(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")
In Defense of Regress: Apocalypse Now
We accept as “progress” many innovations whose usefulness is
dubious at best. Here are some favorite examples.
Any computer with a "mouse" requires the user to
basically have three hands.
Never since the 1950s have phone communications been so rudimentary as after the introduction of the mobile
phone. Conversations invariably contain a lot of "Can you hear me?"
like in the age of black and white movies.
I felt relieved in a Mexican town where there was a public phone at
every corner: drop a coin and you are making a phone call. Wow. No contract
needed, and no “can you hear me?”
Mobile phone ringers that go off in public places such as
movie theaters and auditoria (and that obnoxiously repeat the same music-box
refrain in a mechanical tone) do not improve the experience.
Voice recognition may have represented an improvement when
it allowed people to say numbers rather than press them on the phone keyboard;
but now the automated system on the other side of the phone asks you for names
of cities or even “your mother’s maiden name”, and never gets them right (especially if you, like me, have a foreign
accent) or for long numbers (such as the 16-digit number of my credit card)
that you have to repeat over and over again until it gets it right or it gives
up and mercifully connects you to a human operator.
I interact with Alexa the exact same way i used to interact 30 years ago with the Unix shell: i issue a command and Alexa responds (sometimes). Ironically, what makes Alexa more "human" is the fact that in so many cases it fails (it misunderstands what i commanded), whereas the old text-based user interfaces never failed. Hence i get angry with Alexa in a way that i never did with the Unix shell. I am painfully aware that Alexa is just a retarded piece of software, whereas the Unix shell felt like an extremely efficient assistant.
The automation of cash registers means that it takes longer
to pay than to find the item you want to buy (and you cannot buy it at all if
the cash register doesn't work).
The car keys with an embedded microchip (the “transponder”
keys) cost 140 times more to duplicate than the old chip-less car keys.
If you made the mistake of buying a new car, you may have a car without a spare tire. For a century since the invention of the car, replacing a flat tire was a matter of minutes. Now a flat tire may leave you stranded for hours if not days.The new cars come with a do-it-yourself kit (sealant and inflator) that is a lot more difficult to use than a lug wrench and a jack, and, in general, it doesn't work: repairing even the smallest puncture requires superhuman skills and side punctures cannot be repaired anyway. A flat tire, that used to be an annoyance, has now become an emergency.
Watching films on digital media such as DVDs is more
difficult for a professional critic than watching them on videotapes because
stopping, rewinding, forwarding and, in general, pinpointing a scene is much
easier and faster on analog videotapes (VCRs) than on digital files.
Computer's and car’s CD drives that you have to push
(instead of pull) in order to open are simply more likely to break and don’t
really add any useful feature. If the CD or DVD gets stuck inside, the drive
can only be opened with a special screwdriver that virtually no user has.
In theory, it sounds like progress that our devices come packed with so many features. In reality, because manuals have disappeared and have been replaced by desperate searches on the web, we know very little about the devices that we buy, and we will never even know that some features exist. It is astonishing how little we know about the features for which we pay when we buy a computer, a phone or a software package. Unfortunately, most of us have a life, i.e. we have better things to do than to experiment with the labyrinthine menus and obscure terms of our devices.
Nowadays more and more families keep a lens handy: the serial number of a product was certainly a kind of progress because it easily identifies the device that you have purchased, but the serial number is usually a tiny number in the most unlikely corner of the device, hence the resurgence of the medieval lens, indispensable whenever you need technical support.
Most portable gadgets used to operate with the same AA or
AAA batteries. When on the road, you only had to worry about having those spare
batteries. Now most cameras work only with proprietary rechargeable batteries:
the fact that they are "rechargeable" is useless if they die in a
place where you cannot recharge them, which is the case whenever you are far
from a town or forgot the charger at home. I don’t see this as progress
compared with the cheap, easily replaceable AA batteries that i could also use with my hiking GPS, my headlight and my
walkie-talkie. In fact, Nikon mentions it as a plus that its Coolpix series is still "powered by readily available
Booking a shuttle to the airport now requires filling an endless series of forms. I used to do it with a phone call. Sure: i had to wait for 5 or 10 minutes to get connected, but i never made a mistake. Recently i mistakenly entered "AM" instead of "PM" as the pick-up time, a mistake that i would have never made on the phone (especially since it was a 2PM flight). The first problem is that there are so many forms to fill: i would not make mistakes if i could just write directly all the flight information in one line. The second problem is that i have to convert my one line of information (San Francisco - Beijing, January 13, 2pm) into a long sequence of finger movements: sometimes click, sometimes scroll, sometimes roll... It is unnatural and prone to error. There are two more "improvements" on this website for the airport shuttle: 1. the confirmation email lists no phone number to call in case the shuttle doesn't show up on time; 2. the tip is automatically included in the charge to your credit card (you only have one chance to say "no" and it's not very visible). Bottom line: you tip the driver even before he shows up and, if he doesn't show up, good luck.
