5 Things Technology Will Never Fix (And Why)
Right now, almost every one of us is carrying around an insanely powerful science fiction device from the future. We have music-playing, video-phoning, mapping, Grindr-ing, government tracking devices in the palms of our hands, technology that has dramatically increased the speed and efficiency with which we communicate, entertain and make no-strings-attached gay love connections. Upon seeing this, a visitor arriving in this time from a decade-long nap would be astounded. Someone from 20 years ago would be intimidated, maybe even a bit lost. And anyone arriving here from the '80s or earlier would have to be burned for fuel, so useless would they be in our modern world.
OH GOD WHAT IS THIS HOT ORANGE THING OH IS IT JUST FIRE WE HAD THIS BACK WHEN I WAS A KID.
But riding on the coattails of these modern technological wonders are a number of nuisances, bugs and annoyances; technological fuck-ups that slow us down and irritate us every day. Some of them we've even been living with for so long that we've forgotten how much of a problem they are, the work-arounds we use to sidestep these irritations now a part of our daily routine.
Well, no more. Today we draw the line, and stop coddling our lazy, shiftless technologies. Here are the five biggest technological annoyances that still plague our devices each day, nuisances that prevent us from joining the future, leaving us forever mired in the stupid bullshit present.
If you have one of those remarkable science fiction phones discussed above, you're probably all too familiar with its tendency to turn into a pumpkin every evening when its battery goes dry. Compare that with the simpler cellphones we toted around only a few years ago, which, so long as we weren't that popular, could last for days. Now we've been reduced to a band of nomadic techno-hobos, phone chargers perpetually on our persons, always on the hunt for an empty outlet or friendly stranger with a USB port.
The reason for this collapse in phone lifespans is straightforward enough: Our phones have improved dramatically -- with larger screens and faster processors and stronger radios -- much faster than our poor batteries have.
Battery: "Oh sure, open ANOTHER browser tab, you magnificent fucker."
The same problem afflicts just about every technology that relies on batteries, and is actually limiting the products that come to market. Electric cars in particular are incredibly hamstrung by the limited capacity of our batteries. And somewhere right now, due to that same lack of battery power, a scientist is sadly tucking away plans to build a vibrator that could put a smile on the face of all of your ancestors.
Why They Still Suck
Because the universe is bullshit, that's why. Seriously, our batteries are running up on the basic limits of chemistry; there's only so much chemically accessible energy that can be stored in a certain mass. We're still eking out some incremental improvements, but those are never more than a couple of percentage points of additional capacity a year. Real improvements, like layered graphene sheets, are years or decades away, and truly game-changing technologies like fuel cells and nuclear fusion are so far off on the horizon that they're honestly closer to science fiction than anything else at this point. The only advances we're likely to see in the near future won't be improved batteries, but more efficient systems. Phone manufacturers are making less-hungry screens and processors and writing smarter, less-selfish software to run it all.
"Which is fine for smartphones! But this next generation of marital aids will require fucking torque, damnit!"
I can hear you now: "What!? Storage media is denser and faster than ever before! I have 58 years of high definition lesbian porn on my computer. What more could I -- could humanity -- ask for?"
Humanity: "No, this is perfect. Stop right here, progress."
Those are good points; storage media have gotten faster and denser. But they're still, you know, there, in a way that science fiction told us they never would be. Remember that episode of Star Trek where they spent half the episode looking for the installation disk for the ship's OS? Or when Spock had to send a message to the crew to remind whoever checked out the important stellar cartography file to put it back in the ship's CMS? You don't? Is it possible that never happened, because in the future, files are always where they're supposed to be?
Because it's sure not that way now, even in the futuristic-sounding year of 2012. Go to any office and watch the crazily primitive shit people are still doing with files, like emailing documents to themselves, or passing around thumb drives, or screaming obscenities at a spreadsheet with links to external files that don't exist.
