often are fair, but they miss the point of these commercial fixtures, which was not to save water but to eliminate the need for people to touch them and transfer faecal coliform bacteria. It's true that they're also supposed to save water, but there has been a learning curve in the design — dealing with different sizes of people, their movements (physical and bowel), not to mention the amount of toilet paper they use. I've talked to the designers of toilets, who throw up their hands and have to make a choice: The big bowl with the giant 10-gallon flush that will move a mountain of poop and paper, or trying to cut back on the amount of water, which works for some situations and not for others. They're not perfect and the manufacturers know it, but they're getting smarter and better.
Meanwhile, back in the loo, I recently used the newly renovated washrooms at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, designed by trendy architects Superkul, where there are swoopy Corian sinks with fancy new Dyson combo washer/dryer faucets. I really didn’t know what to do, never having seen these before, but you put your hands under and water runs. You move your hands to the side and hot air comes out and dries them. No touching, no paper, just really effective integration, really nice design by talented architects and engineers. This is how it's supposed to work, where all the technology comes together with good design to make it a better experience. I wanted to take a photo with my phone, but I don’t do that in public washrooms — that would be rude.
Because frankly, I think most of the problems we have with technology these days are more about the people who are using it, not the tech itself.