Five types of technology that haven’t benefitted us (as much it should have)

Patrick Shannon

Patrick Shannon

November 8, 2018

Technology is supposed to provide solutions that solve problems and help people live happier lives. In our wondrous 21st century, there are clearly significant examples that have transformed societies, influenced cultures and changed the way people approach the world.

As for some other ideas, well…they’ve been transformative for the wrong reasons. The following is my five personal picks of technology that haven’t exactly been the boon to our lives as they should have.

1. Self-checkout machines

At face value, the appeal of self-checkout machines is bypassing lines held up by small talk, coupon arguments and carts filled with half the store’s inventory. But let’s be real: they came into existence for corporations looking to boost their profits through automating human jobs. But that isn’t directly the problem I’m discussing here.

What amazes me most about self-check lanes is that we’ve had two decades to perfect the technology, yet we continue to have the same freeze-ups and glitches today with the machines that we did when they came out.

If the machine doesn’t completely “derp” out when scanning an item, it may choose to abandon the transaction entirely – calling over a cashier for further assistance. I’ve had two different self-checkout machines at Home Depot flat out refuse to process my credit card, yet the same card worked fine on a nearby human register.

Combine consumer wariness of the technology with businesses that heavily depend on it, and the result is messy situations where the few human lanes open are swamped. Some employees attempt to coax customers over to automated lines, but are sometimes like a pushy salesman about it. As a last resort, I’ve noticed self-check attendants performing check-out duties for customers themselves behind their station – really defeating the purpose of the machines in the first place.

So I don’t think self-check lanes have been as beneficial to consumers as they appear. On the other hand, there’s always that gabby cashier at the grocery store running commentary on every single item I bought as they’re scanned…perhaps that alone is enough to justify the machine’s existence after all.

2. Touch screen proliferation

Note my careful wording here: this is not to say that touch screen technology itself isn’t useful. It makes all the sense in the world for multi-purpose devices requiring changing interfaces like mobile phones and tablets.

Rather, my issue with touch screens is that they don’t belong in absolutely everything. Their value is definitely more dubious in devices with a single purpose.

Says the touch screen requiring you to take your eyes off the road to address it.

A fine example of poor touch screen implementation was the car stereo in my rental vehicle in Ireland, which required touch interaction of everything from the volume to simply changing the station. This became a huge problem on a bumpy road as my finger constantly missed the station dial and hit the nearby menu button instead, requiring several more interactions to escape and try again. (The smarter car stereo designs I’ve seen continue to utilize mechanical buttons alongside touch screens).

Another point of touch screen debate is my Sekonic 858 light meter, incorporating a resistive touch screen to control almost everything. While the screen allows the meter to do things that the older LCD models didn’t, metering adjustment is twitchy, settings easily get bumped (without screen locking) and there’s no reason why those controls couldn’t have remained as physical buttons that work along with the touch screen for other functions.

Looking at other items on the market, can anyone possibly explain why we really need touchscreens built into refrigerators? What’s next…touch screen toilets?

As we move forward, I’m hoping more companies begin questioning the value proposition of touch screens and ask if they really are solving a problem in their products.

3. Coca-Cola Freestyle fountains

Anyone who’s ever stepped into a fast-food restaurant or gas station knows how a typical soda fountain works: 1.) grab a cup and fill it with ice, 2.) press it against the flavor dispenser of your choice, and 3.) enjoy.

Coca-Cola Freestyle machines work a little differently than traditional fountains as they have only one single dispenser, with the flavor chosen by…you guessed it, touch screen. (You can already see where this is going.) Unlike regular fountains, soda brands from the Freestyle can be supplemented with different flavors to create unique combinations not necessarily on the market.

Cherry Vanilla Peppermint Dr. Pepper Xtreme™ sounds absolutely delightful, but in actual practice? The screens are often quite unresponsive and it often takes several frustrating presses to register a choice. I almost always find myself in the same situation: stuck right behind a person who either can’t get the machine to respond or is simply baffled by the new concept.

The beauty of classic soda fountains is that it’s easy to scoot around a slow poke if your flavor is further down on a different dispenser. However, the single dispenser design of the touch-screen models defeats this and you’re waiting to get your drink on until the person in front figures it out or gives up.

I also concur with complaints that the quality of drink coming out of these types of machines aren’t on par with the flavors from regular soda fountains. Watered-down would be too strong of a word, but the taste is definitely more diluted than what we’re used to: a likely byproduct of the mixing cartridges these machines use over the bags / boxes of it’s predecessor.

