This is the Modem World: Give me the keys, I'll drive!

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|10.10.12

Sponsored Links

This is the Modem World: Give me the keys, I'll drive!

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

"Give me that" I huffed, teeth clenched.

Snatching the iPhone from my friend's hands, I swiftly pulled up directions to The Grove despite the inadequacies of Apple's new Google Maps replacement. While I'd rather have the old Google Maps back, I was able to work around the quirks and get what I needed.

On Saturday, my fiancée and I sat down to watch a movie on Netflix. She simply handed the remote to me as she knew I'd have things set up in no time: I knew which activity to select on the Harmony One, to switch on the PS3 and how to search on the console's version of the Netflix app (each one is bizarrely different for some reason).

Yes, she could have gotten us there, but I'm a better driver. She would have used the Netflix app on our connected TV. It works, but it uses the TV's speakers and I need to watch things with glorious 5.1. Does she care? Not so much.

But she knows that I drive our tech better than she does and she's happy to leave it to me.

It used to be common practice in software to offer what was called an "expert mode" that simplified interfaces and allowed users to employ shortcuts to get what they needed. It was like a manual transmission for word processors and spreadsheets.

Today, "expert mode" still exists, but even it is being dumbed down. Mac experts, for instance, can be seen using keystrokes and multi-touch gestures to move from app to app and trigger other OS-level actions. The problem -- if you can call it a problem -- is that Apple is trying to get everyone to use these shortcuts. They tell us this is better for all of us, but we just want our keystrokes.

The intention is good: get people to use their tech more quickly and easily. The results, though, are people confused by the gestures or not using them at all while the experts are stuck stumbling through unnecessary steps to do what they need to do. In extreme situations, we resort to installing middleware that enables old-school keystrokes and shortcuts.

Are some people simply better drivers of technology? Outside of years of practice, is there an innate ability in some of us to just pick up a smartphone, laptop, tablet or home theater remote and know how to drive because we know what kind of processors and operating systems are between us and what needs to be done?

The answer is an obvious "yes," but when I watched my fiancée toss me the remote without a care in the world, I realized that it's less about skill than it is desire. Some people just don't want to be bothered.

"Just put the movie on," they say. They don't care how they got there.

Similarly, auto enthusiasts watch other drivers creep by in automatic transmission slush boxes and wonder why they even bother. Truth is, though, that in most cases, they're moving around in a more efficient, cost-effective car the whole time.

Meanwhile, those who just use their smartphones to make calls, update their social networks, take photos and watch some videos are, possibly, having more fun than we are because at the end of the day they don't care how they got there. They're sitting at the bar with their friends Instagramming and tweeting while the rest of us are agonizing over browser choices.

In truth, though, we're not moving much faster than they are. We just want to play with our stuff on the way. Maybe that's why we all rush for the new gear: it's unexplored and challenging and brings us back to those rare moments when we didn't know how to drive. In secret, maybe, we love it when things are hard to use.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

Popular on Engadget