machine-person interfacing (a case study on virtual chattels)

White microwaveTwo objects under discussion today which behave in exactly the same way.  The first is a white microwave of European proportions which we own.  I say of European proportions, because at least one American friend of mine has a microwave which looks more like an IMAX cinema screen than the kind of microwave I’m used to using!

Oh, and the photo was taken about half an hour ago; the clock reflects unfairly our time zone.


White washing-machineThe other object I’d like to draw your attention to is a washing-machine/dryer of medium-sized proportions.

It does its job rather well.

We’re very happy (touchwood!) with its performance.  In particular compared to the previous brand we had.

It even dries quite competently for a multi-use machine.

But the goal of today’s post isn’t to simply draw your attention to a couple of photos.  More importantly, it’s to describe how their design philosophies affect how I relate to them and feel about them.

Both appliances have acquired singular attitudes: and I’m not sure I really like the attitudes they’ve acquired.

Microwaves always had them, right from the start: when a heating-up cycle was finished, they would ping.

But washing-machines didn’t do this at first.  The one we now own – or perhaps I should say, which now owns us! – pings when it finishes a washing cycle, pings when it gets to the end of a dry, almost pings for practically any reason at all.

And as I’ve already said, you get the feeling they no longer belong to you but – rather – that you belong to them.

They – their designers – would say, I’m sure, that it’s all in the interests of the moderately forgetful souls we human beings are.  But I’m not sure: I’m more inclined to believe such processes encourage us to become even more forgetful than we were.

From Google search to GPS and satnavs, more and more we lose our facility to remember key data – in the absence of any need, that is, and in the presence of a total dependence on the gadgets which now remind us.

I woke up this morning wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to disable the pinging on the microwave.  I wanted to feel once more that this creature was mine, and that I was its lord instead of the other way round.  Of course, this seems unlikely, especially when stickers warn darkly of the dangers of opening white boxes in an unauthorised way.

So maybe we are stuck with progress as the designers conceptualise it.  But it doesn’t have to be that way surely.  As I remarked the other day in relation to Gmail, the consequences of not communicating our dissatisfaction with such decisions can be quite unhappy and frustrating for particular individuals.  Perhaps, then, we need to see if others think the same: gather together like-minded souls in some online environment or other in order to transmit our fears about the way designers are going.

If the Internet of Things does end up irreversible and inevitable, at the very least let us try to ensure we own it.

I’d hate, really hate, to think the future we’re bequeathing to our children’s generation involved converting them into virtual chattels.

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