Posted by Martyn Casserly 22 April 2014
Why our gadgets will kill us all: bleating notifications, too many chargers and the proliferation of free cloud storage
If you go back a few decades to a time when computers were the size of small countries, people had an optimistic view of the future. Films, books, and episodes of Tomorrow’s World described a utopia where robots would tend to our every need, and miniscule - barely wardrobe proportioned - PCs would automate dreary domestic chores. All that would be left for us to do was sip Campari by the pool, or teach ourselves COBOL as a leisurely way to pass the time. Well, we are now living in the world of tomorrow, and it seems that Maggie Philbin was a no-good liar.
Why our gadgets will kill us all: Notifications
Of course modern computers are amazing, mobile phones have transformed culture, and tablets are something akin to the ultrathin devices that Jean Luc Picard used onboard the Enterprise. This isn’t the problem...no, it’s the stress involved when we have to live with them that’s the issue. Take for example the simple notification. Once upon a time you’d get an email only if you were at your computer, with it dialled up to Compuserve or AOL, and a Joanna Lumley voice-alike would happily inform you of its arrival. It was civilised, deferential, and imbued a sense of control. This was only shattered on the moderately rare occasions when you’d been listening to a quietly recorded MP3 and forgotten to turn the PC speakers down, resulting in Miss Lumley shouting at you like a parade ground sergeant.
Now when an email arrives it sounds like an Xbox having a heart attack. Beeps, bings, and flashing lights report from several corners of the room, while not even the private sacracy of my front pocket remains unmolested, as a device inside vibrates with wild excitement. And it’s not just email. Facebook alerts, texts, What’s App missives, Twitter mentions, Facetime and Skype calls set off the cacophony at far more regular intervals than seems entirely necessary. In fact Skype has brought new levels of fear due to the fact that - up until very recently - multiple devices would ring to warn you of an incoming call, then when you answered one...some of the others continued ringing! It poses the question, who’s on the end of the line? Has Microsoft just ripped a hole in the space-time continuum? Has it teleported me into the middle of a Twilight Zone style story where I’ll answer another device and find myself talking to a version of me from a parallel universe? Will he know how to get Siri to understand a damn word I say?
Allied to the varied announcements, there then remains the task of clearing them all from the devices. Some will do it automatically, others will flash indignantly until you interact with it in some way. Apple is particularly unhelpful in this area as it refuses to add the simple Clear All option that Android has as standard. Oh no, not the easy way out for you my friend. You’ll have to go through and clear them manually. Maybe this is a training mode for its upcoming iWatch fitness device, or maybe it’s just a few unthinking designers who really have no idea how to build something properly? It’s not like I need more chores to do, as I already have my hands full trying to get everything to sync.
Why our gadgets will kill us all: Cloud Storage
Sure, things are much better now than they were in the past. Back then if you needed a file on your computer, then you pretty much had to be sitting at it. The internet has liberated our data, and for that I am very grateful. But there is a problem, mainly in that I’m British. You see there are so many cloud storage companies now who are only too willing to throw extravagant amounts of free space at you. This in itself is great, but I’m left feeling in someway indebted to them because of this, so I try to use them all. Well, it would be impolite not to. The truth is I don’t even have enough data to fill half the free storage I now possess, and I have very little clue what’s actually stored on any of them anyway. Looking for a file is becoming a challenge so daunting that I’ve actually taken to just keeping all the important things on my laptop, while inventing more and more elaborate ways to create data I don’t need that I can store on the cloud drives I never use because I can’t find anything due to all the random data.
Why our gadgets will kill us all: The Dance of the Sockets
All of these Sisyphean tasks bow the knee when the matter of charging points enters the fray. With the addition of every phone, laptop, tablet, smart watch, fitness tracker, or ebook reader into the house - be it for review or simply first-world avarice - the terrible dance of the sockets begins. Trying to calculate which device will be charged in time for another to slip in so that all will reach a state of optimum readiness without passive battery drain occurring, makes me feel like I’m living in a private version of the Crystal Maze. I'm genuinely amazed that Richard O'Brien hasn’t appeared at my door to invite me into the Dome and try my hand at catching as many gold flakes as possible in sixty seconds.
In short, it’s exhausting being at the beck and call of so many tiny masters. Now, some will say ‘just get rid of them, go off the grid, downsize’, but those words fall on deaf ears - most likely due to the sonic boom that just erupted thanks to a text message arriving. No, I may be under the thumb of technology but there is one thing that still keeps my ardour strong in the darkest hours. When my spirit is at its lowest ebb, and all seems futile and beyond repair, I can console myself with the knowledge that I was never married to Keith Chegwin. Take that Philbin.