Are We Too Slow For Our Shiny Fast Technology?

April 7, 2011

Okay, to get it out of the way, here’s my tech-cultural perspective: young enough to have had ATMs in my life pretty much forever, but old enough to remember a time when mechanical cash registers were being replaced by electronic machines, and to have worked in retail during the waning days of the “CHUNK-CHUNK” machine.  (Those of you who are old enough will know just what I mean.)

So I have some long perspective on the wonderful world of retail transactions.  And you know what?  I don’t think they’re any faster – either “on average” or “in absolute terms” – than they’ve ever been.

Antique Cash Register

Transacting it Old Skool

Not that I think that the whole monstrous apparatus of bar-code scanners, rewards cards, credit card swipers, and their partner devices in the back (electronic inventory, information gathering technology) were developed for the benefit of the consumer.  In fact, I am sure it wasn’t.  But it nevertheless never fails to amuse me to watch all of the ways humans manage to dawdle, hem, haw, fluff, dither, waver, meander, and generally fluck up the easiest of transactions, making them take far longer than – with the benefit of all this snappy modern technology – they could be.

Standing in line at Safeway this morning, behind a guy who’d had to stand in line for a minute or two before I got there.  Younger guy – late 20s, maybe – of seemingly normal intelligence, buying prepared food.  A speedy-looking kind of guy.  Convenience oriented.  Not your typical suspect for line-stoppage (you know, grandmas, frazzled moms with obstreperous kids, garrulous older guys).   

And yet, he stopped the line.  The new card swipers at my local Safeway – just installed a couple of weeks ago – were apparently different enough from other card swipers he’d encountered to throw him off his stride.

There are a lot of choices to make and buttons to push in order to navigate even the simplest of transactions using the Safeway card swiper technology.  If, like I do, you shop at Safeway regularly, you learn the system.  It took me a couple of times through the line to get the sequence of “Yes” – “No” – “Enter PIN” down exactly, so now I fly through the line.  Apparently the guy in front of me was in this same learning curve, because he spent a lot of time standing there, looking awkward, before glancing down at the swiper and realizing it was asking him to do more things.  Things that he didn’t realize he needed to do.  He’d already entered his PIN and accepted the amount to be charged, but there still remained a couple of screens.  Did he want cash back?  Did he want to donate money to a charity?

 These are tiny little changes, and not a big deal, but this sort of thing happens all the time.  And yes, people manage to slow things up even without new technology.  Who hasn’t tapped an irritated foot while the nitwit ahead of us inline has spent valuable nanoseconds digging for a checkbook, clawing in a change purse, entering information wrong, forgetting what day it is, or any of a host of other dithery, slapdash, disorganized, confused, irritating little analog behaviors that waste everyone’s time?  Thing is, wasn’t the new technology at the grocery store supposed to at least speed along the transactions with a plastic card?  And yet… it hasn’t.  Transaction times still don’t come even close to be as rapid as the technology would allow.  Everywhere you go, you find people struggling to keep up with the beeping, whirring, flashing electronic whirligigs that are supposed to be making things faster.

Ever stand in line at an ATM, and watch people haltingly navigate their way through the prompts?  They’re not stupid.  It’s the technology.  It is slowing them down.  Every ATM seems to be designed to be *just* that tiny bit different from every other ATM.  Deposit slots are in different places.  Enter buttons are sometimes available both as a touch screen option *and* as a real, green, button, on the lower control panel.  Questions change – you’re offered slightly different selections for where you want your money to come from – and do you want stamps with that? – and the sequence in which simple transactions are performed vary from one machine to the next.

And it’s not just financial transactions that are slowed by technology that should be speeding things up, and making the experience better. 

At work, I am constantly amazed by how poorly – how slowly, ineptly, and with what fear and trepidation – people use their technology.  And it isn’t just old people, like me.  It’s 20 year olds!  Folks who I am sure play a mean “Guitar Hero” and fritter away a good deal of their day on Facebook, but who simply don’t know how to work basic office stuff, like Outlook, or a local SharePoint site, or any of the relative complexities of Word and PowerPoint. 