It is hard to believe that there was a time (a century ago)
when you would pick up the phone and ask an operator to connect you to someone.
Now you have to dial a 10-digit number, and sometimes a 13-digit number if you
are calling abroad. More recently there used to be telephone directories to
find the phone number of other telephone subscribers. I remember making fun of
Moscow when we visited it in the 1980s because it didn’t have a telephone
directory. In the age of mobile phones the telephone directory has disappeared:
you can know a subscriber’s number only if someone gives it to you. Apparently
the Soviet Union was the future, not the past.
Thanks to air-conditioned buildings with windows that are
tightly sealed, we freeze in the summer and sometimes catch bronchitis while it
is really hot outside.
The air conditioning control has become so complicated that in most hotels we end up having no air conditioning at all: it is just too difficult to figure out how to turn it on and how to adjust it. Turning on the TV set now requires studying a manual: on one remote control i counted 58 buttons.
Talking of windows, the electric windows of your car won’t
operate if the car’s battery dies (the old “roll down the window” does not
apply to a car with dead battery).
In most of the developed world, when you travel by bus or
train, you need to get your ticket at a machine or have exact change to buy it
on the bus, hardly an improvement over the old system of paying the conductor
when you board. New buses and trains are climatized:
it is impossible to take decent pictures of the landscape because the windows
cannot be opened and are dimmed.
Printing photographs has become more, not less,
expensive with the advent of digital cameras, and the quality of the print is
The taximeter, rarely used in developing countries but
mandatory in “advanced” countries, is a mixed blessing. Basically, a taxi
driver asks you to buy a good without telling you the price until you have
already used the good and you cannot change your mind. The taximeter often
increases the cost of a ride because you can't bargain anymore as you would
normally do based on the law of supply and demand (for example, in situations
when the taxi driver has no hopes for other customers). Furthermore, the taximeter
motivates unscrupulous taxi drivers to take the longest and slowest route to
your destination, whereas a negotiated price would motivate the driver to
deliver you as quickly as possible.
Thanks to “progress” in software, over the years i had to adapt to countless limitations.
I have been using email since the early 1980s. The email system that i am forced to use at Stanford today is absolutely atrocious compared with the simple, quick, user-friendly and no-brainer email system that i was using twenty years ago at the same institution. Google's Gmail program and Microsoft's Outlook program, the most used email clients of this year, hardly qualify as progress: they rank among the most idiotic email clients ever designed. When i am forced to use either program, the expression that comes to mind is not "wow what a amazing intelligent program!" but rather "what a ridiculous piece of garbage!". (I personally believe that Gmail is singlehandedly responsible for the decline of email's popularity among the younger generations because younger people think that email "is" gmail and therefore shun email unless forced by teachers or employers).
In some cases “progress” is humiliating. I’ve had an email address “piero .•´¯`•.¸.•´¯`•..•´¯`•. scaruffi” since the 1980s. Cute,
eh? Well, in 2016 i was forced to abandon it and adopt a simple “piero scaruffi” because the #1
email system in the world started treating as spam any email address that
contains special characters. This is just the latest step in a process of
“normalization” of my Internet persona that started when they forced me to put
a smiling adult headshot of me on the website of a popular university about 20
years ago (until that day i had always used the first
picture ever taken of me as a child).I presume that at some point they will
force me to capitalize my name to “Piero Scaruffi” to be as uniform as possible with the rest of
humankind. They are asking me to remove my personality from what i do, otherwise i will not be able to do it anymore. In my humble opinion,
these are terrorist actions, no more and no less terrifying than a physical
terrorist attack. What is truly accelerating is not progress but the standardization of human behavior.
