Tuesday 7 June 2005

Expensive technology.

Back in the 1980s, digital watches were all the rage, despite being very, very oblong. However, their oblongness or lack of it is hardly the point (though I notice that oblongs are back in again, in a good way. 1980s oblongs were just square and crap. Modern oblongs are not crap, despite generally being even squarer than their forebears. Designers? Tsk). The point is that they were informative (the digital watches, that is, not the oblongs. Pay attention to the parenthesisation). If you wanted to know the time, you had but to look at them. "8:34:27" they'd say, and you'd know what the time was without having to consult the manual, ring the helpline, press three buttons at once, or open up a hatchway. And the other great thing about digital watches is that, at their cheapest, they're bloody cheap. You can pay quite a lot for a digital watch that has a three-trillion-colour display or a big leather strap with steel studs or GPS or guided missiles, but a basic telling-you-what-the-time-is uglily rounded oblong costs about nineteen bob. (Note to Americans: Nineteen bob equals ninety-five P. (Note to ignorant British pedants: Oh yes it bloody does.))

So, in summary: decades-old technology; very cheap; look at it and you know instantly what it means.

So why does a brand-new printer that costs a hundred quid just have four flashing lights with utterly meaningless hieroglyphics next to each one?

Ever notice the way we listen to printers? Press Control and P, hit Return, and then go quiet, listening for the printer. Will it react at all? If it does, will it be the good whirring sound or the bad clunking sound? If we're lucky enough to get the whirring sound followed by the faint grinding noise (which shouldn't be good, but is), will we then get the dreaded slow-motion crumpling noise? If the printer's out of earshot, the suspense can drive sane men to eat their own hair. Do you ever listen to other bits of computer equipment? Do you listen to your USB hub? Or your optical mouse? No, of course not — if you do, you are odd. We only listen to printers so intently because we know that we can discern nothing, nothing at all, by looking at them.

And don't get me started on print "monitors". Someone worked extra hard to reproduce the feel and usability of straining to hear a printer that has only four lights, while combining that with the delights of what looks like, but isn't, a proper user interface, with words and pictures and interactivity and everything.

"Would you like to cancel this print job?"
"Well, it looks like you already cancelled it for me, so yes."
"No, no, I did not cancel it. I would never do such a thing. It is still waiting to print. If you do still want to print it, it's not too late."
"I have printed four hundred things since I tried to print that one. It's clearly never going to print."
"No, it'll print, honestly. Any second now. Just waiting for the printer to warm up."
"It's been three weeks."
"Ah, look: printing."
"No it's not."
"Printing, I think you'll find."
"I switched the printer off ten minutes ago."
"Oh, you big kidder, you. I should think I'd've noticed something like that, what with my being a print monitor and all. Oh, there it goes now, printing away."
"Oh, fuck it. Cancel the print job, then, you maniac."
"Oh, I couldn't cancel it now: it's in the middle of printing. By the way, since I can see how important this document is to you, I've decided not to let the printer do anything else at all, ever, even if it's rebooted, until it's finished this job. Don't mention it."

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