Escape buttons and our technological devolution

Iphone We were once creatures of God-like capability.  Now we are more like small, forest-dwelling animals.  It’s devolution…in a good way.

Technology was the secret of our Godhood.  Machines amplified us.  They let us see better.  Go faster.  Communicate at distance.  Find our way.  Travel on water.  Travel in air.  Escape hunger, cold, and danger.  Machines allowed us to defy our mortality…for awhile.  With technology, we became if not quite gods, far more than mere mortals. 

We are augmented beyond anything that an average hunter-gather would recognize as human.  The glasses on our nose, the cell phone at our ear, the PDA in our hand, the TV in the living room, the computer on the desk top, the car at the curb, the GPS in the car, all of these plugged into grids electrical, electronic, digital, vehicular, and locational.  Man, we’re it.  Our machine-assisted evolution has been a triumphant success. 

What Nye says about Americans applies to everyone.  (OK, not everyone.) 

For Americans, machines were the concretization of reason.  They were  a representation of man’s ability to construct an infinite and perfect world.

I believed all of this (or most of it) until I bought a C. Itoh printer in the early 1990s.  This technology promised to be extend my abilities but the price was high.  It also  demonstrated with sudden clarity the modesty of reason, my reason.

Before long I was stuck.

Was that:

"push the 3rd button once and the 1st button twice while holding the CTRL button"

or was it,

"push the 1st button once and, while holding the CTRL button, the 3rd button twice"?

The fix for this is the escape button with which some technology now comes equipped.  Pam’s iPhone has a button like this (as above, at the bottom).  Whatever happens, however lost you are, you just hit this, and it takes you back to "start here."  I no longer stop to think "damn, where am I and how did I get here."  At the first hint of trouble, I just bail.  I just keep hitting that escape button till I am returned to the reassuring familiarity of the first screen.  I will try again, taken wilder and wilder risks, guessing ever more implausibly, because I have the reassurance that I can find my way home.   

Q_control_hp Take the control panel created by Sam Lucente for HP (eyes right).  When Sam joined HP there were lots of variations at work of a printer’s "steering wheel."  Sam came up with this. HP calls it the Q panel. 

That button on the lower left.  It’s a back out key.  It’s an escape hatch. Get into trouble and we can use this button to sound the alarm.  Every time we hit it, we climb a little higher in the feature hierarchy, and until, hey presto, we bob to the surface like a NASA space capsule. 

It’s a glorious thing, the ability to just get out. So much better than having to master the whole of the C.Itoh manual, hold every option in your head, and divine what to do next.

Very helpful, but a little humiliating.  Doesn’t this sound like the way complexity theory explains how stupid animals do intelligent things. They follow a really simple instruction set.  As in: "Try this. And if that doesn’t work, stop trying that, and hit here."

What happened to that grand idea that cast us as masters of the machine, and through the machine, of a infinite and perfect world.   Now we are much more like pigeons.  I mean, really, that Q panel sends a message.  "We know you are going to fuck this up.  We expect you to fuck up.  When that happens, peck here."  That button is an embarrassment, our declaration of defeat.

People used to brag about their knowledge of machines.  In the post war period, they were always going on about how cars worked.  (Cars were then what digital is now, the most important enablement of human powers.)  I couldn’t actually follow this talk, but this didn’t stop me from hurling around terms like "camshaft" and "carborator," to suggest, occasionally, that I too might be a master of the machine.  Machine talk was triumphant talk.

And there was awhile in the 1990s when people would roll out talk of mother boards, chip speeds and baud rates.  But that’s over now, isn’t it?  We now understand that every new advance in technology will be yet another measure of how little we understand and far we are falling behind.  Now mastery is finding the escape key and the willingness to use it early and often.  I’m using mine now.


Breen, Bill. 2007. Streamlining HP.  Fast Company.  October.  134-140. 
(for the story of Sam Lucente.)

Nye, David E. 1994. American Technological Sublime.  Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 287. (This quote is approximate.)

3 thoughts on “Escape buttons and our technological devolution

  1. Peter

    Grant —

    Stephen Clark, prof of philosophy at University of Liverpool (UK), has argued that we have just left a unique period in human history. This period, which lasted about 100 years from the 1880s to the 1980s, was one in which most people (in the West) had a good idea about how most technical things worked. Before mass education in the late 19th century, most people did not know much about science and technology. And now, although we have mass education, our world uses too many technologies, which are too complex and too interconnected, for most of us to know, even vaguely, how they work.

    There may be deep marketing, sociological and even political ramifications of this new period of mass-techno-ignorance that we are now entering. We will have to take lots of things on trust, since much we are told is not verifiable, not even in principle, by us ordinary people (eg, the effects of climate change; the safety of GM foods; the dependencies in the world financial system; etc).

  2. AJ

    As a user interface designer, I have to play anthropologist sometimes — how do people use things, what affordances do they expect, how do they transfer or analogize the UI of one thing with the way something else works, what do they respond to better or worse…

    I will say that the idea of a back button is both good (it conforms with the “undo” principle of computer UI), and bad (it probably means the UI was designed with multiple modal / hierarchical layers, i.e. you can’t jump from any menu to any menu).

    Modal user interfaces frustrate the user. The idea that you can ‘cancel out’ of an action, or put that action on hold while you do something else, is key to desktop computer UIs today, but phones and other devices are still stuck in a ‘you can’t get there from here’ paradigm. The iPhone goes some way to mitigating this (allowing for smart transitions from music to phone calls when you receive one, etc.), but ultimately it too is a ‘menu tree structure’ modal interface.

    The interesting thing is, with its unique touch UI, the iPhone may make users _feel_ they’re more in control of the experience. User studies show that even if a task takes longer to do, if the user felt they were in control of the experience throughout, it “feels” faster.

    To truly be ‘master’ of the technology, then this printer would either have a big, full-screen interface (too expensive), or it would purposely leave off such a cryptic multifunction interface in favour of well-labelled dedicated buttons, such as CHANGE CARTRIDGE, PRINT TEST PAGE and CLEAN INKJETS.

    Or better still, have no interface at all, and be remotely managed with a proper full-screen interface on your PC (or via a Web browser). The makers of wireless Internet routers have been embedding web pages in their products for years; it’s the cheapest way to give a small box a rich user experience.

  3. LK

    further to the issue of interface…it’s worth mentioning samsung’s ‘flip over’ device; it’s a phone on one side, flip it over and it’s a media device on the other. at first i thought this is kind of cool in that it means the multitude of features are less buried therefore less thumb choreography and keyboard combos etc. reviews to date suggest this still hasn’t addressed the issue

    and re the iPhone…interesting how quickly the iTouch followed the iPhone. among my first feelings upon cradling the iPhone in my hand was ‘damn, this is cool.’ followed by ‘the last thing i think of doing with this thing is talking into it.’

Comments are closed.