One of my greatest frustrations in life is getting consistently held back from achieving my goals because I have to muck around with technology. I am talking about all that icky, gooey time-wasting tekkie stuff that permeates daily life and holds you back from enjoying your day. I call this "technosludge".
The promised land of good intentions
Technology—or rather those who try to sell it to us—promises us ease and simplicity, a better life. As an engineer, I learn science and technology, I learn how to apply science and technology to solve problems, and I develop systems that help people solve problems, all in an attempt to make the world a better place. I don't mean to push things on people that they don't want: I have a genuine intention of helping. I believe that most engineers, technicians, and scientists do as well.
Incremental side effects
Even the most flawless of apps and the highest-quality devices have an unintended consequence: each adds another "thing" to our daily lives. Regardless of its benefits, it is one more thing to manage, care for, maintain, stock, repair. It is one more thing to pay for, to know, to hold in your brain, to weigh on your shoulders. Of course, the flawfull ones require even more attention, time, energy, and often money.
An app here and there or a new device every once in a while does not result in a massive change, but there is a change, however small or incremental. In most cases, the benefits of the shiny new thing far outweigh the costs, so we don't think twice about our new acquisition or the tiny extra weight it adds to our daily lives.
The accumulation of unintended consequences
The accumulation of these tiny changes can have a massive effect over time, which can be indirect and unforeseen. The impact can even cause us to reorganize our society over time.
I can easily imagine that people in the early 1900s were originally interested in the Ford Model T because they believed that it would improve their lives. It would allow them to move quicker and do more. It would make their lives more convenient and enjoyable.
I doubt that when the automobile was first introduced, people could foresee that it would have such a profound impact on society, transforming the way we live, work, and interact with each other, and shaping their physical and cultural landscape. Surely no one could predict that it would cause us to organize our entire lives around our cherished vehicles. We built new cities, suburbs, bedroom communities. We sit in traffic jams and circle endlessly looking for a parking space. One vehicle is fine, but too many vehicles creates chaos, stress, productivity loss, and frustration. I have not even mentioned anything about the environment.
Similarly, information technologies are having a profound influence, some of which is unintended and adverse. One of the nefarious side-effects is technosludge. For many, it is no longer possible to get through the day without being frustrated by technology.
More and more technology is being introduced into our daily lives. I list but a few examples below.
Memberships are an obvious technology creep.
It all started with membership cards. To get a discount at a retail store, you had to provide your personal information in exchange for a card. I recall that at the time of purchase, the cashier would scan the barcode on my card and I would magically get a 5% discount. I used to carry around a separate wallet just for all my membership cards. My card wallet grew to the point where it was several times larger than my money wallet. I had to have a filing system just to dig out the right card. Inconvenient, yes, but 5% was well worth the trouble. 👍🏻
We are exiting the age of membership cards, and entering the age of membership apps. Now instead of cards, almost any store, brand, or cause worth its salt seems to have a branded app. I am happy to be rid of my extra wallet, but now I have to manage a library of (mostly useless) apps. Oh, and now I only get 1%. 🤷🏻♂️
There's an app for that
It's not just memberships that have apps. Today, there is an app for pretty much everything. Any device I own now comes with an app. Anything I want to do or know has an app. For my son, I need an app for school, and an app for each sport or activity that he does.
I stopped receiving notifications on my phone because it is too distracting. Instead, my morning routine is to circle through a large number of "important" apps to check for new messages. I have to spend 10~15 minutes each morning doing this. When I forget to check, it usually means that my son misses a field trip or an extra practice.
In the rare case I don't need an app, I often still need an account, which I would register for on some website. Sure, it means one less app to install, but I still need an account. Whether via an app or a website, I need accounts for everything, even the simplest of things.
Yesterday, I tried to scan a document on a new device. Before I could scan, I was required to open up a new account with the printer company. I found that to be quite inconvenient and time-consuming, but more disturbingly, extremely intrusive.
Where did all the sales people go?
