Essays & Articles
The Complexity of Everyday Life
“There are times when I feel that I’ve worked the whole day and done no work,” Dr. Norman said. “All I have done is maintained or fixed my computer equipment.” (Hafner, 2003) [Sorry for the indulgence in quoting someone quoting me (Katie Hafner’s New York Times article), but her article is about this very topic — she interviewed me while I was writing the first draft of this piece — so it seems fitting.]
Our technology is cumulative, each new one adding to the ones previously acquired. As a result, my home is littered with technologies: tables and furniture that need dusting and waxing, and screws tightened. Windows that need washing. Hoses that need replacing. Fuses blow, light bulbs need to be replaced, motors and moving parts need periodic oiling. The automobile is a continual source of maintenance. And of course our electronic gadgets continually require attention. I must constantly update my virus checker, install software updates, reboot the computer, the cable modem box, the WiFi connection and transmitter. If every device only needed attention once a year, I would still be fixing, maintaining, or adjusting something every day. And these devices require more than yearly maintenance — some are daily, some monthly — and with the computer, it can be several times a day. Note that the problem is not just with today’s favorite culprit — the computer. It is with the continual proliferation — even my water filter requires change every 6 months. Where will it end? I see two movements for the future:
- The emergence of a new service industry to maintain and operate the ever-increasing complexity of our home infrastructure.
- A co-evolution of machines and homes, so that increased automation and the development of robots can take place smoothly. Which in turn, increases the complexity of the infrastructure.
Our homes today contain a nightmare of infrastructure. A wide variety of services enter the house: water, gas, electricity, telephone, cable, satellite, radio, mail, deliveries. And of course people and vehicles. Leaving the house is garbage, sewerage, and mail. And of course people and vehicles. Within the walls we must accommodate electric wiring, hot and cold water pipes, waste pipes, roof vents, TV, telephone, and computer wiring, heat and air-conditioning plenums and returns. Now we have multiple wireless networks: cell phone within the home, portable phones, and wireless computer networks (WiFi). Where I live we also need sump pumps, backup sump pumps, and backup power supplies for the backup pumps. Computers, of course, require non-interruptible power supplies. The home has fuse or circuit breaker boxes, water heaters, house heater, air conditioning, etc. And of course we have to maintain all this stuff. And all the backup equipment adds to the burden — we have to back up the backups and worry about whether they really work, and test them. I seem to spend more of my time being a mechanic and maintenance person than doing my work — or for that matter, just relaxing.
Just doing things is getting harder and harder. When I left on a recent trip, not only did I have to register for the conference, book the air flight, the hotel room and a rental car, but before I left home I had to schedule the ride to the airport, stop the newspaper delivery and stop the mail. And remember to turn down the heating and disconnect a bunch of our appliances. And when I returned, I had to resume the newspaper, go get the mail and stop the hold, reset the appliances, and then catch up on all the mail and tasks that had accumulated.
The increase in complexity is increasing, in part because of the natural, inevitable trend of technology to put together ever-more powerful solutions to problems we never realized we had. One direction of movement in this arena is enhancements to home appliances.
Appliances are getting more powerful. In fact, one of the major changes I see happening is the development of household robots – not the famous robot servants like R2D2, but more sensible, more practical ones. We are not far from appliance robots. Dishwashers are really robots, with complex sensors, mechanical actions, and sophisticated algorithms. My coffee maker is perhaps the most complex device in my home, with microprocessor, display, grinding, brewing, and dumping cycles. The first practical vacuum cleaner robot is now out, but if you examine other existing appliances, they too are robots, even if not advertised by that name. Thus, my coffee maker and dishwasher are more complex than the vacuum cleaner — and much more expensive.
All of these devices require maintenance. The coffee maker works just fine, when it works – want a cup of espresso? Just push a button and the beans get ground, tamped, pre-wet, and then under high pressure, the hot water is forced through the beans under high pressure to produce a lovely cup of espresso, compete with crème. The used beans are then deposited in a waste container. All this is great, but the cost comes with maintenance. All this is great, but the cost comes with maintenance periodically, the entire machine has to be disassembled and cleaned. Coffee particles contaminate the gears and crevices. The waste container is, well, dirty. The water system has to be decalcified, a process that is aided by the microprocessor controls that guide the steps,. Nonetheless, the decalcification requires a special chemical, several hours, and then a cleaning cycle to get rid of the decalcification residue.
That’s just the coffee maker. In addition, the house has multiple water filters to be changed on a periodic basis, pumps that have to be oiled, batteries in all those backup systems that must be checked. Automobiles that require maintenance, cleaning, checking of air pressure and oil levels.
The power will come when these are cooperative, interactive systems. When I want a cup of coffee, my coffee maker will ask the pantry for a cup, which will simply slide on over — because the pantry is adjacent to the coffeemaker. If the pantry has no more cups, well, it will ask the dishwasher. So the appliances all interact: pantry, dishwasher, food maker, stove and refrigerator, all passing dishes and food back and forth among themselves.
To make all this work we will need to redesign pantries so they are attached to dishwashers, redesign refrigerators and stoves so they can pass stuff back and forth, redesign clothes washing machines to pass clothes to the dryer (or to incorporate a drying cycle), and then to pass clothes to the pressing and sorting device. In other words, we need a system-wide development of appliances so they can better work together.
But, all these developments increase the complexity of the infrastructure and make my need for service and assistance even greater. We will no longer be able to maintain our own appliances and homes — but this gives rise to a huge growth opportunity. We will need a new breed of service personnel with a home service contract, where teams can come in and service, repair, maintain, upgrade the integrated appliances.
We already rent maids from maid services, gardeners, snow plow people. Why not home maintenance service to upgrade our servers, check the network integrity, maintain the kitchen robot system to ensure that cups pass easily into the dishwasher, then to the pantry and then to the coffee maker. And so on.
we will no longer be able to maintain our own appliances and homes — but this gives rise to a huge growth opportunity.
But, all these developments increase the complexity of the infrastructure and make my need for service and assistance even greater
So I see two movements for the future:
- First: The emergence of a new service industry to maintain and operate the ever-increasing complexity of our home infrastructure. Call it the new PC: The Personal Concierge. Travel bureaus, whether in stores or on the internet help reserve the flight, hotel, and car, but why can’t they also stop my newspaper, the US Mail, and help me with all those other stuff. I need a personal concierge.
- Second: A co-evolution of machines and homes, so that increased automation and the development of robots can take place smoothly. This is consistent with all the changes that have taken over the home over the last two centuries.
(Essay — as yet incomplete. July, 2003.)
Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin address very closely related issues in their powerful and important book “The Support Economy” (Zuboff & Maxmin, 2002). I need to incorporate their thoughts into this essay.
Hafner, K. (2003, July 24). Techies by Necessity, Not by Choice. New York Times, Circuits, pp. E1 and E6 http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/24/technology/circuits/24boot.html (Requires registration).
Zuboff, S., & Maxmin, J. (2002). The support economy: why corporations are failing individuals and the next episode of capitalism. New York: Viking.