Technology Has Stopped Working: Information Technology for Consumers Has Lost Its Way

If air traffic control systems are anything like the information and communications technology sold to consumers today, call the airline and cancel your flight.

Surely you’ve noticed how PCs, laptops, cell phones, internet TV and GPS devices are turning into simple plastic rubbish?

We’ve reached a tipping point where communications gadgets have become so complex and fiddly that they’re almost useless. In the worst cases, they’re active obstacles to what the consumer wants to do.

Here’s a snapshot of communications technology at work around here in the last few weeks.

My printer stopped working for some unfathomable reason (no, it wasn’t out of ink, thanks for asking) so I went along to my neighbour’s house to print a document. When I arrived, he was on the phone to France Telecom/Orange’s customer service/technical helpline somwhere in North Africa. “It’s the TV” he said, in an aside. “The 150 TV chains in my new Orange internet TV package? None of them’s working.”

“Oh. OK.” I replied. “Can I just use your printer?”

“Sure” he said. “You can try. But it’s new. I doubt it’ll work. I tried it yesterday and it printed a page 13 times. I only wanted one copy. It wouldn’t stop when I pressed Cancel. Nothing stopped it. I turned it off and called the Technical Help people at Hewlett Packard. But they couldn’t help.”

He went back to the North African call.

I turned the printer on and a page promptly spieled out of it. I pressed Cancel to end the ‘operation’ but another page reeled out.

I gave up and said to him “I’ll ask the other neighbours.”

Outside I ran into Eliane, who told me her printer was working but the laptop wasn’t.

“Oh. OK” I said. “Have you noticed how many bits of communications technology don’t work these days?”

“No.” She looked thoughtful. Then she said “Are you going to the village today?”

“I can do. Why?”

“I want to invite you and [two American friends] to dinner tomorrow. But I can’t get hold of them. Their cell phone isn’t working.”

“OK” I said. “I’ll go by the place they’re staying.” [They’re here in France on holiday from Boston.]

“It has an electronic gate” Eliane told me. “You can’t get in without the code. D’you know it?”

“No.”

“You’ll have to call them then to let you in.”

“I can’t because” – in stereo she and I both said: “their cell phone’s not working.”

I drove to their place and sounded the horn on my car. Good reliable technology. You hit the thing and it blares out, just as it’s supposed to.

When I walked into their small villa, they were fiddling around with their laptop.

“Your cell phone’s not working” I said.

“Oh. OK.” They were more concerned about the laptop.

“We can’t make the WiFi connection work” they said.

We all fiddled around with the laptop, tapping in a five-thousand-digit code ten times, walking around with the machine, switching it on and off. No connection. The little WiFi symbol was there all right. There was definitely a WiFi connection to connect to. It just wouldn’t connect.

A noise and a flash came from my bag.

“What’s that?” they asked.

“My cell phone. I don’t know how to switch it off. Or rather, even though I switch it off, it still lights up and makes noises.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I’ve only used it once, when it was first given to me. It keeps telling me to do things I don’t want to do so I ignore it.”

We all looked a bit gloomy. Then we brightened up. “Let’s go to the market” I said. The thought of it was cheering. Fruit and vegetables, jars of honey, bottles of olive oil, a little open air bar selling red, white or pink wine by the glass. And not a pixel or a gigabyte to be seen. You pay with paper money and coins. You carry produce off in a straw bag. And you have non-virtual, real-time conversations with live human beings you can see and touch. Sounds too simple? Maybe it is but I like it. And it works.