You know what that means, right? It means that they spy on what you do and then some other website will try to sell you something,
and all of them get a cut out of those "cookies" sitting on your computer.
Increasingly, you are very welcome to upload a video for free on platforms such as Youtube, but you are not welcome to download one for free: they tell you that watching it on the "cloud" (i.e., "streaming" it) is so much better. It is certainly much better for them: If you watch the video on the cloud, they can feed you all the ads that maximize their profits, something that they cannot do if you download the video on your computer.
Today i cannot check the weather forecast because the most popular website floods my screen with refrigerators: a Chinese friend used my browser to check prices of refrigerators while waiting for his flight to China, and there's no way to tell the various websites that my friend lives in China and i am not going to relay to him the various promotions that appear on my screen here in California.
I cannot login anymore into my bank account from my old desktop computer. When i login, i get the error message "You are using an unsupported browser version". Fair enough: it's an old computer. One after the other all websites will start telling me that i can't login anymore from this computer. I don't think that's "progress", but i'm willing to accept that i need a new desktop computer, even if there's nothing wrong with this old one. (Imagine if your fridge one day refused to open or your dishwasher one day refused to wash dishes simply because you are wearing old gloves). But then i used my laptop computer, which is brand new, and i noticed another "improvement" to my bank's website: they made it really difficult if not impossible to send them an electronic message. Now you can only contact them by phone or visit their offices in person (which is precisely the world of thirty years ago).
Some financial transactions that used to take a few minutes at the bank's branch are becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible. The bank will tell you that you must do it online, where the website will tell you that additional steps are required "for your own security" with the result that, given slow Internet connections, antispam firewalls and assorted filters, you have to spend a lot more than a few minutes. Soon those transactions may become de facto impossible except for the most perseverant of users. The bank isn't increasing our security, it is banning those services.
After being notified a thousand times by a very aggressive
Windows 10 operating system that new updates were available, one day i finally clicked on Yes and...
Movie Maker stopped working: it now consistently objects that my brand new
laptop does not meet the minimum requirements (yes, it does). A few days later i received another notification that new updates were
available and immediately clicked on Yes hoping that
one of these updates would fix the problem that keeps Movie Maker from running.
The only noticeable difference is that now my laptop arranges all the icons to
the left, no matter how i try to arrange them. I
tried to get rid of the annoying "lock screen". I searched the Web
and found that thousands of Windows 10 users are as annoyed as me by this
"feature". There is absolutely no information on the Microsoft
website but there are forums ("customer support" in the age of
intelligent machines) where several people have posted a solution that worked
for me. Quote:
• Open the
• Create a
new registry key called Personalization
to the Personalization key
click in the right pane and select New then DWORD (32-bit) Value.
• Name the
new value NoLockScreen
• Set NoLockScreen to 1"
This was titled "Simple Steps To Get
Rid Of Windows 10's New Lock Screen".
No, this does not happen only with Windows 10, nor only with Microsoft software. It happens with all the
software out there.
It is hard to see how modern websites such as Linkedin and Pinterest, or online magazines such as Wired and Rolling Stones, can constitute progress when they crash 90% of the browsers in the world (most computers in the world still run old operating systems: not everybody is willing to buy a new computer just because Linkedin or Pinterest has decided to use sophisticated scripting technology). On the other hand you are constantly stalked by software that desperately wants you to reset your password.
If progress means that what i have
been using will not work anymore it is not progress. It is progress for the
ones who make it and sell it, but not for the ones who never asked for it and
are now forced to accept it and pay for it.
Computers can be amazingly unintuitive compared with older
devices. If you remove a USB flash drive the way you normally remove a CD or
DVD from its player, you may lose all the data, so you are required to “safely
remove” it. On Apple computers the way to safely remove a drive is to… throw it
in the garbage can!
Websites with graphics, animation, pop-up windows, “click
here and there”, cause you to spend most of the time scrolling away from these
digital paraphernalia instead of reading the information that you were looking
We the consumers passively accept too many of these dubious
Most of these "improvements" may represent
progress, but the question is “progress for whom”? Pickpockets used to steal
one wallet at a time. The fact that today a hacker can steal millions of credit
card numbers in an instant constitutes progress, but progress for whom?