Nowadays, it seems that us consumers are expected to be experts in everything. I remember the days when we could just walk up to a knowledgeable sales person and, heaven forbid, ask questions. Now, most stores seem to expect self-service. The other day in a large retail store, I had to use a QR code to look up product information on a website with my phone. The website included all the various parameters of the product, and detailed comparisons with other, similar products. When we need to look up information ourselves,compare products, and make the right choice, this requires knowledge and understanding, and is time and energy consuming. The burden has shifted from sales people to the buyers. From the time I scanned the QR code, it took me 15 minutes to make a decision that would have taken me 3 minutes in the past. And I was still unsure of my choice.
Back when I didn't value my time as much, I would have found this type of activity interesting and even liberating. Now, not so much. I have specific objectives I want to accomplish, so I don't want to have to invest so much time shopping for a product that I'll only use once or twice a year.
I also recall the days when I could pick up the phone to talk to actual people, who actually had useful information to give me. For instance, when I had an issue with a product or service, I would talk to a person who would help me get everything sorted out.
Today, when I am in need of support, after I have exhausted my search on the website, and have somehow managed to find the easter egg hidden away 10 levels down that reveals the support telephone number, I am connected to an automated system. If the system is older generation, it will be a "dumb" IVR system and I will be instructed to press 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 (but usually # because I already forget what 1 represents). If the system is newer, it will be an advanced AI agent that repeatedly and condescendingly scoffs that it is not able to understand my reply.
These days, my words of choice are "I want to speak to a person." I find that if I keep repeating this phrase, either the system will hang up on me, or it will actually transfer me to person (after holding for 15 minutes of course).
The problem with too much tech
Installing yet another app necessitates time, another password, and more resources consumed on my phone. It requires me to remember yet more useless stuff. I have to at best remember that the app exists, at worst remember another username and password, along with the quirks of the app and where to even find it on my cluttered home screen. Now with 2FA, I cannot do anything without my phone.
Too much tech creates a million points of potential failure. Rare is the day when I am not distracted from my goals to deal with an outdated app, a device that won't function, an account that I cannot sign in to.
When I need to urgently send a message, I have to wait 20 minutes for an unexpected software update, only to find that the update has broken something else.
Too much tech also means more attack vectors for bad actors. Not only do I have to remember loads of useless things because of technology creep, I have to take great care not to expose myself to increasingly sophisticated security risks.
All this requires knowledge, memory, energy, and time, despite the fact that these are limited resources.
Some of my family and friends suggest quitting all together. There are books that vaunt minimalism, how to be ruthlessly selective by eliminating all apps and other distractions.
Perhaps this is possible, but it is only a band-aid solution. It's like saying "don't eat junk food" when junk food is the only affordable option for many people. The problem is less about how people choose, and more about the system itself.
As a technologist, I cannot avoid technology. As somebody with ambitions, I have a number of goals I want to achieve in a day. I rely on technology to make me productive.
In the morning when I set out to do X, I often never get there because of all the technosludge.
Refrain from change?
Technology should help us adapt to change, but ironically, that seems not to be the case. My technology only works well for me if I don’t change anything. When I attempt to make a change, things go wrong, and usually unexpected things.
I just tried to print a document, but the printer wouldn’t connect because the number of devices the router accepts is limited. So now I have to consider: do I buy a new router (opening up a whole new set of decisions to make), or do I find a temporary fix (like shutting down a different device)? I just want to print my 🤬 document!
Should I have refrained from adding a new device? Or should I give up on printing all together?
What is the solution? Why, more technology of course. What could possibly go wrong?
If I were somebody without specific objectives perhaps I would be intrigued and entertained. I am an engineer, and I do like solving problems. However, these are incidental and disruptive problems that distract me from my goals, which is the very definition of frustration. I don't think this is what Silicon Valley has in mind when they talk about "disrputive" technology.
Subjectively, I would say that my techno frustration is the greatest of all the various frustrations I have experienced throughout my life.
To get anything done these days I almost need a full-time person working for me just to overcome all the technosludge.
This is when I start I wonder if AI could be the solution. 🤔