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Why Nothing Works Anymore (theatlantic.com)
113 points by dthal 64 days ago | hide | past | web | 92 comments | favorite

While automatic bathroom fixtures are a bit touchy, I think the author hasn't really considered how much they improve the worst case.

I used to regularly walk into public bathrooms in which someone had used the toilet and simply not flushed it. That doesn't happen much any more. I'm willing to deal with a lot of phantom flushes to not deal with someone else's literal shit.

I used to regularly find public bathrooms where someone (I'm assuming a vandal, although it could just be a distracted or careless person) has left the water running. A fully open faucet can erase the gains of more judicious human usage pretty quickly.

The author waxes nostalgic about those cloth towel roll dispensers. His experience does not match mine. I generally see those things in old gas stations where the cleanliness of the towel is deeply suspect.

Automatic faucets are one of my favorite examples of positive added technology. They're flaky and annoying to activate, but compared to the possibility of leaving a faucet running full-blast for (potentially) hours? That's a huge improvement.

Automatic soap dispensers are much less persuasive to me, though. There was no "just open" state to get rid of, so the flakiness is offering much less benefit. You have to touch pump-dispensers, sure, but that's also done before you wash your hands.

Automatic soap dispensers aren't addressing the "dispenser left running" problem (which, as you note, doesn't exist), they are addressing the "user interaction with pump mechanism breaks pump mechanism requiring replacement of mechanism or whole dispenser" problem.

Ah, point. I had totally missed that upside.

I do share the article's vague irritation at trading user convenience (the dispenser works) for owner convenience (the dispenser doesn't break), but it's hardly a huge deal.

A dispenser that has broken also doesn't work. I think the trade-off with (poor, I've seen good ones where this isn't the case) automatic dispensers is reduced median performance in exchange for reduced frequency of total unusability.

What's wrong with the faucets that instead of turning, you push down and they run for a few seconds before stopping?

My pet hate of public toilets now are the airblade style hand dryers. My hands are seemingly too big, so to dry the top (closest to my wrist) I need to bend my fingers to avoid touching the puddle of water and dirt in the bottom.

>What's wrong with the faucets that instead of turning, you push down and they run for a few seconds before stopping?

dirty hands touch them a lot and you have to touch them multiple times during handwashing, re-dirtying your hands

if the stream actually lasted a reasonable amount of time it would be less of an issue but i dont think i've seen that ever

Without towels you're going to touch the door handle on the way out anyways. People that don't wash their hands touched the door handle. My point is to stop pretending you can keep your hands clean for any significant duration

I generally use my feet to open doors actually. It's not at all hard and with touchless faucets and toilets I pretty much only touch paper towels.

With doors you can push to exit, sure. More troublesome are those you have to pull. I basically have to wait impatiently by the door for the next guy to come in so I can get out without touching the door with my hand.

Use a paper towel or the sleeve of your jacket or shirt.

While the airblade dryers aren't a big deal to me, the ones I really hate are the ear-splitting Xcelerators and such. Couldn't they at least mount those on a sound-absorbent board so that my ears don't ring after using it?

Those things are evil. Your comment just made me actually check, and it is as bad as I thought: they're right on the edge of causing hearing damage.

Company-promised volume claims ~78dB with spikes to 90, but a couple of studies suggest all hand-dryer companies are lying (or rather, using favorable bathroom layouts). It looks like the Xcelerator has hit 97dB in studies, and I could swear bad layouts are worse than that - they sound about rock-concert loud.

Which isn't a huge threat to users, it's just aggravating, but is actually enough to break labor laws if you have a bathroom attendant working in there.

Not to mention the fact that Airblades basically spew all the bacteria and viruses that were on your hands all over the bathroom.


Airblades are truly awful.

> Not to mention the fact that Airblades basically spew all the bacteria and viruses that were on your hands all over the bathroom.

Traditionally, one washes one's hands before using a drier rather than (as the test in the story did) dipping them in a bath of viruses.

This is a good point, actually.

I do wish the stream was a bit longer - thorough non-surgical handwashing might take 30 seconds, longer with very dirty hands, and the usual push faucet is perhaps 10 seconds. But the idea is great; my core desire isn't for motion-sensing sinks but automatic-shutoff ones.

