Thinking Outside the Box

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
March 19, 2001

For almost as long as the average American has been alive, people have been driven nuts by the flashing "12:00" of their videocassette recorder's clock.

That flashing "12:00" has become a symbol of technology as tyranny, taunt, impotence, ignorance, intimidation, humiliation, stone in the shoe and pain in the butt. It stands for innovation created without humans in mind. Yet humans have grown to live with it. To expect it. To adjust themselves to the selfishness of these machines. Like sheep.

Consider the most recent twist of the knife. Some 25 years late, the electronics industry promised to solve the flashing-12:00 problem. Today, most new VCRs are supposed to seek out a broadcast time signal and set their own clocks.

Except when they don't.

"About three weeks ago, the time went precisely one hour ahead," reports Linda Busche of Logan Circle. "Then it set itself back to the right time. I walked in and said, 'Oh, it's gone back to the right time; wonder how that happened.' This past week, it's flipping out and is four or five hours behind. It's just weird."

In Stafford County, James Han's VCR "has developed a bad attitude. It would suddenly clear whatever time was shown, shut down and even turn off the power."

"Mine keeps giving me a message saying it couldn't find a channel with the time," says Anne McDonough of Alexandria. "My cable has 120 channels. It just doesn't make sense. Isn't technology wonderful?"

The future, say inventors at the bleeding edge, is ever-newer products that have not been tested, help desks that won't answer the phone, and manuals not written in recognizable English.

And that's just the way it will continue, the digerati ruefully acknowledge.

Forever.

Well, maybe not forever. "A couple of hundred years," says Danny Hillis, the Silicon Valley visionary who developed what is known as the massively parallel supercomputer. "This is not a normal state of human history. It's especially rough if you only live 80 years. But that's nothing in historical terms."

For more than three decades, computer power has been doubling and redoubling in a steep geometric curve, heading toward a 2030 in which savants believe processors will be as ubiquitous as light bulbs -- embedded in everything from earrings to soup cans -- and computers will be 1 million times more powerful than they are now. Yet users will still be cursing the whole overwhelming, gushing, surging lot, they say.

For this is a world fundamentally different from the 20th century. In that simpler age, older technologies -- cars, televisions -- might have been full of glitches when they first appeared. But eventually they reached a stable plateau of convenience and standardization. Improvements -- power windows, color programming -- caused new problems. But at some point an exemplar like the Honda Accord emerged as the symbol of a stable, mature, blooper-free product.

Such plateaus are no longer in sight -- for centuries.

For every innovation that has become an effortless part of people's lives -- the microwave oven, the fiber-tip pen -- there are hundreds of new technologies every year arriving faster than users can assimilate them or their makers can perfect them.

Now a line has been crossed. With gizmos mutating at wild rates, engineers love the endless stomach-churning ride of creating the firstest with the newest. They've dragged us along with them. We're climbing a slope of interlocking innovations so steep as to seem more like a cliff: Connections that won't, upgrades that can't, hot syncs that don't, standards that never are, wireless transmitters radiating who knows what, new seeds and life-forms burrowing in the ground and whisking through the air.

There will never be a safe plateau on which to rest and regroup in our lifetimes, these pundits say.

"Technology is treated as something that pushes us around rather than something we create," writes Internet pioneer Stewart Brand in "The Clock of the Long Now." "It's a bother, it's a boon, it's a discipline, it's a given."

Computer designer Hillis says, "What people mean by the word 'technology' is the stuff that doesn't really work yet."

Pandora's Toys

The plateau may not be the natural state modern minds think it is. Ancient myths have a lot to say about this dilemma.

Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire and crafts, which is to say technology. Tellingly enough, he was born lame. His greatest creation was Pandora. Hephaestus sent her -- at his father Zeus's request -- to plague mankind. She was beautiful. But she sought knowledge. So she opened up a box that had been entrusted to her. Out leapt the plethora of ills that afflict humanity. All that was left inside was hope.

Curiosity's unintended results continue to resound. The 19th-century philosopher William James noted: "All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods." James called our striving for success "the bitch-goddess."

Technological success is the bitch-goddess of the 21st century, Hillis says: "This will be the infinite tease. Since every new possibility creates more possibilities, we will always be in the position of having most of the possibilities unrealized. The shift will go from hardware to software to wetware -- mostly in biotech. Trial and error in biotech. Oh, yeah. You're already beginning to see it." (Think Frankenfoods.)

"You can't opt out" of this dance with the goddess, says Pamela McCorduck, an author on technology and society.

