Workshop Journal #4: The Technology Paradox – How I Wish My Car Was More Like a Vacuum Cleaner.

There’s a funny thing about company provided service vehicles – rarely do you get a say in what you end up with, that’s up to the fleet/purchasing manager after all. The one I ended up with would not have been my first choice of make and model, nor even my second, but somehow I have ended up with this tonne and a half of station-wagon packed with annoying, interventionist technology. It would seem then that for the next four years at least, me and this chunk of steel will have to learn to get along else it’s going to be a long quadrennial.

Why even complain? A company car is a company car, right? Yes, this is correct. The car is clean, safe and reliable and most importantly, fully costed and not a cent out of pocket for me.

However, my gripe is not about the fact that I had no input into what vehicle I ended up with, rather I’m critical of its factory features which seem to have been included with limited consideration for the end user experience.

The car follows the current state of design in general, a trend of seemingly trying to cram in as many new technologies and features into a product, regardless of whether it makes that product better or worse. In this example, most of this car’s features have made driving more demanding.

I used to think that what I was feeling towards new technologies and their complexities was simply a case of me growing older and becoming a ‘back in my day things used to be simpler’ old man. But as it turns out there is a term for this fundamentally poor design philosophy – the technology paradox. 

The technology paradox can be simply explained as the addition of technology to a product or design that makes the practical use of the product or design more complex rather than simpler. My new work car is good example, full of technology that makes driving so much more abrasive. 

Unfortunately, the technology paradox isn’t limited to the automotive industry, in fact it can be found wherever there are new products. Fridges now come with touch screens, internet connections, and electrochromic glass panels for instance. Do these features keep my veggies fresher for longer? Does it make my tasty cheese any tastier? Nope. All a well-designed fridge needs to do is keep my beer cold, the rest is just a gimmick.

There are of course wonderful examples of the integration of design and technology to make something genuinely brilliant. One of my most recent purchases for example is a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and it’s super. I’d go so far as to say, this piece of tech is better than the car.

It may seem odd that something designed for sucking up dust and bits of corn flakes is better than a safe and reliable automobile. But let me explain as the reason is simple: the Roomba conserves my own energy to use on more worthwhile things, but the car drains my energy.

At a glance, the Roomba is basically a set and forget item. It operates on a schedule, vacuums the whole house with incredible thoroughness, and can be automated further with Siri shortcuts should I want an even more intuitive cleaning experience. 

Compare this to the car. 

There is an IR face scanner built into the dash, called The Driver Monitoring System, it ‘keeps a watchful eye over the driver to help ensure their attention is focused on the road ahead’. But all it  really does is lecture me all the time about being distracted while driving, even though it (and the rest of the car) is in itself a massive distraction. 

The on-board, forward-facing cameras alert me to all the hazards that present themselves, even though they are not actually hazards but instead everyday objects that go along with driving: road signs, slight curves, etc. 

The cameras also read the speed limit signs, another great idea! When it works. And when it doesn’t, it proceeds to intrusively flash speed alerts on the head up display, convinced I am hooning around at well over the speed limit, even though I’m not.

But probably the worst part is the intrusiveness of the lane assist system where it actively fights against my own steering input. Its activation is signified with beeps, flashing red and yellow lights, and vibrations through the steering wheel and even counter-steering from the car’s onboard computer. It’s truly a horrible experience while driving that something is trying to wrestle control of the vehicle away from you. It’s borderline dangerous.

Well designed and incorporated tech should make an existing product simpler and easier to use. This new car of mine does the exact opposite. It embodies the technology paradox and makes it feel like it’s me versus the car.

Compare this to my Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner that I call Garbage Goober. Here’s an example of integrating tech and making something many times better than any existing product. 

The Roomba, affectionately known as Garbage Goober, in action.
The Roomba, affectionately known as Garbage Goober, in action.

It saves time by automatically vacuuming the floors daily when scheduled to. It does a far superior job than I ever will because it will keep going until every accessible area has been cleaned. It’s smart enough to sense walls and barriers, and then create a map of the house within its programming to ensure full coverage. 

Like the car, it too has a forward-facing camera system. This camera is actively scanning for the presence of dirt, going over the messier areas with additional passes to ensure all debris is collected. It doesn’t feel the need to lecture me on not keeping a tidy house.

It then drives itself back to the docking station and puts itself back on charge. All I need to do is tell it what time to vacuum and then empty the dust bin after each clean. 

If only the car was more like the vacuum cleaner, removing the mundane tasks from life and making the process simpler. Unfortunately, I get the impression that this manufacturer, along with all those making consumer items today, are in a never-ending arms race of how much tech they can pack into their products in an attempt to outdo their rivals. 

Honestly, I love innovation, but how much of it actually gets to the core of what is fundamentally good design? Technology by its very definition should reduce the need for human labour, whether physical or cognitive. The main design focus of so much of what is being brought to market now seems more concerned with being able to list an abundance of features on a brochure rather than simplifying and bettering the end user experience.

More Workshop Journals from the author:

#4: The Technology Paradox – How I Wish My Car Was More Like a Vacuum Cleaner

#3: The Partial Vacation

#2: The Cloud That Turned Into a Storm

#1: Good Tips for Making a Great Start

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Baden Jones
Baden Jones

Automation electrician by day, blogger by night – Captivated by technology and always busy tinkering away on something in the workshop.

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