The other night I had a lively conversation about remote controls with a neighbor, Lynn. Lynn is a college professor, a spry woman in her 50s, and a self-described technophobe. She was complaining about how hard it is to use the TV she and her husband recently bought. Her husband, by the way, is a technophile. Last time I visited their house, his office had three computers and all kinds of half-working gadgets strewn about.
Lynn and her husband are Netflix subscribers, and they love watching movies after dinner. But as soon as she gets into the living room and sees the five remote controls strewn across tables and chairs, she’s petrified. She calls for help and suddenly no one is around. The room gets cold and dark. She wants to hide under the sofa. The whole system is a monster: Sometimes she can get the DVD to come up, after a half hour coordinated attack on the remotes, but there’s no sound. Another half hour to get the sound working. Once she sees the DVD on the screen and has sound, it takes a few more minutes to get past the main menu. And after she’s finished watching something, she can never get back to the cable channels. She got frustrated just describing this process to me—so it must be making her very upset.
She and her husband have a standard model TV they bought last year—a middle-of-the-road Samsung flat panel. Their DVD player, sound system, and VCR are all midrange models that you’d find at any electronics store. So why is it that in 2009 we still can’t make a television and DVD player that just about anyone can connect and use? Lynn isn’t the only one with this problem, I’m sure of that. Most people over 50 are baffled by their entertainment systems. I understand that home theater buffs want extreme versatility. But most people are not home theater buffs, nor are they looking for frustration when they turn on the TV.
Lynn’s TV has tiny buttons along the bottom, and she needs a magnifying glass and a flashlight to figure out how to turn up the volume. Why is she drawn to the buttons on the TV instead of the remote? There are at least three reasons. One, finding and using the right remote is annoying. Two, she’s going to need the magnifying glass for the remote, too, so why not go directly to the source? Three, and most importantly, she hates the idea of remotes in the first place. And in order to explain why, we have to take a step back.
Lynn recalled that many years ago, her grandmother refused to switch from a rotary to a touch tone phone. Lynn thought this was ridiculous, and she told herself she’d never be such a luddite when she got older—she would navigate new technologies gracefully. Putting Lynn’s failure to keep that promise (through no fault of her own) aside for a moment, why might her grandmother have preferred rotary? After all, rotary is much slower than touch tone, and what could be easier than pressing a button? Lynn guessed that because her grandmother’s generation centered around the mechanical part of the 20th century, they saw the rotary dial as a way of physically acting upon the telephone system. They relied on physical affordances. Lynn’s grandmother wanted to physically tug on the phone system itself in order to complete her call, because that was the metaphor, and if there was no labor involved here, then nothing was actually happening. The idea of touch tone broke her entire mental model of the phone system, and it dampened the romance of a phone call. Given how remarkable the telephone is, it kind of makes sense that you should have to do a little work (and pay a hefty rate) in order to connect to your loved ones far away.
The satisfying thing about mechanical tools is that they feel like an extension of your body. Think of cars with manual transmissions vs. automatic. By automating the system of gears, by removing the human from physically acting on the transmission system, we also remove a primal sensory experience. People who spend all day riding bicycles around town love fixed-gear bikes—which don’t coast and have only one gear—precisely for the same reason: there is a deeper sensory connection, the bike is truly an extension of the body. The body feels bigger.
We seem to have a deep sense of connection to our tools if they are simple enough. As hunters and gatherers, we used weapons, and the people who could really become one with their hunting weapons survived. Mechanical tools like the rotary phone tap into the exact same body sense. I’m arguing here that Lynn’s grandmother’s desire to use the rotary phone wasn’t just because of habit or culture, it was in part a primal desire for the mechanical experience.
If that’s true, then all great man-machine interfaces, physical or virtual, should take advantage of this mechanical sense. Our bodies want to “dial” phone numbers or “turn up” the volume. The manipulation is so clear and direct. Lynn’s TV remote, on the other hand, piles one abstraction (wirelessness) onto another (“pushing” the volume up) onto another (virtually “switching” between DVD and TV mode), and she freaks out.
People want to physically act upon the worlds using the most direct manipulator available: their bodies. In his diary, Brian Eno said, “Computers need more Africa in them,” and I think that’s finally starting to happen. For thousands of years, we had purely mechanical technologies and we refined our tools in service to our innate mechanical sensitivity. In the last 40-50 years we have abstracted and flattened our tools, and technology really traded away its soul. Today, I think things are finally getting small enough and smart enough that we can bring the soul back, thoughtfully merging mechanical and digital. And who knows—maybe in the future, when we are all seamless cyborgs, Lynn will finally be able to turn on a movie without going nuts.