Out of Touch

If a pilot had to use his stubby fingers to indicate on a screen where he wants to land, flights to Chicago would surely end up in Indianapolis or Lake Michigan.

Touchscreens tend to be oblivious to my commands. The ones I try to use always seem uncertain about whether anyone is actually present. This problem of not noticing me might show up on a self serve scanner at a grocery store, at an ATM, in my car, or maybe just an ordinary phone.

These screens make me feel like I’m knocking on doors that no one wants to answer. Maybe this what it is like to be ghosted by a machine. Or perhaps I’m slow to pick up some sort of cosmic cue that my number is up.  It’s also just a little demeaning to encounter a customer service robot that won’t talk to you.

My wife wonders why I don’t text more. She must be kidding. In my hands, pushing the crummy images of keys on a phone is the equivalent of trying to play an ‘air guitar’ louder.  It is no surprise that texting rates are higher with girls and women.  Their fingers come closest to fitting on the fake touch keyboards. I know a few guys who text. But I suspect farmers and men who do a lot of manual labor aren’t big on thumbing their way through a message.

Of course its all most younger users know. But they should at least consider the possibility that touchscreens are one of the least satisfying electronics “innovations” of our times. They seem to be used by manufacturers because it is cheaper to make a virtual switch than an authentic one. And since we think we need to carry a computer around in our pocket, a virtual keyboard is going to be part of the package.  But I would be happier if this this failure of electrical design and execution is not considered some sort of achievement.

Public touchscreens are even worse. Their smears accumulate from the fingers of countless others, meaning that we are picking up involuntary lab specimens of everyone who came before us. We might as well be kissing doorknobs.

The cooling and heating in one of our cars is controlled using a touchscreen, often giving us Phoenix heat when we would prefer mountain cool. A good new car will likely have real click-stop knobs for controlling temperatures and fans. In a word, they are ergonomic and much more satisfying to use.

All of this makes me wonder if the displays in airliners are touchscreens. We should hope not. The controls that matter in planes are probably real keypads, reliable switches or levers adjusted manually. If a pilot had to use his stubby index finger to indicate on a screen display where he wants to land, flights to Chicago would surely end up in Indianapolis or Lake Michigan.

A tech guy at National Public Radio describes my condition as “zombie fingers.” Somehow my digits aren’t producing enough of the tiny electrical field a screen needs in order to sense a command. The solution is apparently a “capacitive stylus,” a sharp tool that a person keeps with them that will generate the necessary electrical field. Think of it as a sharp pencil, and probably one that can easily be misplaced until someone has the misfortune of sitting on it.


The Problem of “Complications”

Every refinement of software also creates more decision points. And with so many to choose from, its easy to get lost in the weeds, forfeiting the task it was originally designed to facilitate. 

Apparently, some people collect new and extraordinary watches that are mostly cherished for their finish and uniqueness. A small cadre of watchmakers cater to this unusual and expensive form of collecting, building timepieces that are especially valuable for including a “complication” that increases their uniqueness.  For example, a watch that shows something less obvious than moon phases might be prized.

Collecting these rare pieces is clearly a hobby for the rich, but it is also and useful analogy for the evolution of a lot of modern data and communication systems that we all use.

The arc of software development seems irrevocable:  from practical and simple to complex and esoteric. The compulsion for complications supposedly gives users more power.  Everything from Android Auto to the latest version of Windows “does more” by adding refinements and that require relearning features once easily mastered. Surely there is now a wristwatch that can be set to periodically extend a little hammer than will tap its owner on the wrist. What an ingenious complication, and how useless. I tend to have that reaction for version 10.3 of software that was far more focused and user-friendly when it was just version 2.3.

Microsoft’s ubiquitous Word is a good example. I have used it for years.  But each new iteration seems to move it just a bit further from being an efficient writer’s tool. After eight books I still can’t claim that I’ve mastered the “auto” functions, page layout options, and probably a hundred other complications. The blue ribbon above this Word page that I am writing will let add diagrams, charts, SmartArt, icons, 3D models, pictures, word art, add-ins, cross references, equations, watermarks, and so on.  But, of course, all of these features have to be formatted as well. I’ve easily spent a day formatting a single picture for a book. If putting together a bespoke magazine is in your future, Word has you covered. It has evolved a long way from being a blank slate to conveniently lay down and edit language. The assumption seems to be that somebody somewhere must clearly be waiting for the chance to drop in emojis, crossed out words, color charts, “wingdings”–whatever they are–not to mention five different shades of pink for the text.

Here’s the point.  It’s worth remembering that every refinement of a software function also creates more decision points. And with so many additions, its easy to get lost in the weeds of formatting and forget the core necessity of focusing on language use. Technical choices can move the sideshow of software settings into the spotlight as the main event, making the invention of creative sentences just an ancillary act.  I’ve seen this a lot with my students: submissions elaborately designed and badly written.

What we may need is a new theory of devolutionary development in the study of organizations to account for what is happening. Our tools don’t necessarily get better over time; many complications make them more difficult to efficiently use. I’ve heard more than a few say its easier to hop in their old truck to run a quick errand  than the family’s new car, whose two computers are said now to hold 100 million lines of code. Again, it’s the idea that the car’s displays give us too many decision points. Who has time to keep eyes on the road when there are screens with scores of settings that invite adjustment?

There’s an older theory of “media convergence” that predicts the merging of old media forms into hybrids:  radio programming based on recordings, or the merging of video and film production, or films that play like video games, or the modern smart phone that functions as a computer. But sometimes the early iteration of something is best.  One way to account for the small renaissance in vinyl records is that they were made to do one thing pretty well. They play two audio tracks sitting on the nineteenth century tool of a record turntable.  Sometimes we want the purity of the simpler thing.