Technology as enabler — and betrayer

“Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps. One day, I know, I must smash the emerald.”
Sandman by Neil Gaiman

There is an old saying: “When you look for ideas for improvements, look where people have attached post-its to existing solutions. This shows you where the current solutions fall short.”

Okay, probably not that old, given that Post-Its were introduced in 1980. But still, good advice. It’s astonishing how technology that is so advanced, anyone prior to 1492 would probably see it as magic, can fail so miserably in some respects. Technology that was inconceivable in the middle ages has bugs that are worse than fleas carrying Yersinia pestis. Okay, provided you have access to antibiotics. And of course, fleas aren’t bugs.

Anyway, sometimes I wish developers would build a little bit more flexibility in existing products. A bit more control for those who want it. Two recent issues come to mind.

1. After the latest update, vlc for iPad (3) doesn’t play sound anymore. Given that I am not deaf, I switched to GoodReader. Unfortunately, GoodReader shows the top bar even in fullscreen. I didn’t found a way to deactivate it. So, I used the equivalent of a post-it by wrapping my sleep mask on my iPad. Worked very well. The bulk of the mask is behind the iPad, the band is enough to cover the bar.

2. I recently started using a motion tracker app (24/7 by MotionX) that has a lot of interesting functions (heart rate, step counter, sleep monitoring, records snoring, etc.). Unfortunately, iOS itself provides me with an obnoxious message to get me to activate Wi-Fi for improved localization. This message seems to appear each time after I deactivated Wi-Fi and switched to this App. Given that I do not want to spy for Apple and go through the streets with an activated Wi-Fi, yet, I need it at work, it appears 1-2 times each and every day. To tell me something 1) I know, 2) I don’t care about, and 3) interrupts my workflow.

And sure, these are first-world problems, but seriously? When you start using the band of a sleep mask to hide a status bar that distracts from a video? Or when you get the same obnoxious message each time you deactivate WiFi and switch to an App that uses locations services? Something is wrong.

In the first case it might have been an oversight that the status bar is still visible, but in the second case it looks like the goals of the company are more important than the mental peace of the users. Apple “nudges” users in having their Wi-Fi activated 24/7, which in turn provides Apple with Wi-Fi maps where ever the user is. It makes users to spies for a company that has shown that it places their interests over those of their users.

It’s disturbing, because technology should support human beings. Of course, it is no replacement for meaning, for an agenda. On the contrary, it can give you the illusion of progress, of doing something that has meaning for the moment, yet is pointless in the long run. But for those with an agenda technology can become an enabler, a catalyst, unlike anything we ever had.

Now I just wish technology would actually serve the agenda of its immediate user — and not the agenda of (advertising) companies. At the moment the situation is close to the line beyond which I’m willing to destroy an incredible tool to get out of its trap.