"Missing External Reference? Oh, well that's quite simple, Excel: It's pointing to my shit, because EAT MY SHIT, THAT'S WHY."
Obviously at some point this is all going to be fixed by cloud technology. And I am completely, with all my heart and appendages, on board with cloud technology; the single biggest improvement in my computing life in the past decade was when I installed Dropbox on my various machines. But cloud technology is far from perfect, and still has its own hurdles to overcome.
Why It Still Sucks
Cloud technology -- where our files are stored somewhere on a dispersed network, accessible from anywhere -- has improved massively in the past few years, to the point that if everything goes exactly right, you can now live a life without having to deal with local storage bullshit. But there's a catch in there, and if you didn't see it, scroll back a smidge and consider how often everything goes right these days.
"I don't care what our corporate H&S policy says about bodily fluids in the workplace, Carl, Excel needs to learn its lesson."
Cloud technology relies on our networks, the same shifty, rapidly improving, but still not-quite-infallible networks that almost earned a place on this list themselves. Having your Internet go down when you're whaling on 14-year-old Call of Duty players is an annoyance. But having it go down when you're revising your cloud-stored master's thesis? That's when hands and monitors intersect with deadly consequences.
And this is ignoring all the non-technical, human-related bullshit that comes with our networks, things like data caps, and corporate IT policies, and leet hackers. As cool as cloud technology is right now, it will be awhile yet before consumers can completely rely on it, which means we still have a few more years of thumb drives, and DVDs, and smearing charcoal on cave walls.
So a friend of mine got one of the new iPhones last week and was showing off Siri to me (she skipped the iPhone 4S). This went about exactly as well as you can imagine, where, after a couple minutes of terse negotiations to decide how "Bucholz" should be pronounced, a phone call was ultimately placed to me.
I held up a finger, taking the call. "Siri, was there a faster way to do that, do you think?" I said, assholeishly. This prompted a decision to change my name in her contacts to "Assholeish Dickhead," which, evidently, was a lot easier for Siri to pronounce.
I use Siri as an example, but this isn't just an Apple problem. I noodled around with Google's vocal search functions for quite awhile myself before finally conceding that it didn't work, either; too many searches for "trance hex yule door forum" raised my ire, refusing me the transsexual dwarf porn I was (and am always) looking for. Indeed, every time I've ever seen anyone try to speed things up by using the voice functions on their phone, I can't help but wonder about how much faster and more discreet it would have been to simply tap the commands in manually.
Why It Still Sucks
Because voice recognition is really, really hard. For the past decade, voice recognition accuracy has been stuck at a seemingly impassible plateau, topping out at recognition rates of about 80 percent, far too low for reliable speech recognition. Accuracy gets a bit better when these systems are restricted to only recognize smaller word lists; numbers, for example, are easily discerned, which is why automated call centers are simply lukewarm psuedo-hells instead of the full-blown brimstone-heavy variety. But when the software has to recognize all possible words spoken by anyone, accuracy rates don't get much above 80 percent, no matter how many computers we throw at the problem.
It turns out that speech isn't just the sounds we make when we're talking. How we decipher the words someone is speaking depends a great deal on the context in which they're saying things. Our ears are much more ready to hear the word "birth" when talking to a new mother and "berth" when talking to a bunch of randy sailors. Or "ice cream" when talking to children and "I scream" when talking to a bunch of randy sailors. Context like this is insanely difficult for a computer to pick up on, and it's entirely possible that we won't see any real advancement in voice recognition until we get actually semi-intelligent computers.
The only problem with that is that the guys trying to make semi-intelligent computers were waiting for the other guys to make voice recognition first, and now the two groups are just staring at each other, shifting around uncomfortably.
Let's all be cool for a second, and just assume that no one reading this has pirated music, movies, books or anything. OK? So now that we're cool, and only a little deluded, and living in a world where we're all legitimately buying all the media we consume, let's see what that experience is like, and ... hang on. Where'd it go? Who messed with my shit!? Why can't I get the shit I own onto the widget I own? The widget that would be perfect for viewing the shit I just bought?