This dance promises great things and delivers frustration. A computer becomes a hole in the desk into which users pour time. The Help button is the most worthless one on the keyboard. Things never go right and it's always your fault. Nonetheless, these gadgets are invading everything. The Mercedes S-Class has 60 computers.

"No company exists that has said no thanks to technology," says McCorduck. "The New York City department of welfare believes its clients must have a telephone. This isn't really delusional. It's survival. Which is never a day at the beach."

'Impossible to Communicate'

A verbatim tale of sacrifice to the goddess:

"Back in August we started checking into a DSL line," e-mails Jean Broadway of Arlington, referring to the high-capacity Internet connection technology that, according to Gartner Dataquest, is doubling in home use every six months. "We found that Verizon couldn't provide one to us, but supposedly CapuNet could. I knew someone who used them and said it was great.

"So we started the process in September, finally getting the paperwork and faxing it to them in mid-October. Part of that slowness was us. But from then on it was all them.

"It was almost impossible to communicate with a real person, but through voice mail and e-mail, they said they could provide us with a DSL line. They said Verizon would have to come out and do some work on the line, and then a tech from Covad, some company that CapuNet gets to do their tech stuff, would come out and do the rest. So we waited and waited. Someone from Verizon was supposed to come out Election Day, but perhaps because the stars were so out of alignment that day they finally came on Friday. Said they'd done what they needed to do and left.

"Then I get an e-mail a few weeks later saying Verizon is coming out. I e-mailed that they'd already been out and why were they coming back? No response. This time they came a couple of days early and worked on the line and said they'd talked to Covad and tested it and it was fine. Then nothing at all from CapuNet or Covad.

"Finally, I got a hold of a real person at CapuNet and they checked and said, oh yeah I was too far away and they couldn't provide the service. Now why couldn't they tell me that in the first place? And when were they going to tell me?

"So now tomorrow we're supposed to get cable modem service installed. We'll see.

"My other 'favorite' story is about how we went out and bought a new computer in the middle of all the DSL mess (partly because the new computer processor would be faster, and partly because it already had the Ethernet card needed for DSL). So it had Windows Me, which wasn't getting along too well with AOL. Now, I really can't decide who my least favorite people in the world are -- Bill Gates or Steve Case -- but it seems that when Microsoft was developing Windows Me (Millennium Edition) they neglected to speak to AOL and the result was that the drivers and other stuff were incompatible, so there are lots of error messages. Fun!

"Of course, the error messages don't say something like 'Oops! We forgot to make our software compatible with AOL's, so sorry.' It's usually of the 'Fatal error message' sort -- your computer is going to crash and burn."

AOL wouldn't talk, but Microsoft said it is "aware of some incompatibility issues," is "committed to ensuring that customers have a great online experience," and some of it is AOL's fault.

Spokesmen for Verizon, Covad and CapuNet responded: "This technology has only been going on for two years; it will get better over time," and "DSL can be a complex installation; sounds like a lot of the technology that was supposed to work, didn't," and "success can't be guaranteed until installation is attempted."

Then they all groveled, and stressed their technology's fabulosity.

When it works.

The Queen Cried 'Faster!'

You can try to placate the goddess, to find your own private plateau, says Esther Dyson, the digital seer who is editor in chief of the revered industry newsletter Release 1.0.

"Don't upgrade all the time," she says. "If you've got something in the last three years, stop. It won't be leading-edge, but it will be working. In the end, the goal of any organization is not to be leading-edge, but to be effective.

"There's a fundamental conflict between the seller and the buyer of software. The buyer wants to make it work. The seller wants to make it half-work and improve it next year. The software business has an infinite capability for hype -- for digital tail fins."

Amazingly, she says, "I'm not expecting a backlash. This is more like an unhappy marriage than a divorce. The buyers and the sellers are locked in this persistent embrace. But consumers should slow down, and increase the amount of improvement they demand."

The problem with slowing down, says Hillis, is what he calls the Red Queen Dilemma.

In Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," Alice finds herself running faster and faster, hand in hand with the Red Queen. "The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. . . ."

"Still the Queen cried 'Faster! Faster!' and dragged her along." Finally they came to rest below the same tree under which they had started.

" 'Well, in our country,' said Alice, still panting a little, 'you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.'

" 'A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. 'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

The problem is that slowing down and keeping old gear means watching the rest of the world disappear over the horizon. A survey by Beloit College reveals that to college freshman today, bottle caps have always been screw-off and plastic. "You sound like a broken record" means nothing to them. They have never played Pac-Man or Pong, have always had an answering machine, have never seen a black-and-white television, or one with only 12 channels, have always had cable, have always had a VCR, would not have a clue how to use a typewriter, can't imagine what hard contact lenses are, and cannot fathom not having a remote control.