Businesses keep buying the new software, upgrading to Office 2010, for instance, and the employees writing the memos and filing the documents and making the presentations are still working as if on typewriters.  Access databases are created would be better as a single page in an Excel workbook.  Assistants place calls – “Is Mr. Gesundheit available on Thursday at 2:00pm?” – rather than use Outlook to access the executive’s “free/busy” information.  Adobe can do amazing and marvelous things, and people are still making paper copies!  Fillable forms get printed out and filed in with ballpoint pen.  And I still get calls from people who can’t figure out an electronic filing system, make a table of contents in Word, or find the BIG RED “click here for more information!” button on the splash page of the new website.

Even with “fun” personal stuff, like cell phones and Facebook, there’s a lot of random hunting and pecking, embarrassed tittering about “hee hee – I never knew THAT was where you found it!” and general clueless stumbling around in the dark.  And who among us has ever really used ALL of the functionality that comes loaded into our myriad devices?  There are options I’ve never even explored – probably options I don’t know exist – on my current cell phone, and yet when I get a free one from my provider, I’ll probably “upgrade.”  Why?  Because the new phone will be new!  And shiny!

And I won’t have a clue how to work it for the first few days.  Just as I know that the next time I venture into a new retail establishment and wind up in front of a new card reader, I’ll probably stand there a minute or two with a perplexed look on my face, painfully aware that if I just knew where the right button was, I wouldn’t be holding up all those nice people behind me in line.

Maybe that’s because we haven’t gotten where we’re going yet.  The current state of the art is a vast sea of competing operating systems, devices, options, apps, controllers, and whatnots.  Maybe the tech world will move ineluctably toward an Apple-type model, with devices that talk to each other effortlessly, systems that everyone can use easily, with intuitive, voice-activated controls, interactive touch-screens that speak simple English (or Urdu or Greek or Farsi), give us directions that we can follow, and prompt us along the way.

If that’s going to be the case, I can’t wait.  Because right now, we all seem to waste an inordinate amount of time waiting for all sorts of transactions and deliverables that technology was supposed to be helping up to sort out.  Waiting for a call back, because Gemima just got a new cellie, and doesn’t have a clue how to work the voicemail.  Dithering around by the printer, waiting for the last copies of that crucial report, because your assistant can’t navigate his way around a print dialogue box, and the new printer isn’t helping.  Standing behind nitwits in lines that snake into the potato chip aisle, because every touchscreen card reader device is different from every other touchscreen card reader device, with prompts in a different order, the green “ENTER” button in a different location, and innovative sets of prompts (“Would you like to donate to Save the Sea Birds today?  Press 1.”) that are a moving target of variability and complexity.  Editing work done entirely by seat-of-the-pants workaround, done by someone who really thinks they KNOW PhotoShop.

Or maybe I’m right, and no matter how good the machines get, we really are too slow for our shiny fast technology.  Maybe there always will be a disconnect between the potential for lightning fast transactions, seamless data management, and coordinated on-line work and the reality of how slowly and inexpertly we humans can learn and navigate these systems.Since I am FAR from being a tech professional, I’d be really interested in hearing informed comments from folks who have a better insight.  In the meantime, I am waiting in line behind a bunch of people who are having trouble navigating the touch screen, reading a memo typed entirely in one cell of a table, and adorned with handwritten page numbers.  :o)

Fancy Schmancy

March 21, 2011

Pardon me for being a curmudgeon, but this revolting twaddle  from Fancy Feast just brings out the stabby in me.

Okay – the kitten is very cute against the plush green carpet.  More than that, I need a barf bag to say.

From the website: “Fancy Feast® cat food brings you The Engagement — Immerse yourself in the story of loving couple Sean and Lisa as they embrace a new kitten and a new page in their relationship. Fancy Feast® Gourmet Kitten Food – the best ingredient is love.”