Look for the Amazon Shit Widget on store shelves this holiday season.
Right now, almost every piece of content you legitimately buy is going to be tightly restricted to be available only on its own little ecosystem of devices. Any attempt you make to move it to a better or more convenient device will result in immense frustration, or, more likely, in you proudly breaking whatever law you were earlier so diligent about trying to respect.
Why It Still Sucks
Remember that assumption we made at the start? It turns out that content owners and their lawyers don't really make the same assumption these days, perhaps with good reason. The Internet's appetite for "everything, free" has hit the people who actually make everything pretty bad over the past 15 years or so, and a big chunk of all the software bullshit wrapped around the content we buy is related to combating this piracy.
"Are you saying everything shouldn't be free!?" -A thousand angry pirates filling the comment thread.
The other big problem is how licensing rights get divided up. The people who actually own the content will parcel out the rights to different partners; someone has the rights to sell a piece of content in North America, someone else gets the rights to sell it in Europe, someone else gets the rights to sell the eBooks, and so on. From the content owners' perspective, this makes a lot of sense; different rights buyers will have different markets and areas of expertise, and won't need all the rights at once. But from the perspective of an end user, this practice throws up roadblocks all over the place, especially when we stray across one of these invisible boundaries. We end up with shit like Hulu being unavailable in Canada, or the Amazon Kindle, a device that is fantastic for reading books on, being unable to actually read fucking books. All because some dickhead with a tie couldn't agree with another dickhead with a tie about dickhead-tie-guy things.
Hands up if you've ever lost both of your hands inside a printer trying to unjam it. No one? Nothing?
Oh, I'm sorry. Was that too soon? Fine. Hands down, everyone.
The point I'm trying to make is that printers are bullshit. There is no way a just world should allow such a critical piece of technology to fuck up basically constantly. Streaks, blotches and paper jams are an everyday occurrence with printers, filling our offices with their symphony of beeps, grinding noises and incoherent error messages. And don't get me started on the ink, OH IT'S TOO LATE, YOU GOT ME STARTED ON THE INK, WATCH THE FUCK OUT.
HALF-FULL INK CARTRIDGES REPORTED AS EMPTY.
COLOR PRINTERS THAT DON'T PRINT BLACK AND WHITE BECAUSE YOU'RE OUT OF YELLOW INK.
YELLOW, FOR FUCK'S SAKE. YELLOW! WHO THE FUCK WAS USING ALL THE YELLOW?
WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN'T JUST BUY YELLOW INK?!?!?!
Printer ink is why most Staples employees work behind bulletproof glass now.
Why They Still Suck
Printing is actually one of the hardest, messiest chores we regularly ask of our technology. Given the challenges of simply working with mass quantities of paper and ink and all the moving parts involved, printing things on paper has always been a fairly complicated, labor-intensive process. The mere fact that we have mostly reliable printing devices in each of our homes now is kind of remarkable. Our grandparents would think we're big babies for putting up such a fuss.
They'd also consider us babies for our immaculately shorn genitals.
There are other factors, of course, notably the fact that the printers that we use in our homes are cheeeeeeap, often given away for free with the purchase of computers, software and ink cartridges. We shouldn't be too surprised to learn that a cheaply built machine with many moving parts is not likely to be a paragon of reliability.
And even when we do spend on quality, bulletproof performance isn't guaranteed. The high-end printers and multifunction devices we see in office settings are rarely just bought anymore; they come with massive, years-long service plans to accommodate the fact that something with that many moving parts is going to break down. Factor in all the dust, variety in paper quality and idiots running staples through the document feeder, and most printer technicians will point out that it's a wonder printers are as reliable as they are.
They're wrong, though. Printers are bullshit.
For more from Bucholz, check out The Most Powerful Man in the World: The Voice in Your GPS and The 6 Most Overhyped Technologies .