Complex solutions for simple problems


I went to the restroom at the Ventura mall on Friday. Never mind that I was in a mall. (You will never find a more wretched hive of greed and superficiality). The point of this story is elsewhere. More specifically, in the restroom. Like many commercial restrooms everything there was automatic–the urinal, the faucet, the soap dispenser, and the towel dispenser. Everything.

The problem was, the faucet and the soap dispenser were broken. I waved my hand like a crazy person in front of the sensors for the faucet and the dispenser. Nothing.

Frustrating, yes. Annoying, yes. Unsanitary, most definitely. Technologically questionable, also yes.

When an older faucet or dispenser broke the fix was mechanical, which meant even I could get it up and working again. A trip to the local hardware store and boom! Sir Fix-a-lot (yours truly) conquers another DIY dragon. With the new hardware the issue is digital, which means that pretty much no one can fix it. Yours truly doesn’t even know where to start.

This issue has several dimensions to me: epistemological (are we designing ourselves into an epistemological corner where a tiny percentage of people will be qualified to repair these items?); ecological (is this a good use of very limited resources—such as rare earth minerals?); complexity theory (as things become more complex do they become more inefficient?); and practical (how do we fix these items in a timely manner?). I can envision a time when people won’t be able to do the easiest of tasks, like changing the spark plugs in their…oh, wait, never mind.

Seriously, why are we spending time and energy making simple things more complex? Unfortunately, it seems more like a fascination with gadgetry than a valuable contribution to our future. That’s my half pence, at least.

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