Don’t you often wish that technology would just get out of the way?
I am appliance shopping these days – that is, shopping for a new fridge and stove. As I do so, I think about how useful and unobtrusive appliances are. We may focus on their features at the time of purchase but on a day to day basis they just do their thing – whether that be keeping the milk cold or heating a pot of soup. A few days or at most a few weeks after we have put a new appliance in place we forget about it. This is the way it should be.
I yearn for office technology that could be as unobtrusive. In the ever-faster scramble to create new hardware and applications, technology makers can lose track of the fact that most of us, most of the time, just want things to get done. We want to talk to someone around the corner or on the other side of the globe. We want to print a photo for a friend who doesn’t do email. We want to buy something, or pay a bill.
I think of the long line of computers that have graced my desk and lap top over the years. That Kaypro II beast was not only my first computer but my first “portable” computer. In no way was it a laptop, but you could fold its keyboard into its sturdy metal frame and hoist it around. When I went on a writing retreat to my brother’s cabin in the woods, I could pack my Kaypro and a box of big floppies along.
The Kaypro’s green-on-black screen, cluttered up with computer code, was a necessary evil if I wanted the computer’s other attributes – namely, the ability to edit and save documents electronically. It was a debatable trade-off.
My first Mac, a Macintosh SE, was a big step up mainly because it came closer to replicating the tried and true typewriter experience with its black text on paper-like white screen. The screen was tiny but most importantly I could focus more on the words, the ideas, the writing.
Over the years, a series of Mac, DOS and Windows machines have come and gone. As a small business owner, I own a handful of computers and my current favourite is my MacBook Pro. Why? It gets out of my way.
When I have a brilliant new idea I want to capture it asap – before it gets lost in all the twists and turns of my mysterious cerebral cortex. My MacBook fires up quickly and is ready to record that whim, or search for that source, in seconds. When the moment passes and I want to move on, I just close the lid. This is so much more friendly than my previous laptop – a Lenovo / IBM ThinkPad – that it’s as if they were two entirely different tools. My ThinkPad was so slow to load, I would have to literally jot my “must remember” inspirational note on a sticky so that I could be sure to remember it when, seemingly hours later, the laptop finally told me it was ready. And heaven forbid if I ever just closed the lid without giving it ample warning that I was done using it. The machine would punish me severely the next time I tried to use it.
It’s interesting to note that in the current discussions about e-books, paper keeps being mentioned as the near-perfect technology. I think about how I never really took to mechanical pencils or fiddly fountain pens and realize that it’s the same issue as with balky electronics – when I was ready to put ideas to paper, I didn’t want some mere tool coming between those ideas and their holding place – the paper. Generic ballpoint pens are great appliances: they do their job without drawing attention to themselves.
Just the other day, in a Twitter chat involving bloggers (Twitter hashtag #blogchat), I noticed how many bloggers say they still find paper to be the best place to keep their quick ideas for future blog topics.
Much is being made, recently, of Facebook‘s rapid ascendancy to the upper realms of online interaction. There are many reasons for Facebook’s success – primarily, I think, its basic premise that we trust our friends more than we trust unknown online sources – but I have a theory too about Facebook’s functionality.
Facebook, I’m sure you have noticed, is dead simple to use. You now see very ‘non-techie’ people actively sharing links, uploading photos, and using multiple multimedia tools online through Facebook – due in good part because the Facebook interface is as simple as point-and-click. In comparison, many other interactive tools still deliver high levels of frustration.
In our line of work – communications consulting – similar principles apply. Our clients really want us, the service providers, and our work (our words, plans, strategies) to be invisible to their customers and stakeholders. The message, the ideas, the goals – those are what count. Not the “how.”
Get the job done, and get out of the way. That message continues to make sense.
Kaypro II – The Obsolete Technology Website
First Posted July 26th, 2010 at Grandview Consulting