When I was a Boy Scout, I had to demonstrate knowledge about the workings of an automobile in order to get some merit badge or other. One of the things I had to do was find out what all the gauges on the dashboard indicated. Well, there weren’t many gauges in those days. There certainly was no tachometer, though there probably was an oil pressure gauge: an extremely useful item which now has been replaced with a light that is either OFF — indicating that either the engine’s ok or the sensor’s malfunctioning — or ON — indicating that either the engine’s NOT ok or the sensor’s malfunctioning.
Most mysterious of all was the ammeter. What made it mysterious was that I didn’t really understand the mechanics of how the engine first used a spark from the battery to turn the crank and to fire the spark plugs initially, and then once it was running generated more electricity to keep things moving. As for today, I am even farther from understanding my fuel-injected engine, which might as well be operating from dilithium crystals. Somehow I limped around my explanation of the ammeter, aided, no doubt, by the fact that the person verifying that I had completed these merit badge requirements was my dad. I did learn some things listening to him, so, in that sense, the exercise had a point.
I think we all can agree that monitoring and metering are, in their place, Good Things. They give us all sorts of useful information which might be as mundane as the fact that the oven is now preheated (our new oven has redundant systems, not only displaying the current oven temperature in red LED numerals, but also providing a little audible “bing!” when it’s preheated) or as grave as the fact that there are 17 seconds left for us to decided whether to clip the BLUE wire or the RED wire in order to avoid Total Nuclear Annihilation.
That’s a long prelude to my real point, which is to make my case for saying that increasing reliance on computers has fostered a relational paradigm with all aspects of our environment, slathering layers of superficial nonsense onto what should otherwise be straightforward, no-nonsense activities. Here’s what I mean. We all now are well-schooled in dealing with the animated “progress bar” that appears on the screen while software is loading or a process on the computer like burning a CD is taking place. The size of the bar and the speed at which the indicator moves from left to right gives us some clue about how long this particular galling delay is going to take. With that information, we can decide if there’s time to A) get a glass of water from the kitchen, B) go outside and change the oil in the car, or c) drive across town and make that long-delayed visit to Aunt Masie. Here’s an idea I give away free of charge to all you of the Millennial Generation looking for a chance to make your fortune in computer software: build in a part of the computer setup that lets users select a variety of activities from a menu when they first install their computers. Then, when they get one of these progress bars, the computer will prompt them saying, “YOU HAVE TIME TO CLEAN OUT THE HALL CLOSET” or “YOU MIGHT AS WELL GO TO BED. SEE YOU IN THE MORNING.”
Those delays are annoying, but they’re part of The World Gates Made.
What’s not merely annoying but infuriating is the fact that this sort of data display is becoming ubiquitous. The gosh-darned electric plugs in my kitchen have LED indicators that glow green to show that the ground-fault-interrupt circuit is active and not tripped. My TV has a red light that glows 24 hours a day to show that it’s hooked up to power, but not turned on (they have it all wrong — I need an indicator that tells me when it’s NOT hooked up to the power, bozos!). And, today, the worst example of this errant application of pointless display technology arrived: the new coffee machine in the break room.
It’s one of those jobs that brews beverages from little packets: select the beverage of your choice, a door flips open, one inserts the package of mysterious, unnamed substance and, after some mysterious humming and gurgling, the machine extrudes a substance smelling more or less like the beverage of choice into the cup. (There’s a tempting side-rant here about what’s IN those packets, but that’s for another day.)
What is so heinous about this device is the LED display on the front and what it tells us. After it offers us our choice of beverage, once the brewing has begun — I know, you’re way ahead of me here — it actually displays a progress bar, showing how far into the brewing process we are!
If the cup were concealed inside the machine, perhaps there would be some justification for this otherwise useless data display. But, since I can see the brown liquid trickling down into the cup, and since I have a reasonable expectation that liquid will stop flowing when it’s within half an inch or so of the top, THEN THAT’S ALL I NEED TO KNOW! Perhaps there is another warning programmed in, alerting me to the fact that the machine has gone haywire, and that I’d better get a mess o’ cups lined up, because it’s going to pump out a hundred gallons of goo. WARNING! OUTPUT SENSOR MALFUNCTION. GET MORE CUPS!
Hmmm … do I clip the RED wire or the BLUE wire ….? Either that, or the sensor’s malfunctioned.