Rise of the machines

Most Brits return from holiday with a sunburn, but Jim Davies was feeling flushed before he left – after a disastrous encounter with technology

I recently returned from a holiday in Greece. But a lot of people know that already.

The thing is, just before I left – giddy with anticipation – I decided to set up an auto-reply on my e-mail. If a client tried to get in touch while I was away, they’d know I was simply recharging my batteries – all the better to jump, fresh and invigorated, into their project upon my return. It looks organised and professional.

Now I’d grappled with this process before with reasonable success. But I felt the results were too indiscriminate. I’d be bouncing back news of my absence to everyone who sent me an e-mail, from the Lego Club to First Direct, to various less savoury spam mailers I’d rather not mention in these wholesome pages. This time, I told myself, it was going to be different. Considered. Targeted. I’d set it to respond only to people I’d dealt with before.

And that’s when the fun really started. It was as if I’d opened Pandora’s box. My computer suddenly went berserk, frantically sending out my ‘I’ll be away’ message back to every e-mail I’d ever received. That’s more than 2000 – two years’ worth of the things. I tried to stop it, but it was as futile as chasing after a runaway train – I just couldn’t keep up.

Some of my more regular correspondents got up to 50 repeat messages from me, while long lost friends and contacts had to make do with a mere half dozen. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the people who know and love me best had to spend the most time with their fingers on the delete button. Much to my surprise, I received lots of replies from old muckers and clients I hadn’t heard from for ages wishing me happy hols. But the truth is, I set off with an extremely red face – even before I’d seen a ray of sun.

Now, I’m not for a second blaming my tools. I love my iMac. It’s a beautiful object to behold and Apple Computer, more than any company, has worked to design an interface that’s intuitive and logical. But as our equipment becomes ever more sophisticated, it absolutely mustn’t become more complicated to use. If anything, design should strive to make it as simple – dare I say ‘idiot-proof’ – as possible. I’m not claiming to be a computer geek, but I like to think I know my onions, and setting up an e-mail auto-reply really should have been a doddle.

Most of us – unless we work in memory-munching areas like computer animation or digital retouching – are hardly pushing our computers to the limit. You can compare it to having a souped-up car, but just idling along at a leisurely 30mph. So anything we ask of our computers should be well within their capabilities. The really clever thing, though, would be to design them to anticipate our needs, and to make sure every command is as easy as turning on a tap or opening a fridge door.

And the place to start is undoubtedly the on-screen language. It’s not nearly friendly, clear or comprehensible enough. If the message ‘Unknown error # 35509’ pops up when I’ve hit a wrong key, how am I supposed to respond? ‘The application so-and-so has unexpectedly quit’ – well, clearly, that’s self-evident. I’d like to have more of a dialogue with my computer. I’d like it to be polite and urbane, with a sense of humour.

Come to think of it, judging by my recent experiences, maybe it has one already.

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