I share the airblade problem. The basic model is brilliant, they work far better than traditional hand dryers, but the hand space is perhaps 30% smaller than it needs to be for large hands.

The stream lasts for some amount of time between 3.5 and 8 seconds. Each sink has a different pressure, most too high, a few too low, one just right. When one hundred people go to use the bathroom in a five minute period, that one functioning (other than turning itself off) sink is certainly not available, so the only means of pressure control is to use multiple faucets simultaneously as pressure reliefs, turning hand washing into a soapy game of whack a mole in which your pants come out sprayed from the knees up. Hope you weren't wearing khakis.

I confess I don't care about the toilets flushing multiple times. With how little water toilets use per flush now, it always takes multiple passes to do the job properly, anyway.

At 5'1 I'm often too short to easily use them, I have to stand on my tip toes and try to balance and not hit the walls of those air blade monsters that like to fling water in my face. I guess children have to just walk around with wet hands. I hate those things.

Wait, where are people mounting them?

Being tall, I usually have to hunch over to activate airblades placed somewhere south of my waist, which would be viable for anyone over about 4'. Apparently there's not much consensus on how to place those things.

In my neck of the woods, they're usually on the walls. There doesn't appear to be any standard for how high to place them, it's just wherever it happens to fit. Probably fine for most adults, but shorties and children...nope.

I've seen one recently that was attached to the sink, which was better for being able to reach it, but the place where the water dripped was maybe 6 inches below the air output, so water went -everywhere-.

I enjoyed sinks activated by pushing down on a pedal with your foot. Maybe there are problems for handicapped people but I find this to be a nice solution to those that complain the water stream always stops before you're done.

It's not just me then! I hate these things with a passion too. I have largish hands, but hardly out of the ordinary, and yet I find it difficult to put my hands in and out of the drier without touching the bottom or sides. Another problem I find with these is that they tend to spray the water coming off your hands all over your face.

Not my favourite tech!

Why not have faucets that you can turn on and off at will, but after N seconds of no "user input" they turn off automatically? Don't even make a super complicated faucet, just add an automatically operated valve to the pipe, and make it open quickly, but not instantly (so when you touch the faucet that was running at full blast you don't have an instant mess). Anything that involves a timer or a fixed water speed drives me nuts, and it's not because I like to waste water, at all. It's because I know how to use the thing, and might even want to use less than the fixed dose I'm offered.

The article makes the case of these technologies being positive for parties other than the end user, even when the result for the end user is a net negative. (I.E., automatic faucets save water by preventing it from running full-blast for hours, which saves money for the building owners, but it does so by annoying end users.)

In almost all cases, it's possible to optimize to make both parties happy; when this doesn't happen, it demonstrates a power asymmetry: the people who use these mechanisms (usually installed by an institution: public bathrooms, office coffee machines) matter less than the owners.

> I used to regularly walk into public bathrooms in which someone had used the toilet and simply not flushed it

I use public restrooms once ever two days (sometimes even more) and I very rarely see that. Maybe people in your part of the world are less educated when it comes to using public toilets, or the janitors are not doing their jobs properly (if it matters I live in an Eastern-European capital city).

As for the automatic toilets, I hate them. I only had the displeasure of using them once or twice, and let me tell you, to have that flush of water invade your lower exposed parts all of the sudden while you're doing your toilet-related stuff is not at all nice, quite the contrary. Those toilets are the work of the devil.

I live in the US. I'm fairly sure that the average user of public restrooms knows how toilets work. I think there are just a bunch of jerks who don't bother to flush.

I recently went on a month-long trip to New Zealand. I have never seen so many clean restrooms in my life. Sure there were a few that were kinda nasty, but the overall cleanliness was super impressive. Even the bathrooms in gas stations were always clean.

I mean, I spent a month traveling there, and had no problems using public restrooms on a regular basis. If I'm traveling here (mostly West Coast US) I have to make multiple stops before I find a clean restroom.

It could be that NZ relies a lot more on tourism, so people try harder to keep things nice. But hey, hope you enjoyed my anecdotal story.

The toilets in the US seems to clog more easily than toilets in other parts of the world. I don't understand why America hasn't figured this out.

