Not that long ago, turning on a TV or using a phone was child’s play. Today, life is more complicated. Televisions come with encyclopedic manuals, phones are equipped with myriad, constantly changing features and computers are in a world of their own. As these everyday electronic devices become increasingly complicated, many users might feel that they are at fault for being unable to figure them out. Not so, as journalist and author Rhymer Rigby reports.​

LAST WORD

Cast your mind back to 2007. That was when the first iPhone came out, so chances are you were using a bog-standard Nokia. I bet you knew it back to front. You probably didn’t even need to open the manual when a new phone was delivered. You charged it, laboriously keyed in your contacts’ numbers, and started playing Snake. Happy days.  My latest phone is as complicated as my laptop. It’s a computer. I understand about 5 per cent of its functionality and I probably use even less. I reckon it would take me several days to gain even a basic working overview, so I don’t. Where once I was a “power user”, I am now my smartphone’s dummy.

What’s true of my phone is true of virtually every device I own. That nice DSLR camera I bought two years ago? It takes beautiful pictures. It looks very professional. And yet I never go beyond the nursery-level auto mode. The one with a little green symbol, which says: “You might be the user, but you’re not in charge.”

Hours of fun

At least with my camera, I can use the easy setting. When I recently set up a new TV for my daughters, I naturally chose the idiot-proof mode. Clearly, I’m more of an idiot than the designers had in mind, as I quickly made a total hash of it. I then spent three hours down some mind-boggling technological wormhole – at the end of which, hallelujah, the TV worked! The only problem is I have no idea how. What I’d done was the button-pushing equivalent of hitting an old-fashioned TV until the picture stabilised.

It’s not just the devices either. It’s the software. Do you remember those early versions of Word and Excel? Where you knew what most of the symbols on the taskbar meant. No longer. I look at that Word taskbar now and I may as well be looking at the Rosetta Stone. 

Too much information

People used to complain about “bloatware” – software which sapped computers’ processing power and ate up storage space. But now storage and processing power are so cheap that this issue barely exists. Instead, we have such a surfeit of functionality that there are probably features in Word which only have a single user – or no user at all. And yet, I still feel as if I am somehow a lesser person, if I don’t have the latest phone/camera/software. I will reliably go for the version with “Pro” in the name, paying for capabilities I will never understand, let alone use.

I suppose Google offers some hope. I can always Google anything that I don’t understand – at least in theory. And Google Docs and Chromebooks don’t do much, which is clearly a positive. Likewise, Nokia’s new “old” 3310, which also sells itself on an appealing lack of features.

Where will it end?

However, I fear these are all mere speed bumps on the superhighway to greater complexity – soon, the Internet of Things will add cars, thermostats, fridges and, eventually, homes, to the long list of devices that virtually no one can either use or understand.

Looking back, people say that it became impossible to be a true polymath – someone who held the entirety of human knowledge in their grasp – around the beginning of the 18th century. Indeed, Andrew Robinson’s biography of the scientist Thomas Young (1773-1829), whose accomplishments covered language, physics and biology, is entitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. The modern equivalent may be the last man who knew how to work the TV 

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LAST WORD

How does

it work?

How does

it work?

What I’d done was the button-pushing equivalent of hitting an old-fashioned TV until the picture stabilised”​

What I’d done was the button-pushing equivalent of hitting an old-fashioned TV until the picture stabilised”​

Cast your mind back to 2007. That was when the first iPhone came out, so chances are you were using a bog-standard Nokia. I bet you knew it back to front. You probably didn’t even need to open the manual when a new phone was delivered. You charged it, laboriously keyed in your contacts’ numbers, and started playing Snake. Happy days.  My latest phone is as complicated as my laptop. It’s a computer. I understand about 5 per cent of its functionality and I probably use even less. I reckon it would take me several days to gain even a basic working overview, so I don’t. Where once I was a “power user”, I am now my smartphone’s dummy.

What’s true of my phone is true of virtually every device I own. That nice DSLR camera I bought two years ago? It takes beautiful pictures. It looks very professional. And yet I never go beyond the nursery-level auto mode. The one with a little green symbol, which says: “You might be the user, but you’re not in charge.”

Hours of fun

At least with my camera, I can use the easy setting. When I recently set up a new TV for my daughters, I naturally chose the idiot-proof mode. Clearly, I’m more of an idiot than the designers had in mind, as I quickly made a total hash of it. I then spent three hours down some mind-boggling technological wormhole – at the end of which, hallelujah, the TV worked! The only problem is I have no idea how. What I’d done was the button-pushing equivalent of hitting an old-fashioned TV until the picture stabilised.

It’s not just the devices either. It’s the software. Do you remember those early versions of Word and Excel? Where you knew what most of the symbols on the taskbar meant. No longer. I look at that Word taskbar now and I may as well be looking at the Rosetta Stone. 

  

Not that long ago, turning on a TV or using a phone was child’s play. Today, life is more complicated. Televisions come with encyclopedic manuals, phones are equipped with myriad, constantly changing features and computers are in a world of their own. As these everyday electronic devices become increasingly complicated, many users might feel that they are at fault for being unable to figure them out. Not so, as journalist and author Rhymer Rigby reports.​

Too much information

People used to complain about “bloatware” – software which sapped computers’ processing power and ate up storage space. But now storage and processing power are so cheap that this issue barely exists. Instead, we have such a surfeit of functionality that there are probably features in Word which only have a single user – or no user at all. And yet, I still feel as if I am somehow a lesser person, if I don’t have the latest phone/camera/software. I will reliably go for the version with “Pro” in the name, paying for capabilities I will never understand, let alone use.

I suppose Google offers some hope. I can always Google anything that I don’t understand – at least in theory. And Google Docs and Chromebooks don’t do much, which is clearly a positive. Likewise, Nokia’s new “old” 3310, which also sells itself on an appealing lack of features.

Where will it end?

However, I fear these are all mere speed bumps on the superhighway to greater complexity – soon, the Internet of Things will add cars, thermostats, fridges and, eventually, homes, to the long list of devices that virtually no one can either use or understand.

Looking back, people say that it became impossible to be a true polymath – someone who held the entirety of human knowledge in their grasp – around the beginning of the 18th century. Indeed, Andrew Robinson’s biography of the scientist Thomas Young (1773-1829), whose accomplishments covered language, physics and biology, is entitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. The modern equivalent may be the last man who knew how to work the TV 

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2017  |  Issue 32