Taming your tech
The simple approach to taking the bite out of unfriendly devices
Before you throw that PC out the window, Kent Norman suggests you find an old keyboard, take it into the backyard, and happily whack away. He prefers a heavy ax, but a sledgehammer will do. "We're buffeted with technology stress like never before, from the time we try to silence the alarm clock in the morning to when we struggle to set it at night," says the cognitive psychologist at the University of Maryland. It's best to vent, Norman counsels.
More and more, it seems, the same tech tools we depend on to get through the day are often the source of our frustrations. Gadgets have gotten better: They do more, are smaller, and cost less. But they don't work quite the way we want them too, do they? Text-messaging and camera-phone features that obscure access to your voice mail. Camcorder batteries that die in the middle of your sister's wedding. The sick PC that sends copies of its virus to everyone in your E-mail address book.
But there is reason for renewed hope. More companies are discovering that one key to reining in unruly tech is simplicity itself; that is, less is actually more. A few years ago, it seemed only a sprinkling of companies offered products that in their design emphasized ease of use and dependability over frilly, rarely used features. Now analysts report that whole industries--among them cellphones, consumer electronics, and, yes, even computers--seem to be shifting back to basics, with a few companies taking the lead. The downside to this switch for now is that simplicity and reliability oddly enough tend to cost extra. An Apple Macintosh, widely considered user-friendly, costs at least several hundred dollars more than a Windows-based PC. Verizon Wireless, rated by many the most reliable cellphone service, generally costs more than Sprint, Cingular, or T-Mobile. But that effective surcharge could fade if brand loyalty surges for companies that prioritize efficient, friendly design.
The myth. So how did we go from the days of small, color TV s and bricklike mobile phones to high-definition home theaters and smart phones that are too clever by half? The blame for the personal tech mess goes both ways. Companies are eager to crank out new products with new features. It's a quick way to get attention, distancing a product from competitors and dusting upstarts in a cutthroat arena. Shoppers, meanwhile, are routinely seduced by the new bells and whistles. Consumer electronics tend to be among the more expensive purchases people make during the year, so why not get the gizmo that does more? "We're all trapped in an economic myth that more is better," says John Maeda, a media arts and sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Then you get that digital camcorder home and realize the built-in still camera you paid extra for doesn't take good pictures, says Abrasha Staszewski, a San Francisco jewelry artist. His Sony videocam also comes with editing features that are too awkward to be practical. "It's like we're all learning to live with a limp," says Staszewski. "You feel like you're paying for all these things that you don't use." Or can't use because they're misbehaving. Haddon Fisher's Motorola phone locks up a couple of times a day, says the Syracuse University sophomore. He has also had to put up with a PC that would spontaneously reboot while he slept or attended class. "You learn to live with a certain level of pain," he says. Such vexations, repeated across the country, have eroded confidence in tech manufacturers. A recent survey conducted for Royal Philips Electronics found that two thirds of American consumers have lost interest in a tech product because it looks too complex--and half think the manufacturers are just guessing at what will sell, rather than listening to their customers.