Friday, February 24, 2017

Why Nothing Works Anymore

“No… it’s a magic potty,” my daughter used to lament, age 3 or so, before refusing to use a public restroom stall with an automatic-flush toilet. As a small person, she was accustomed to the infrared sensor detecting erratic motion at the top of her head and violently flushing beneath her. Better, in her mind, just to delay relief than to subject herself to the magic potty’s dark dealings.

It’s hardly just a problem for small people. What adult hasn’t suffered the pneumatic public toilet’s whirlwind underneath them? Or again when attempting to exit the stall? So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized—made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them—that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it's evolving separately from human use. (...)

The contemporary public restroom offers an example. Infrared-sensor flush toilets, fixtures, and towel-dispensers are sometimes endorsed on ecological grounds—they are said to save resources by regulating them. But thanks to their overzealous sensors, these toilets increase water or paper consumption substantially. Toilets flush three times instead of one. Faucets open at full-blast. Towel dispensers mete out papers so miserly that people take more than they need. Instead of saving resources, these apparatuses mostly save labor and management costs. When a toilet flushes incessantly, or when a faucet shuts off on its own, or when a towel dispenser discharges only six inches of paper when a hand waves under it, it reduces the need for human workers to oversee, clean, and supply the restroom. (...)

Once decoupled from their economic motivations, devices like automatic-flush toilets acclimate their users to apparatuses that don’t serve users well in order that they might serve other actors, among them corporations and the sphere of technology itself. In so doing, they make that uncertainty feel normal.

It’s a fact most easily noticed when using old-world gadgets. To flush a toilet or open a faucet by hand offers almost wanton pleasure given how rare it has become. A local eatery near me whose interior design invokes the 1930s features a bathroom with a white steel crank-roll paper towel dispenser. When spun on its ungeared mechanism, an analogous, glorious measure of towel appears directly and immediately, as if sent from heaven. (...)

The common response to precarious technology is to add even more technology to solve the problems caused by earlier technology. Are the toilets flushing too often? Revise the sensor hardware. Is online news full of falsehoods? Add machine-learning AI to separate the wheat from the chaff. Are retail product catalogs overwhelming and confusing? Add content filtering to show only the most relevant or applicable results.

But why would new technology reduce rather than increase the feeling of precarity? The more technology multiplies, the more it amplifies instability. Things already don’t quite do what they claim. The fixes just make things worse. And so, ordinary devices aren’t likely to feel more workable and functional as technology marches forward. If anything, they are likely to become even less so.

by Ian Bogost, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Kala /Getty