Washington to the Rescue?

To be sure, there is a tiny but growing host of consultants who want to believe they can beat the goddess.

The problem isn't a lack of understanding of the computer, says Avron Barr, a principal of Aldo Ventures, a Silicon Valley software industry strategy firm.

"Microsoft is among the best software shops on the planet," says Barr, "which is a frightening thought."

The problem, he says, is that software writers don't understand humans. "They still don't understand what kind of devices mothers would be able to use. Engineers want to make the neatest gizmo they can, as opposed to the simplest. So they put more tech in than mothers need."

Nobody actually sits down and watches a customer try to use this stuff, says Jakob Nielsen, author of "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity."

After enough planes crashed in the '50s, he points out, investigators stopped blaming it all on pilot error and insisted that designers start making cockpits easier to understand. You'd think we'd learn.

The enemy is us, says Alan Cooper, author of "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity."

"Technology is going to continue to get worse as long as the buying public buys without a squabble, without protest," he says. "The techies find it easy to hide their guilt. They say you have to be computer-literate. They're wrong. Computer literacy is an excuse for techies to say, 'I don't want to actually have to think this stuff through.' "

Maybe the answer -- gulp -- is Washington. Perhaps the only way to create plateaus is to mandate them.

That's what Jaron Lanier thinks. He's the computer scientist who invented the phrase "virtual reality."

There are three kinds of software, Lanier explains.

The first is engineering software. It's the kind you find flying an Airbus jet. It's quite reliable, because it's designed to make a predictable machine do predictable things like take off and land. Therefore it can be tested thoroughly.

The third kind is creative software. It is dreamed up by people who fancy themselves artists, to push the boundaries of the human experience. "Let's say you wanted to create software so that kids can make music by wiggling their nose," Lanier says. The program may be buggy as a July barbecue. But if it is sufficiently intriguing, people will put up with defects because the new experience is thrilling.

The second kind is in between. It includes all your everyday business software, from e-mail to checkbook manager. This is what drives us nuts, says Lanier. It never gets better, but it's not fun enough to be worth the endless hassles.

The market system is designed to reward whichever company pushes new stuff out the door first, observes Lanier. Waiting until you have a version that actually works is punished.

"Essentially, people are selling business software that is no more reliable than creative software," says Lanier. "It crashes all the time -- it's totally unpredictable. There's not sufficient benefit to justify that unreliability. If each new version of Windows offered incredible ways of enhancing our lives, then we'd accept bugginess. But the current system, left to its own devices, will lead to eternal crap. I don't see any force in the current system that creates motivation to give people not-crap."

Here's where Washington comes in, Lanier says.

"What we should say is that copyright, like access to the airwaves, is something that brings responsibility. The government should give you copyright. But in exchange, you owe me a buck if your software crashes.

"There'd be different legal categories of software. If you want to rush it to market, and have first-mover advantage and see what happens, fine. You could label it creative software. But much of your code will be open to the public."

If you want to build a business empire, however, and you want the government to throw itself into protecting your copyrights, in Lanier's scheme you would then have to label your product "firmware."

"If you see this thing is taking off, you have the right to say: This is no longer creative software. This is functional. This has utility.

"But once you do that, you owe me a buck every time it crashes."

And the powers of Washington's enforcement tentacles would hound buggy software writers to the ends of the Earth.

"Instead of hunting down people who smoke pot, they'd be hunting down people who sell business software that crashes. They'd owe people a buck or go to jail. That's what Washington should be doing."

Need It and Weep

Michael Dertouzos is positive that techno-civilization will eventually plateau. He really is. He's the director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT and the author of the new book "The Unfinished Revolution: Human- Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us." His hope is all the more formidable because he believes that "if we have one ton of complex, frustrating, tear-inducing technology right now, we'll have 10 tons of manure within 10 years. I kneel regularly and cry."

So why then is he an optimist?

Well, he deadpans, "because I am a Greek. And an American."

More to the point, he hopes a host of human-friendly design technologies are headed our way. Maybe they'll bring the machine to us, rather than us to the machine.

Like how?

Voice recognition is a big one, he says.

Really?

Yeah, we've got stuff in the lab right now. Runs on a cheap desktop. As long as you keep your question narrow -- like asking for the weather -- it works great, he says.

What's an example?

Well, he said, the other day he wanted his computer to shut itself off. He said to it, "Goodbye."

So what happened?

Ah, well, it's still a laboratory system, he explains.

It still needs a little work.

So what happened?

It responded by giving him the weather in Dubai.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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