Digital drudgery

November 23, 2003|By Scott Dierdorf

BELLEVUE, Wash. - I know who you are.

You have a computer, maybe two. You have an iPod, or you lust after one. You don't just have broadband - you need it. You know the difference between WiFi and FireWire. You have a digital camera and a photo printer, and you use them. You know how much hard drive space you have left.

You're a technophile.

Computer companies need your money, advertisers need your eyeballs and neighbors need your help setting up their AOL account. You're uniquely positioned to understand and use the technologies that are coming to dominate our culture, and I'd like to ask you a question: is it worth it?

I've been asking this of myself lately, and a lot of the time the answer is "no." For example, I'm getting ready to write a novel. Here is my pre-novel to-do list:

Purchase laptop.

Install OS upgrade on laptop.

Install OS upgrade on desktop (to ensure compatibility for file sharing).

Make desktop images for laptop from digital pictures.

Fix problem with router.

Get wireless network up and running.

Make playlist for iPod.

Most people would spend some time preparing their story, characters, etc. I, on the other hand, decided to whip my personal computer lab into shape.

While I may be a little more insane than the average person, it's indicative of a general trend: Our digital lifestyle is drowning us in distractions. Computers add convenience, but it comes at a price. It's long been known that computers do not make us more productive. It's getting to the point now where they are starting to make us less productive, and radically so.

Given the current state of things, I'd say it's a miracle that any work ever gets done at all, by anyone. Would John Steinbeck have finished The Grapes of Wrath if he had to spend his time ferreting out the spyware on his computer? Would Ernest Hemingway have even started The Old Man and the Sea if he had been occupied with critical Windows security patches every two weeks?

Computers are great, but I want to use them. I don't want to waste my morning configuring my operating system. The Internet is great, too, but I want to use it. I don't want to spend 20 hours tweaking my DHCP settings. It's not because I can't. It's because I have better things to do with my time.

"Simple" user interfaces are no longer for the inexperienced. If we want to get any actual work done, our computers and peripherals must be made easier to use. From now on, our devices must require no setup and no maintenance. That sounds ridiculous, even to me, but why should it? Years of AUTOEXEC.BAT files and labyrinthine instruction manuals have convinced us that powerful devices require effort to use, but it doesn't have to be that way.

We are the most intelligent species ever to roam the planet. We've cured polio, mastered the atom and sent people into space. I'm confident that if we put our minds to it, we could develop a printer that doesn't require me to install a driver. It can be done. It's just a matter of doing it.

Want proof? Take a look at TiVo, the personal video recorder. Inside, TiVo is a Linux computer with a big hard drive. But on the outside, TiVo is something truly revolutionary - a computer appliance. The UI, or user interface - like the folders in Windows - is so well designed that once you pick up the remote, you forget that you're using a computer. From then on you're simply watching TV. The makers of TiVo have come closer than anyone to figuring out how to make technology a boon rather than a time sink.

We can hope that other companies will follow TiVo's lead, but it's not going to happen on its own. It is up to us as consumers to insist on it. Don't settle for the complicated; demand simplicity. Because none of us - technophile or not - has time to waste on more distractions.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a novel to write. First I'll need to make a playlist ...

Scott Dierdorf is a writer and technology professional.

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