I didn’t quite make it to the cafetería before the incoming squall hit the village. Not only am I now uncomfortably damp around the edges, but I’ve been relegated to the only available seat; next to the table where a small girl is treating her parents – and the rest of us – to a squealing, foot-stamping tantrum. I might just launch into one of my own in a minute.
To take my mind off the commotion I’m staring distractedly at the colour-printed A3 flyer that’s fallen out of the daily paper. One of the offers has attracted my attention; a sleek, silver-grey monolith that boasts (it says here) WiFi connectivity, USB 3.0, 200 mega-wossnames of data transfer, plus a whole host of acronyms announcing its many other talents. I want to buy one, I really do. If only they’d tell me what the darned thing is. Hard drive? Router? Sandwich toaster? I have no idea. The vendors have a catchphrase about not being tonto, but clearly I am; and I’m supposed to be tech-savvy.
A short while ago, after a career spent in technology, I decided it was time to step back from that to concentrate on other things. I was working in website programming at the time. The last straw for me was the prospect of having to learn how to rewrite everything yet again for a new generation of web browsers. I’d already suffered that in the Microsoft v. Common Sense wars of the nineties and noughties, now it was unthinkable to do it all again for the vast and ever-changing range of mobile devices – especially since I don’t even own such a gadget (I have enough trouble trying to avoid walking into things as it is).
The time had come to leave it for some whippersnapper to sort out. Technology is becoming less and less fun as I get older – I can no longer read the microscopic printed instructions, can’t understand them when I do get to read them, then once they’re finally grasped I later can’t remember them. I constantly need help from somebody who’s clued up, but even here in Spain there are only so many times you can borrow a neighbour’s ten-year-old before you make it on to a watch list.
What I find hardest these days is grasping what the latest gadget is for. Not just what it does (though that can be hard enough, as with my current trouble understanding a simple advertisement) but why one would want to do that in the first place. It seems that products are no longer specified to fulfill a real need; instead they are the progeny of the marketing departments of accountant-run corporations, most of whose budgets are spent creating an artificial need in an ever more gullible and image-obsessed public.
Key goals no longer involve efficiency, usability, longevity or ease of repair, it seems. These details, if thought relevant at all, are left to the oompa-loompas further down the pay grades in the engineering department. Instead, the key design decisions revolve around price point, market sector, buyer demographics and advertising appeal. No wonder that things rarely do what I want them to.
(What I want that little girl to do right now is belt up for five minutes while I sit here drinking coffee with my sweatshirt gently steaming. There’s no sign of that happening, either, but the Spanish customers don’t seem at all troubled by the hullabaloo as they fawn and coo over the bantam banshee.)
Thankfully, there’s an easy way to tell when some new gadget probably isn’t going to work with invisible grace; the thoughtful inclusion somewhere in the excessive packaging of a wad of paper containing instructions in every language from Korean to Klingon. Most of the pages do not, in fact, tell me how to operate my new eThingummy; instead they issue dire warnings of how not to use it for a variety of ludicrous purposes that would never otherwise occur to me. I take solemn note not to dry my dog in the microwave oven, iron my clothes while wearing them or use my hammer drill while taking a bath.
How do they come up with these scenarios? Is it because a high proportion of health and safety advisors are in some way irrational, deranged or perverted? Maybe so. Having once been an engineer I know what all true-blue engineers do when presented with something unknown and potentially lethal. They lure it into a corner and start poking it with a stick. It was always easy to spot the research laboratory wherever I worked – it was the room with various repairs to the ceiling, each located where some poor sap presumably made an unscheduled exit.
Perhaps one day someone will discover a natural law pointing out that the usefulness of an implement is inversely proportional to the size of the instruction manual it needs. I’ve never received one of these tomes when I’ve bought, for example, a hammer (though I have subsequently hurt myself with one of these, so I suppose there goes my logic). Back in the day, any warnings that were given were succinct and sensible. In fact, the best advice I ever received was just six words long, and printed on the back of a humble box of matches.
It said: “Keep dry and away from children”.