Saturday, November 25, 2006

Poor Quality in action: unwanted assistance

As of half a year ago, I'm finally learning to drive. I've gotten to the point where it's actually safe to let me in a car with dual controls and, in a desperate attempt at learning to stall less before my practical test, I've been driving many miles a weekend with a parent in tow.

In the last few weeks, I've discovered many things that annoy me about driving. Assholes who think that learners are there to be dominated, worn-out road markings at roundabouts, the difficulty of doing ten things at once. But there's one thing, and only one, that's been really driving (ahem) me up the wall.

You know how indicator lights in modern cars automatically switch themselves off when you've finished turning? Yeah, that.

The problem is simple. When I indicate left whilst turning right (or vice versa), the indicator system assumes that I've made a horrible mistake, and helpfully corrects that mistake by deactivating itself. However, sometimes it's necessary to signal in that fashion, for example when coming off a small roundabout. In these circumstances, signalling the "wrong" way is exactly correct - so it always catches me by surprise when I find I actually need to hold the bloody lever down to keep the indicator on.

That's fairly annoying - but so is much of driving. Why should it be this that irritates me the most?

I've always had a deep loathing of wonderfully helpful little features that are impossible to disable. And it's actually a problem that shows up quite a lot. For example, my mobile phone is convinced that the first letter after any full stop should be a capital (thus completely ignoring the common use of abbrev. in txt communication). My suspicion is that this is a general feature of technically-minded people - just look at the backlash against Clippy.

It's interesting to consider why this should be so. Why are techies so averse to machines attempting to be too clever? It's almost as if we're one step away from being Luddites - why is this the case?

I think it all comes down to control. The driving passion of the technophile, the sheer joy of experimentation, comes from a strongly increased feeling of control over one's environment. In the human psyche, control is heavily linked with survival instincts - hence, for example, the elaborate rituals of human dominance - so it's easy for such a relationship with technology to become a focus of Quality. In other words, we get our kicks making machines do our bidding. What the hey, everyone needs a hobby.

To a geek, the idea of a helpful feature is sheer pleasure - but the existence of such a feature that you can't turn off is a studied insult. It's a deliberate, callous limitation of the techie's ability to shape the machine to their will. No matter how many blue flashing LEDs it has, such a creation is fundamentally poor Quality - a diseased device deliberately rendered incapable of fulfilling its owner's desires. A feature of this sort is worse than useless: it's actively repulsive.

Someday, maybe techies will have great enough market share that designers start considering issues like this. Until then, I guess I'm just going to have to put up with this bloody indicator.

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