Computerized Confusion

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Dec 25, 2007 12:01 AM
Computerized Confusion

When I bought one of these small, cheap, old-fashioned cathode-ray TV sets on sale to watch while on my exercise machine, I had no idea how high-tech and computerized even these obsolete sets had become.

Nor was this a blessing. I could not even turn the set on and get a channel without reading a 60-page instruction book. If the truth be known, I could not do it even after trying to make some sense out of the instructions.

The next time my computer guru came over to help me with my computer problems, I asked him to set up the TV set so that I could turn it on.

After he went through the instruction book and waded through all the high-tech options -- none of which interested me in the slightest -- he set up the TV so that I could do something as elementary as turn on the set and choose a channel to watch.

Unfortunately, this was not an unusual experience. All kinds of computerized products -- cameras, cell phones, even car radios -- have had the same problem.

There must be some blind spot that computer engineers have which prevents them from seeing that (1) most people are not computer engineers, (2) there is no point making simple things complicated, and (3) not everyone is looking for a zillion features to have to wade through to do simple things.

Let's start at square one. What is the first thing you want to do with any computerized product? Turn it on.

Why should that be a problem when people were turning things off and on for generations before there were personal computers?Yet computer engineers seem determined to avoid the very words "off" and "on."

Apparently they feel a need to coin new terms for everything, no matter how simple or well-known those things may be. For computers, the word is "start," which you have to go to for either turning the computer off or on.

With our microwave oven, the word is "power." For my car radio and cell phone, there is no word at all.

For other things, there is the same coining of new words for things people already understand by old words. Printers can be set for "landscape" or "portrait," as if people had never heard of horizontal and vertical.

When I had to have a new radio put into my old car, I told the man who installed it, "I didn't go to M.I.T" and wanted the simplest radio to use that he had.

Yet even the simplest radio he had in stock came with over 100 pages of instructions -- and nothing on the radio that said "on" or "off." In fact, none of the buttons on the front of the radio had anything to indicate what they were for.

The man who installed the radio turned it on for me. But this was an old car that I did not use very often, and I did not always want the radio on when I was driving.

Since he had not told me how to turn it off, I just turned the volume down as low as possible, rather than go into the 100 pages of instructions.

I would probably never have learned how to turn that radio off and on if the car's battery had not gone dead one day. While I was waiting on the roof of a parking garage for the Triple-A truck to get there, I had nothing to read except the radio instruction book.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I read the instruction book. You might think that telling you how to turn the radio off and on would be on page 1. But you would be wrong.

That would be too obvious, and computer engineers avoid the obvious like the plague.

Eventually, I came to the place where the instruction book said to turn the radio on by pressing the "source" button.

There was of course nothing on the radio itself that said "source." By leafing through the instructions, however, I eventually found a diagram where one of the buttons was identified as the "source" button. Eureka!

My new cell phone also has nothing to give you a clue as to how to turn it off or on, much less do anything so complicated as phone somebody. The next time the car battery goes dead, I will read the thick instruction book, so that I can call Triple A.