Amerika

Design and dysfunction

Like many microwaves, ours is not new or old.

It fits in the comfortable middle that we normally exclude from our thinking, between the extremes to the point where we feel uneasy about assigning it either trait. It certainly isn’t old, but in the intervening seven years, many newer models have emerged.

The newer vintage remains unknown to me and I hope they have fixed the problems I describe. But remembering seven years ago, and in fact all the microwaves I have known, one salient fact sticks out: none of them have a volume control, but all of them announce every act with loud beeps.

If you need to use this microwave at night, while a partner sleeps in the next room over, you are out of luck. It beeps with every key press; it beeps when it is done, three times (and once if you hit a key to cancel it at one second remaining). These beeps are piercing and loud. There is no way to turn them off.

What is most alarming about this is that the microwave was obviously designed for an absolute context, like a kind of laboratory afterlife, in which it is used in a single idealized way. Someone comes into the room, uses to to cook food, and leaves. Consequences and side-effects are ignored.

Our industry has wisely expanded its study of interface, but this problem is at a level below interface. The problem is not an interface; it’s an assumption about the use of this microwave. That assumption is that it is only used in a single idealized context.

This assumption parallels many of the assumptions we make about life. That an average person exists. That some values are universal. That we are all the same under the skin. That in a complex world, we can assign moral values to method and not have it hamstring our accomplishment of goals.

Through this morass of religious assumptions about the nature of reality that deny its complexity and make it essentially a projection of the human mind, the microwave ends up being designed by committee. They have good intentions. They project what they want to be true and design on that basis.

Eventually the end result emerges. A microwave is designed not based on what is right, which in my use means what is natural and realistic, but based on what is popular, meaning that intersection of the wish fulfillment projection of both individuals and groups.

Not enough people complained to change the design. And so across the land, every day, sleep is interrupted. Minds are irritated by the manic beeping. Unnecessary noise is producing, dulling people’s receptiveness to noise that might be meaningful. Maybe they’ll fix it some day. I’m not holding my breath.

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