Today I was walking to the bus stop and fiddling with my Galaxy 4, which I love almost as much as life itself, trying to get it to play NPR’s Morning Edition. Even though I do love my Galaxy, I have this beef against it: I can do everything from locating myself on GPS with an accuracy of 10 feet to playing NetFlix just about anywhere I go. If I wanted to I could use my Galaxy as a TV remote control, garage door opener, and home security system monitor. The options are endless. But one thing I can’t do with it is just listen to the radio.
When I get in my car I can turn on the radio in about 2 seconds and experience the instant gratification of Steve Inskeep’s reassuring voice. That’s some pretty efficient old school technology. But in my state of the art data phone I have to fiddle through several screens at NPR and then find a station that is playing the program program, wait for it so start streaming, wonder if it’s working, suffer through intermittent streaming hiccups, etc. How could this be so advanced and still go so wrong?
You might want to interrupt at this point and note, as Samsung has, that streaming is the way of the future and that most people listen to the radio via the web these days, so who cares about actual radio waves? But I think if you said this, you would be guilty of some slightly wrong headed thinking about innovation. I am a very practical person and I am more interested in doing what I want to do as easily as possible than in some airy theory about what the way of the future is. What I am learning more and more is that just because something is the latest and the greatest, it does not necessarily mean that it simplifies my life. Often the case is the opposite. Now, it may be that even if our lives are sometimes complicated by innovation the net gain is nevertheless greater. I may not be able to listen to the radio, but I can watch my favorite episodes of The Regular Show while I’m waiting for my bus. Maybe that’s a legit trade off. Fair enough.
Still… Why do I have to choose? Why not have it all? Why can’t I have both the radio and Netflix?
Back to my morning commute. As I’m waiting for the bus NPR starts a segment on innovation. A recent study shows that companies which innovate the most tend to have a younger workforce. No surprise there. But the analysis went on to caution that not necessarily every successful business model needs innovation at its core in order to succeed. I thought, ok. That seems balanced and apropos of my little tiff with Samsung.
Here comes the bus and I get on while listening to the innovation segment. I go to drop my handful of coins into the ticketing machine that usually sits by the driver and I am suddenly perplexed. It’s gone. Behold! A new ticketing machine has materialized. It’s smaller, trendier, slicker. But for a second I panic. I don’t see a slot for coins. Have they dropped coinage support? Is it just bit-coins now to get on the bus? Understand, the vast majority of my fellow bus riders use swipe cards. I’m lazy and never get around to buying one. I’m always hunting around the house for coinage minutes before I have to run out the door. So it would come as no surprise if coins were no longer supported on Bus Ticketing Machine 2.0.
The driver comes to my rescue and points to a very small opening in the new machine. Hum… coins have definitely been demoted. I’ll say that. So I drop my handful (2 quarters, 4 dimes, 1 nickle and 5 pennies) and they immediately get stuck. What?! The driver helps me and it takes several tries to get them through. At this point I make a attempt at humor, to the effect that “It’s new, so it doesn’t work.” Such the cynic, I.
But the driver is all about the innovation. He tells me, in front a bus full of passengers, that this is actually a very sophisticated machine. It analyzes the metal of each coin. NPR innovation is still spinning out in my earphone. I make noises to the effect that this is really something. But inside I’m thinking: It analyses the metal of each coin, but it can’t handle actual coin intake. The striking thing about the new bus coinage receptacle is that the creator of this device obviously spent a lot of time on coins. But they only spent it on a new neato coin functionality, not on the practical side of coin reception. I can imagine testers politely inserting single coins into the slot while marveling at the metallic composition readout. And can just ask why anyone would want this sort of information? Is it to stop the wave of counterfeit pennies that has hit our country? And bus ticketing machines are the most popular way to launder them?
Stories like this could be multiplied across many different areas of life and types of technology: software upgrades that make users pine for the good old days, all encompassing technical solutions that miss the most basic functions, powerful new ideas that no one uses because they are are too complicated. It all comes down to poorly thought through innovation that does not unambiguously improve our daily experience.
Let me be absolutely clear about this: I’m all about innovation. My complaint is not that innovation is different or that I don’t like change or whatever. I love innovations that improve my life. But I think that at this point in the history of technology we are seeing a lot of sloppy innovation, and some babies are getting thrown out with their bathwater. The best innovations build on the successes of the past and they improve our lives ambiguously.