25 May 2007

Dept. of Boredom and Desire

Once again, James Surowiecki is writing things I already knew but hadn't got around to saying. This week, in "Feature Presentation," he argues that we consumers habitually choose electronic devices that have many more features than we want or use, and that, after the blush of first contact, we grow bored with them. Our addling by gizmo he calls "feature creep," and he describes it this way:

"...fifty-button remote controls, digital cameras with hundreds of mysterious features and book-length manuals, and cars with dashboard systems worthy of the space shuttle. This spiral of complexity costs consumers time, but it also costs businesses money."

Side note, James: "Spiral," unless you're talking about footballs, confuses me. If your fortunes are spiralling, which way are they going? "Either way," says the OED:

spiral, v.
a. intr. To wind or move in a spiral manner; to form spiral curves.
b. To fly an aircraft in a spiral path. Also with down, downwards.
c. fig. To move rapidly in one direction (usu. upwards), in a manner considered to resemble a spiral; to increase or decrease in response to the same movement of another quantity or other quantities. Cf. sense 2d of the n. above.

I've got a Sony-Ericsson that cost me something like 400 bucks when I bought it in Taipei, three years ago. The only reason I got it was that the PVC-skirted saleswoman in the FarEasTone was keen to sell me one of their house-brand phones (the telecommunications equivalent of Safeway-brand corn flakes), and I was keen to show her I wasn't gullible. So I bought a 400-dollar phone.

Its features have come back to earth since, but at the time it was flash. I had Bluetooth, for sending anonymous messages to intriguing strangers (never happened); Internet at my thumbtips, for those formerly unproductive cab rides (never happened); and the ability to shoot videos. The latter was cool exactly three times: in Bangkok during Songkran, when I filmed some girls dancing on a loudspeaker; here, when I witnessed a "near plane crash" (YouTube commenters can be so cruel); and here, when comic-relief Taeho came to my ESL class with a fresh perm.

The picture is poor because the camera lens has been damaged in my pocket—three years' of rainwater, chewing-gum residue, key scratches, and coin thrashings. The phone now sits on my bedstand, uncharged and alone. I'm going through a Luddite phase.

Cell-phone designers, if you're listening: I'd like something indestructible, in brushed aluminum, with great reception. I'm tired of designed obsolescence and "#" buttons that stick. I don't need photographic capacity, video games, or DJ-mixing programs. Make it like a Zippo lighter—something that warms against my leg, something I can spin on a table.


-Fp said...

Jesus, his description looks accurate AND scientific. My take on that was more poetic I guess. It's what I called the "Spiderman effect" (okay, maybe someone else came with a similar idea before, but I can't think of anyone at this point, so I'll take the credit for it)

When people select a cellphone, they are selecting superpowers (such as taking pictures of people when they don't expect it), like Spiderman. I also suspect that he is popular also because people wished they had his powers. They don't dare learning how to use their superpowers though, so they never master it completely and get bored.

Steve Jobs understood it and it's why his superphone is going to work. I frankly feel like Spiderman when I use my mac to multitask and do all kind of things on it.

That's either that, or my theory is just crap. In my case, the Spiderman effect doesn't work on cellphones (it works on my mac and with my camera though). My cellphone is just a cellphone. I had to ask for it, and I sense the girl at the desk found that I was kind of a jerk to buy a cellphone that is only a cellphone.

My big question is: did you feel like spiderman when buying this $400 phone?

zp said...

Surowiecki is (so often, yet again) right on.

We had a hell of a time finding a coffee maker that didn't also try to make toast and eggs.

Sigh. I just hope nothing breaks. Ever.

Spiral: The connotation of "spiral" in the context of "feature creep" is, for me, to "spiral out of control" which, then, again, maybe this is personal, connotes airplanes of the 19-teens, which is fun because then you have a kind of luddite fear of technology all over again. Or maybe the planes are wartime planes that have been hit, connoting the military-industrial uses of technology . . . All this is, almost, implied in the OED but not quite there . . . anyway, we're going down in a fiery crash, that's for sure.

JJB said...

Spiderman effect is a good way to put it, too. It has to be one of the next features of cell phones: something shooting out of them. I'd prefer a Taser prod or a cologne spritzer.

There's something to your thesis, FP, about never taking time to master the features, but the whole idea makes me want to get drunk.

I felt like Spiderman with that 400-dollar phone—for a few minutes, anyway. I took some cool videos. One thing I didn't think about: any cell-phone videos you take in a relationship become uncertain documents when that relationship ends.

JJB said...

ZP, as I drink coffee now, I'm thinking that the little cast-alumninum screw-together Europot is the way to go. It makes espresso, which you can thin to a decent Americano.

Ew, easily the yuppiest thing I've ever said.

Ah, the synthesis of the two spiralling dialectics in the idea military tech—you clever soandso. The whole thing makes me think of "Unbearable Lightness," too, and Kundera's idea of vertigo being the longing to fall.