Maybe people in your part of the world are less educated when it comes to using public toilets

It occurred to me (and people I know) more than once that I did flush, multiple times, and that the damn toilet just refused to suck up everything I put in there. And for some reason this was always in public bathrooms, across Western Europe. Hypothesis is that due to being used a lot and possibly not cleaned in the correct way there's to much deposit of bicarbonates limiting water flow and the force/pressure of the water being flushed isn't high enough to flush everything in there. Not much an automatic toilet could do about that btw.

I think it happens because when you lean forward too much, so the sensor thinks your 'not there' anymore.

> The author waxes nostalgic about those cloth towel roll dispensers. His experience does not match mine. I generally see those things in old gas stations where the cleanliness of the towel is deeply suspect.

The author was talking about hand-cranked dispensers for paper towels, not cloth ones.

Ah, you're right. I misread that part.

In most of these cases technology seems to have replaced something that was fairly precarious and imperfect before.

Autocorrect incorrectly assuming the word you want to use replaced that message taking three days to arrive at its destination. Content wrapped in DRM replaced that content not being available at all. Unwieldy knobs and dials in hotel room showers replaced... unwieldy knobs and dials in hotel room showers. Amazon's tyranny of choice replaced being price gouged because the thing you wanted was only stocked by one retailer in town.

This folksy techno-luddism is quick to point out the foibles of what we have now, but almost never points out how shit things used to be.

At least it doesn't end in the same place as most of these pieces, with a vacuuous assertion that we all need to start living 'in the moment.'

Is it that you think progress is a 1D line, where you're either "pushing forward" or a "folksy techno-luddite"? Because it's actually a tree, and any given moment we have a lot of options of how to go forward, where to and why. We can even go back and take other branches sometimes. It's kind of ironic to not see that and pretend you're some kind of expert on progress.

> Autocorrect incorrectly assuming the word you want to use replaced that message taking three days to arrive at its destination.

Seems like you don't remember email on your PC.

> Content wrapped in DRM replaced that content not being available at all.

Seems like you don't remember Napster either. Where were you in the decade 1995–2005?

> Autocorrect incorrectly assuming the word you want to use replaced that message taking three days to arrive at its destination.

Seems like you don't remember email on your PC.

Or simply sms without autocorrect. OP has a point, but this indeed is a bad example. As far as I can see autocorrect for messaging being wrong didn't replace anything, it's something new which just doesn't always work properly. Which is exactly the point of the article.

I think there's a little more to it than that; I feel like the rise of autocorrect is pretty strongly correlated with the rise of glass keyboards, an intrinsically imprecise input method. I remember being pretty damn precise (and fast), typing blind, while pounding out sms on my Motorola Razr.

I could type faster using T9 on a 10-key flip phone than I can on an iPhone today. On Android I used SwiftKey for many years and would bet I'm fastest on that, but I decided to try an iPhone 6S and it seems like a huge step back regarding input. I still can't believe they don't have a swype-like input method.

iOS supports third-party keyboards since, like, 8th edition. Exactly what made iPhone acceptable to me.

Not that I'm too happy with it: for some reason my SwiftKey's gesture-recognizing algorithm seems to be getting worse over time, while next-word prediction becomes better.

Oh wow, that's embarrassing for me, but thank you!

I think it's safe to assume the OP meant being available legally.

Fine, point taken, I amend my example to: seems like the OP doesn't remember actual honest-to-God Red Book CDs, which it was both practical and (in the US) legal to rip (format-shift) for personal use.

Or, you know, physical books, which were a quite successful system for distributing text for literally hundreds of years. And which came not only with the right to make personal copies, but with right of first sale (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-sale_doctrine) so you could turn around and sell them to someone else when you grew tired of them.

> Seems like you don't remember Napster either. Where were you in the decade 1995–2005?

The golden age of digital music ended in 2016 with the death of what.cd

What.CD violated the first rule of preserving things on the internet: make lots of copies. https://rocknerd.co.uk/2016/11/19/what-the-death-of-what-cd-...

"Unwieldy knobs and dials in hotel room showers replaced..."

But this is very much an example of the author's point.

Without researching it yet, I bet you can find simpler, better designed bathtub and shower controls from the 1930s with better usability than what we find today.