And don’t get me started on “health care”, which in these
high-tech days has become less about “health” and more and more about making
you chronically ill. You are perfectly fine until you walk into the office of a
dentist, eye doctor or other specialist; when you come out, you have become a
medication addict with an immune system weakened by antibiotics and some
prosthetic addition to your body that will require lifelong maintenance:
progress for the “health-care” industry, not for you. (In 2016 a study
published in the British Medical Journal by Martin Makary,
a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University, estimated that medical error was the
third leading cause of death in the USA after heart disease and cancer).
We live in a world of not particularly intelligent machines,
but certainly in a world of machines that like to beep. My car beeps when I
start it, when I leave the door open, and if I don’t fasten my seat belt. Note
that it doesn’t beep if something much more serious happen, like the alternator
dies or the oil level is dangerously low. My microwave oven beeps when the food
is ready, and it keeps beeping virtually forever unless someone opens its door
(it doesn’t matter that you actually pick up the food, just open the door). My
printer beeps when it starts, when it needs paper, and whenever something goes
wrong (a blinking message on the display is not enough, apparently). Best of
all, my phone beeps when i turn it off, and, of
course, sometimes i turn it off because i want it silent: it will beep to tell everybody that it is
being silenced. I think that every
manual should come with instructions on how to disable the beeping on the
device: “First and foremost, here is how you can completely shut up your device
once and forever”.
Last but not least, something is being lost in the digital
age, something that was the fundamental experience of (broadly defined)
entertainment. During a vacation in a developing country i
watched as a girl came out of the photographer's shop. She couldn't wait and
immediately opened the envelope that contained her photographs. I witnessed her
joy as she flipped through the pictures. The magic of that moment, when she
sees how the pictures came, will be gone the day she buys her first digital
camera. There will be nothing special about watching the pictures on her
computer's screen. There will be no anxious waiting while she uploads them to
the computer because, most likely, she will already know how the pictures look
like before she uploads them. Part of the magic of taking photographs is gone
forever, replaced by a new, cold experience that consists in refining the
photograph with digital tools until it is what you want to see, not what it
really looked like, and then posting it on social media in an act of vanity.
Or take live events. The magic of a live sport event used to
be the anxious wait for the event to start, and then the "rooting"
for one of the competitors or teams. After the introduction of TiVo, one can
watch a "live" event at any time by conveniently "taping"
it. Many live events are actually broadcasted with a slight delay, so you may
find on the Internet the result of a soccer game that is still going on
according to your television channel. Thus the "waiting" and the
"rooting" are no longer the two fundamental components of the
"live" experience. The whole point of watching a live event was the
irrational feeling that
your emotional state could somehow influence the result. If the
event is recorded (i.e., is already in the past), that feeling disappears and
you have to face the crude reality of your impotence to affect the result. But
then what's the point of rooting? Thus the viewer is unlikely to feel the same
emotional attachment to the game that s/he is watching. In the back of her/his
mind, it is clear that the game has already finished. The experience of
watching the "live" event is no longer one of anxiety but one of
appreciation. Told by a friend that it was a lousy game, the viewer may well
decide not to watch the event that her home appliance taped.
The first time that i went to Hong Kong i took a slow ferry for about $1. I was on the deck and took lots of great pictures of the island. In 2017 i took the ferry again. This time the price was 40 times more. Passengers are no longer allowed to walk on the deck, they are confined in the cabin and can only take pictures through the windows, extremely filthy windows that cannot be opened. You pay 40 times more for a much less rewarding experience. But the ferry is indeed many times faster than the old one, and that counts as "progress". Except that younger people will never have the beautiful pictures that i have from 20 years ago, or will have to pay even more to get on a tourist boat that allows passengers on the deck.
Yes, i know that Skype and Uber and many new services can solve or will solve these
problems, but the point is that these gadgets and features were conceived and
understood as "progress" when they were introduced (and usually amid
much fanfare). The very fact that platforms such as Skype and Uber have been successful proves that the quality of
services in those fields had overall regressed, not progressed, and therefore there
was an opportunity for someone to restore service to a decent level.
We should always pause and analyze whether something
presented as "progress" truly represents progress. And
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