And one last issue with touch-screen fountains sure to bum out kids: mixing a Suicide Soda is now horribly inefficient.

4. Algorithms

At one time, the internet was like the Wild West: you just never knew what you’d find out in the wild. Algorithms help in taming that frontier. Search engines make particularly good use of them by returning more localized results and delivering content that matters to individuals.

But there comes a point where algorithms start making too many assumptions about what users want, or is way too stringent with meeting specific criteria to display content. As a result, the algorithm now become detrimental to discovery: hiding content that users otherwise might have been interested in.

A good example is on social networks where your posts are shown to less people if the algorithm doesn’t deem your interactions with others relevant enough. I’ve known partners and spouses who have suddenly been unable to see each other’s posts. I’ve had friends tell me they haven’t seen my content in their feed at all, only corrected (for a while, anyway) after they visit my page to purposefully interact with something.

The problem with rating content by prior interactions is that this punishes more passive or reserved users: just because they aren’t interacting on someone’s posts doesn’t mean they AREN’T interested in their content. (NO social network should require more effort to stay relevant over maintaining your real life relationships.)

This criteria creates a “forced interaction” model that that others can easily game. An absurd amount people on Instagram use “follow/unfollow” strategies and post disingenuous comments on other’s content (often by automation), all with the purpose of gaming the algorithm and boosting their own following / presence.

Algorithms also trap us in our own echo chambers and paint a distorted picture of the truth, presenting content in line with our own position and potentially filtering out alternative viewpoints that we might have considered otherwise.

Once intended to help guide us, algorithms are now producing a homogenized internet where companies are becoming the curators of the content you want to see…not YOU.

5. Twitter

If the flaw of algorithms is hiding relevant content, then social media’s sin is devolving it into a bunch of white noise.

With the amount of problems like fake news, data theft and online harassment, many social networks are equally deserving of being on this list. But with some of those being more closed or less influential than others, my personal choice is the most public of the bunch: Twitter.

Saturday Night Live summarized the Twitter crisis brilliantly in a segment called “The Dudleys,” featuring a TV network fall promo for a stereotypical family sitcom that completely flies off the rails when the producers start listening to isolated Twitter feedback driven by outrage culture, self-righteous progressiveness and identity politics. The parents are swapped with a “not-too-flamboyant” interracial gay couple, one young daughter is made a staff sergeant in Afghanistan instead of a ballet dancer, while the other is replaced outright with Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black.

The increasing absurdity during this clip made many points, from the futility of attempting to please everyone to not allowing viewer feedback to trump a writer’s original vision. But most of all, it points out the scary hold that social networks like Twitter have over the media and public perception.

News and entertainment can be faulted for giving “tweets” and “hashtags” far too much weight, highlighting the loudest rather than the most insightful. Online articles citing “viral outrage” over mundane issues often end up being little more than a handpicked group of tweets that don’t even remotely reflect widespread public concern in the real world. (And when it might, some of that noise may even be fake or fabricated.)

Tweets even hurt those who AREN’T making them. The staff of ABC’s Roseanne lost their jobs (albeit temporarily) when the show was cancelled over a controversial tweet from Roseanne Barr. While fault lies in the actress not considering the consequences of her words, it probably would have been a hell of a lot easier for everyone involved if she didn’t whistle in the first place.

And that’s the thing about Twitter. While you can’t directly blame them for user vitriol, they sure do make it easy: spreading at a rate that blogs or online videos couldn’t a decade earlier (both generally requiring more effort to create / consume). Ask the tweet mobs to write comprehensive essays describing their views, and I honestly think most wouldn’t bother with any effort longer than Twitter’s character limit.

Not to say Twitter hasn’t helped spurred noticeable real world discussion and tangible action – MeToo and Black Lives Matter being examples. As for online abuse…yeah, if it’s not happening on Twitter then it’s happening elsewhereBut much stress is caused by Twitter’s ability to make mountains out of ant hills, and with the media holding such a huge magnifying glass above…well, you remember as a mischievous kid what happens in the sun to the colony below.

Unfortunately this bird is a hard one to shoot down: the media won’t stop feeding it fat and even algorithms (ugh) also take it’s influence into consideration for search results. But I think the solution lies with us. The best way to start undermining Twitter’s relevancy is by finally giving the squawking bird what it detests the most: the silent treatment.

About Patrick Shannon

As a user experience (UX) designer / researcher based in St. Louis, I've worked with technology partners across the country to study end-users and create fictionless products and solutions that today's audiences connect with. In my spare time, I enjoy photography and building ideas out of anything from electronics to wood...still determined to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime someday.