We have an old oven in our basement, and our current upstairs oven broke recently. It was very pleasant to have a single, analog nob I just had to turn to "400" to start the oven heating to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The new oven has a numeric keypad, and requires finding the "bake" button in the matrix of identically shaped buttons.

If you imagine the modern version being invented first, the nob version could be marketed with a Johnny Ive style video talking about the relentless focus of simplicity and usability of this innovative new design!

Microwave ovens used to have a single analog knob that was a timer. They were a joy to use, but you can't buy them any more. Now all microwaves have dozens of buttons, only one of which I ever use: Popcorn. If I need less time than actual popcorn, I just have to watch the damn thing and open the door early. It's ridiculous.

FYI, you can still buy commercial microwaves with knob controls and an absence of useless buttons.

Last time I checked I didn't find any but thanks for the info. I'll look again.

My childhood shower was a simple two-axis device. In/out for pressure, left/right for temperature. It had enough travel distance to not scald or freeze, and was generally excellent despite being ~30 years old.

For some reason, the style fell out of favor. Not even to high-tech showers, just to single axis systems which blast water at high heat and trickle it for cold.

This sort of thing really is a usability failure, providing a slightly cheaper and simpler product for the median consumer while harming anyone with vaguely non-standard intentions.

There is book called "The Design of Everyday Things" that discusses such things. https://www.amazon.com/Design-Everyday-Things-Donald-Norman/... I don't even know if it is a cheap product thing as many of the cheap products are very usable. For example, light switches are very cheap. People place them in strange places or in strange orders and it makes them hard to use.

Autocorrect replaced "having an actual keyboard on your phone where you could just type in exactly the letters you actually meant", which was the really nice way things worked before the iPhone came along and destroyed the market for BlackBerry-style devices. Alas.

This is one reason I have almost no interest in IoT / home automation. It just replaces extremely mild annoyances (turning on the lights) with something complicated and fragile.

But there are ways to build/architect home automation so that it's an "addition" and at worst will go back to "dumb switch".

Most of the light switches in my house are wired up through Z-Wave. Those z-wave boxes are in the electrical box in-between the normal, everyday, traditional light switch and the power.

100% of the time, if i flip the switch a direction, it changes the state of the light. It never fails. Power just came back on? still works. Z-Wave controller down? Still works. Internet out? still works.

Then, I can "add on" automation using that zwave network to do things like turn lights on/off from my phone.

If anything were to cause issues, have bugs, have problems, etc... I can unplug the controller and it goes back to fully functioning light switches.

I think your hitting the aspect most IoT designers never think about: systems should fail like an escalator, not an elevator. You should still be able to get the basic usage out of the product if everything else fails.

While I'm working on my own system similar to yours, and I'm designing around the same concept, most IoT manufacturers aren't. I get why people's default reaction to IoT stuff is to run away, because they are mostly very poorly designed.

I love that expression! "Fail like an escalator" describes it perfectly!

The issue I see is that there are many things that are designed like that, but they often require professional installation or are significantly more expensive, which leads to many just getting the cheaper option which works in the best case scenario.

And that's the right way to go about designing home automation. I want to have the ability for my bedside lamp to turn on whenever my alarm is set to go off and then shut off when I have left for work. But I also want to retain control over the light with manual control (aka, the pullstring). Getting a hue or any of the other similar bulbs would help the alarm situation but if you pull the switch of a lamp with a smart bulb in it, the bulb ceases to be smart. Thus one solution is to add a second manual control so I control the actual light and not the power to the wireless hardware inside but this means buying or making additional hardware that has to work flawlessly. I don't want to want my bedside light to not work in the middle of the night. The other option is to use a lamp with two sockets in there, one analog bulb and one smart bulb.

I think the easiest solution for now is to just keep my blinds open a bit more and just use the sun like people have been for thousands of years.

There's one part of home automation that's interesting I think: energy savings. With electric cars, electric batteries and solar panels and smart heating getting cheaper than the gas version, there is a need for all home devices related to high energy usage to be automated...and sadly machine learning needs lots of data that is going to be provided on the internet by the home devices (that will create lot of privacy issues of course).

I concur. Are there benefits and use cases for some of these things? Sure, but in the vast majority of cases it's simpler, easier, and less expensive to go with what we've got now.

Agree. The fact that IoT's are dependent on the most fragile part of my home, the wifi, makes me lose interest in all of it.