I’m not even going to address the obvious, to wit – LOVE IS NOT AN INGREDIENT.  Salt is an ingredient.  Pork is an ingredient.  In some varieties of cat food, “Animal Fat Preserved with BHA” is an ingredient, as are “Propionic Acid” and “Dried Whey.”  I’ve never seen LOVE on the ingredient list of a can of cat food.

But this sort of lunatic flummery is par for the course for Fancy Feast.  Their ads are generally over-the-top and sick-making.  Remember the “To Enchant” campaign? 

Here’s a still, to which I say – seriously? 

Fancy Feast To Enchant

I like cats, too.... but WTF?

Folks, it’s a CAT.  It doesn’t get it.  It has NO IDEA what you’re feeding it, other than that it’s food.

The average cat has a brain that’s less than 2″ long and weighs a fraction more than an ounce.  Props to our furry friends, but I don’t think they have the processing power to be “enchanted” by a can of chicken by-products and cow sinew mash, or whatever this stuff is made of.

But I’m being naive here, a little bit on purpose.  Everyone knows that the ad isn’t selling things to the cat. (Right?  You know that, yes?)  And the clever marketeers who come up with these campaigns probably don’t believe that you, the credulous consumer, believe that your cat understands, or that the sales pitch is to the cat.   Still, they continue to churn this dribble out, knowing that they have the inside track to your deepest desires and your worst insecurities.  They’re playing us like limbic fiddles. 

And in “The Engagement,” the good folks at Fancy Feast have produced a campaign that ramps the brand’s stock-in-trade sticky schmaltzification of the cat/human relationship up to 11 by adding a layer of preposterousness and a dash of aspirational fuzzy-headed yearning.

Ladies – he is NEVER going to like your cat as much as he likes you.  Hell, your cat doesn’t even like you all that much.  You feed your cat and give it a nice warm place to live.  It puts up with your endless intrusive cuddles and baby talk, and in return, gets rewarded with plenty of schwag and chow and security — but rest assured, your cat would do just fine without you.   If you didn’t show up after work one day – and the door were left open – your cat wouldn’t even take a backward glance before slinking off into the nearest field or storm drain, where it would stalk mice and eat scraps and have a high old time living wild and free.  Would it miss the Fancy Feast?  Probably a little, for a day or two.  Then those mice would start tasting real good.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: Cat owners – suspect mostly the single, female, cat lady-type.  “Pet parents” (GROAN!).  Animal lovers – which these days isn’t just the description of a normal warm-hearted person who is generally positively inclined toward our fellow travelers, but instead indicates a very specific sub-species of  human.  And we all know who they are.

TECHNIQUE: Aspirational story-telling.  Sex.  Sex.  Cute kitties.  Guilt (because if you don’t feed your cat this particular brand of crap, you SUCK).  House-envy.  Also – sex.

THE BIG LIE: All of it, basically.  Your cat has no idea how much this costs, and doesn’t appreciate your having shelled out for it.

Buffoonus palinensis

March 20, 2011

Raymond J. Learsy, writing in the HuffingtonPost a few days ago, makes some solid points about the NEA, NEH, and Sarah Palin’s exasperatingly typical comments about both institutions.  I am solidly in agreement with him.  BUT:

Sarah Palin Looking Crazy

Buffoonus palinensis, in situ

As I read his piece and nodded my head sagely, it occured to me that “the humanities that helped shape our nation” story might be a bit of a tough sell these days.  The traditional Western canon has been under attack – rightly, in many ways – for years, as non-inclusive, exclusively white and Euro-centric and male.  Learsy would have done better to at least mention that the NEA and NEH fund new works – new artistic expressions from new voices, and research into the humanities, not just preservation of a dusty old canon in either case.

