Saturday, March 13, 2010

Not What I Meant To Say

Subprime mortgages. Rock reunion tours. Robert De Niro doing comedy. Like many things, all probably seemed to be good ideas at the time. But sometimes the execution makes you wonder what "they" were thinking of when "they" thought it up. Or put another way, for every "Silence of the Lambs" there is a "Hannibal."

Technology is a great example of this. Take the iCEBOX Kitchen Network System. Through a central control panel, the idea was to tie together a specially designed coffee maker, microwave and breadmaker. You would load them up when the day started, then control them from your computer at work. Hit the right buttons, and you were supposed to be able to walk into your house to a fresh pot of coffee, a fresh loaf of bread and a hot dinner. A Jetson-esque future to be sure, but one that wasn't quite ready for prime time. Or as one reviewer put it, "For the $2,350 price tag to equip your kitchen with the Beyond system, you could hire a butler and a hooker to do ten times the amount of work."

That's not to say that new ideas and approaches can't work well, sometimes astoundingly so. Who would have thought that your phone could identify a song playing on the radio, or that you could carry every album you ever bought on an MP3 player the size of a matchbook. Sometimes all it takes is a little time. Back at the 1964 New York World's Fair, I crowded into a booth with my family to call my grandmother on the first "consumer" video phone. Of course, while we could see ourselves, she couldn't see us. And even if she had the requisite device on her end, it's unlikely we would have made the call anyway: adjusted for inflation, a 15 minute chat cost about $900. Not quite five decades later our kids, be they in South America or Maine, can see and talk to their grandmother in New Jersey via Skype for nothing.

So at one end you have the promise; at the other, the realization. More often than not, however, it feels like we're in the middle rather than at either end, that exasperating place where the kinks are still being smoothed over and the missteps are frequent. You see this today with the smartphones that have virtually exploded into everyone's hands. They do more than we ever thought possible, but have shortcoming that make them truly maddening.

For instance, mine sports both GPS mapping and voice recognition. To test it, I sat in my car and said very clearly, "Navigate to Staples Office Supplies." It thought about it for a few seconds, then popped up the two stores nearest to where I was sitting. I selected one, and a a map appeared with turn by turn directions to get there. I followed the route, and as I pulled up a photo of the exact location appeared along with the notification "You have arrived." It was almost scary.

But that was under laboratory conditions. Soon thereafter we were strolling down the street in New York City. We wondered about a particular restaurant we had eaten at several months before, but for which we couldn't recall the exact name nor location. All we remembered was that the cuisine was Israeli. So out came the phone. As the wind whipped around us, we huddled in a doorway while I shouted into it over the street noise: "Navigate to Israeli restaurant." A few seconds later, up came the choices: a map of Israel, a collection of Israeli recipes and directions to Beth Israel Medical Center. I've heard their coffee shop is good, but...

Another example: when typing a note, the phone guesses what you what to say based on a few letters, then fills in the blanks. It works surprisingly well for most words, but gets hung up on abbreviations. Whenever I type "Pls" for "Please" it immediately changes it to "Ploshnick." And when I responded to a query about where I was with "FYI in NY," and hit send before I checked, it had changed it to "Dying in New York." I had to quickly call my mother and tell her I was still breathing.

Of course, barely a decade ago, even the idea of capabilities like this were merely a dream. But we're an impatient lot at best. And so with each new advance we expect more faster, going from wonderment to complaining in record time. After all, history records that Alexander Graham Bell's famous first telephone transmission was, "Watson, Come here, I need you." It doesn't record that Watson immediately set about inventing the answering machine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is thrilled with his new phone, until he throws it across the room. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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