The geek side of me really wanted to install a smart thermometer. It would record my movement and learn when to turn the heat on for me!

Then I realized I could just program my old one to turn on in the morning and evening when I am home on my set schedule. It works just fine, and I know enough to think that replacing it with a complicated machine-learning process might cost me more headache than occasionally turning the heat up.

This reminds me of the "everything is awesome and nobody is happy" essay.

We are most of the way to the wonderful goal of being able to use the bathroom without touching anything anyone else has touched, and all this person can do is complain that it isn't quite perfect.

Do you remember the 80s solution for public faucets? They used springs to turn off the water after five seconds. You had to press a button really hard, then wash really fast. The electric things aren't perfect, but they are a big improvement.

The complaints about auto correct are especially funny. I had a palm 5 and a wonderful folding keyboard and a cdpd modem. But only one serial port on the palm, so it was connectivity or keyboard, not both. Graffiti was terrible compared to any modern input system. The smartphone in my pocket is amazing. Swype is what it took to make me abandon thumb boards, and Swype is amazing.

I'm a software engineer, and I work with technology all day long, and am mostly thankful for it - it pays the bills, after all. But I dearly love going back home to Hicksville a couple weekends a month. Most of the stuff my parents have and use on a daily basis is older than I am, and it just works, because it is all mechanical and built to a much higher standard than you can get without spending an exorbitant amount of money now, if indeed you can get that kind of quality at all. It's not like it was high-end stuff at the time they bought it, either - I'm talking about a 1930s John Deere farm tractor, a couple 1980s Ford pickups, kitchen appliances from the 1970s, hand tools that could collect Social Security. Stuff that just works, and if it breaks, any idiot with some basic tools can fix.

Even mundane objects that nobody (I hope) is ever going to try to put a WiFi card in are not-so-subtly more terrible than they used to be. My favorite example is the five-gallon gasoline can[1].

[1] http://www.gad.net/Blog/2012/11/22/one-mans-quest-for-gas-ca...

That reminds me of an old electric range/stove I took to the dumps. It was the ugliest looking thing that came out of the 1980s, with it's electric stove coils that didn't always sit level, but man did it just work up until the day I took it out. At least my new gas stove cooks more evenly.

wow thanks for linking to that article. My current gas can is ridiculously difficult to use.

That's partly because of safety regulations making it have anti-spill features.

> devices like automatic-flush toilets acclimate their users to apparatuses that don’t serve users well in order that they might serve other actors, among them corporations and the sphere of technology itself

This nails it. It's not that things couldn't be implemented in a way that serves the users, it's that they're optimized to serve the interests of other parties first.

> The iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard works, in part, by trying to predict what the user is going to type next. It does this invisibly, by increasing and decreasing the tappable area of certain keys based on the previous keys pressed.

I've had an iPhone since iOS 2 and I never realized the key's touch area could change size. If you ask me the iPhone keyboard works perfectly.

Absolutely agreed. I could type better on an iPod touch with its tiny 2010 screen than I can on my 6 inch Android screen (despite my large hands.)

Outside of that, the author nailed it. Especially the phone system, though he could have taken it further in saying that the humans after the recordings is also taught to not serve the user, but rather be an obstruction with just enough "give" to prevent legal action. The exceptions to the seem rare, but I definitely cling to them.

I tend to think that this is a product of the "newness" of technologies. Old technologies - such as paper, pens, flush toilets, etc. - lasted in part because they were robust and not-precarious. We don't remember the technologies that fell by the wayside along the way - they simply didn't last.

I find it extremely funny that loading the website shows me a message asking me to turn off my ad blocker. Seems that some things don't work anymore because we break them intentionally...

BTW I'd be fine looking at some ads, turning off my blocker is not an option though as the third party ads always track your behavior and often store personally identifiable data without user consent.

The argument can easily be made that your ad blocker is the component that's intentionally breaking things.

For values of breaking that include

- Keeping your pc free of malware. - Keeping people from trying to aggressively promote lies, half truths, and nonsense in your own home. - Making the web work both better and faster.

As I said, I don't have a problem with ads per se, what I find objectionable is that most display ads download Javascript into my browser that tries to do funky things (like use HTML Canvases for fingerprinting, inject stuff into the local-/sessionstore) and usually sends data to some remote hosts that could be used to de-anonymize me (even revealing my IP address is enough to do that in many cases).