In our brave (and fast!) new world of modern technological wizardry, internet-driven everything, “the cloud” and the tweet, making an argument based on fusty tradition isn’t going to appeal, or make visceral sense, to many younger readers.  Adding a mention of the NEW work being funded by both institutions would have helped bolster Learsy’s otherwise reasoned and cogent argument with that demographic.

Sarah Palin, of course, remains a buffoon.

Barr vs. Palin

March 18, 2011

Interesting post by Jessica Grose on today. 

Roseanne Barr National Anthem

Team Roseanne!

I’ve been wondering if there’s a woman out there who can capture the popular imagination of females who have been rooting for Sarah Palin sort of by default – that is, the women who are drawn to Palin because they like her brass and they don’t see anyone else with whom they can more easily relate. 

I want to believe there’s a woman out there who is more progressive socially, more of a real feminist, can see through the Palin bullshit, and is currently positioned in popular culture to take the stage and redirect the conversation. 

Mind you, I’m a traditional leftie.  I am a union-supporting, feminist, small-s-socialist true believer in the Democrats – but I realize that I don’t represent the mainstream.  I just think that the mainstream is a lot more progressive and feminist and humanist than even they realize!

So, perhaps Roseanne is in the right place at the right time to spark the imagination of women who are only Palin supporting “Mama Grizzles” because they don’t see a real choice.   We shall see – I am staying tuned!

One question for you, Ms. Coulter…

March 18, 2011

If you found your evidence in the New York Times, how can you say that pro-radiation-exposure studies are not getting any press?  Isn’t it one or the other?

Ann Coulter

Is that your hand in my pocket, or are you happy to see me?

March 17, 2011
JP Morgan Chase Banner

Our New BFF, JP Morgan Chase

Huffington Post reports today that JP Morgan Chase (I’ve already blogged about this fine corporation once in the last two days) is testing ATM fees as high as $5.00 per transaction for non-customers.  Thanks a ton, Big Blobby Bankers.  Just as gas is heading toward $4.00 a gallon (and I know, we really can’t whine) and my groceries are starting to inch into nosebleed territory, the banks are starting with the new higher fees in order to recoup their “losses” due to a new crop of regulations designed to keep them from raping unwary consumers with grotesque overdraft – and other – fees.

Is it just me, or is anyone else getting really tired of this nonsense?

J.P. Morgan Chase is your new BFF

March 16, 2011

Or at least, that’s what they want to you think and feel.  Check out this remarkable ad – really a wonderful example of how a wolf can lull you by wearing sheep’s clothing.  In this case, the creative team has blended a cover of a charming Cat Stevens tune with the look of an Olde Tyme pop-up book. 

Have they foreclosed on your nice old Victorian place yet?

Have they foreclosed on your nice old Victorian place yet?

And what a lovely house!  Just like mine – not.  But oh, the sweet tinkly sounds of guitar are making me feel all warm and friendly.  And isn’t that voice-over soothing!

But wait – there’s more!  This gracious old home is located in a little town just like where we all live.  There’s Main Street – lots of parking in front of the mom ‘n’ pop shops, isn’t there?  And the movie theatre.  Jane and Billy go to the pictures there every weekend.  We love the art deco marquis – it’s much nicer than the movie palace in the next town over.

Is someone selling something to me?  No – the nice man is just telling me how my new BFF J.P. Morgan Chase is behind the economic “recovery.”  And how they’ll let you come back to them again, hat in hand, to be turned down for that small business loan a second time!  Won’t that be nice.  Bet they’ll serve you warm home-baked cookies.

And did you know that J.P. Morgan Chase is actually in the business of helping people save their homes?  It’s true!  The nice gravely-voiced man is telling you they’ll help you save your house when the mean foreclosure men knock at the door.  Wait – aren’t the mean foreclosure men employed by J.P. Morgan Chase?  Don’t think about that right now.  Listen to the lovely music.  Feel all warm and runny – and a little bit uplifted – by this global securities, investment and retail banking firm’s kind concern with you, the lowly consumer.  Best friends forever!