From my own experience (I did various research projects on this working with journalists) the data usually ends up in places where it's not supposed to be and might cause a lot of harm in the future, hence by blocking this content I'm trying to protect myself as good as I can.

I'd accept ads if the following conditions are met:

* They are served through a trustworthy CDN, which guarantees that my IP information will not leak to the ad network operator.

* They do not execute JS and consist of elements whose safety can be (reasonably) proved, e.g. images and text.

* They do not blink, move, break the page or hide the content that I want to read.

* They do not try to "contact the mothership", sending back personally identifiable information to their overlords.

Sadly, I have not seen a single serious effort to implement this, instead websites just ask me to disable my ad blocker and expose myself to privacy risks. No.

I can easily imagine the author including this in his original version of the article, and being asked to take it out by his editor!

It reminds me of the bathrooms at the conference center at the Union Square Hilton where a sensor will ejaculate some white creamy foam soap on your cuffs if you aren't careful.

I once saw a soap dispenser which had gotten stuck in a loop.

If no one caught the soap, it fell past the sensor, triggering another soap release, and so on.

I'm sure it was a special case, some obscure failure of the repeat-dispense lockout or something. But I couldn't help marveling at how much effort had gone into making such a singularly crap product; it was behaving worse than would even be possible for a lower tech device.

Reminds me of this marvel of modern engineering: http://imgur.com/Na9jGYR

I drive past a spotlight every day on my way home from work which just flashes on and off the entire time. I'm quite sure it's because the dusk-to-dawn sensor senses dark, turns on the light, which then hits the sensor and turns it off again, ad infinitum.

You can see this in websites too. Each year they get bigger and slower while offering nothing (of value) new to the user.


I think it's interesting how PC technology has changed in the past 30 years. I remember when PC's first were everywhere in the late 80's. They generally worked, but when they went down (like a virus), they were down for a long time and sometimes never came back.

This is all subjective, but I feel like the end of the 90's and early 2000's was the low point for PC's and computers in general.

Viruses were everywhere it seemed. Things would break all the time. Shit was never compatible. You had to have detailed knowledge of how software worked in order to fix it.

I remember the day I was trying to fix my PC when I finally looked some of the more under the hood files and programs, and was blow away at the complexity. It was very humbling.

Then, somewhere in the late 2000's, something changed and I feel like computers have been working better.

I don't have to fix my computer nearly as much. It just sort of works.

Sure, there are issues, but the frequency and intensity are much less (knock on wood).

This reads like a general lament about the world at large declining.

The declensionist narrative is really in fashion right now.

People have been pining for the past golden days since antiquity. I'm not really sure if it truly can be said to be "in fashion right now"

I learned a new word today. I spent a full minute wondering what you meant to say, because declensions are grammatical patterns, then finally realized that "declension" actually has "decline" as a root.

Ok this seems like a good time to get something that's been bothering me off my chest. Can we please start using pressure sensors on toilet seats instead? It kind of feels like it always should have been that way.

Finding out about this a few months ago was enlightening. Entire classes of messes I've seen in public restrooms that were previously inexplicable short of deliberate action became comprehensible through a combination of stand-to-wipers plus carelessness.

Okay, then let's get rid of wiping too. It's basically non-existent in parts of Asia, and after spending six months doing it their way, I'm a convert, especially when it's the integrated bidet rather than the hose. You just feel so much cleaner afterwards and the savings on toilet paper is an added bonus.

> Digital distribution has also made media access more precarious. Try explaining to a toddler that the episodes of “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” that were freely available to watch yesterday via subscription are suddenly available only via on-demand purchase.

It was a pain trying to explain to a toddler why they couldn't watch Sesames Street right now because it wasn't currently airing.

Generally, explaining anything to a toddler is a pain.

I think autocorrect provably does not provide any value. When you make a typo, then the autocorrect mechanism is making an inference on your input that the receiver of that message would be able to make better, since they have way more context, and humans are still much better at this kind of problem than computers.

I think we're in the dark ages of user interface currently. It feels like we've mastered skeuomorphism and moving away is fine, but we're in the infancy of whatever's next.

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