I’ve noticed a shitty tech trend, now that I’ve been alive for enough decades to see several generations of technology come and go: that is, the loss of control over basic functions to the end user.
Think about it.
Tape decks used to have something like:
▶️ ⏸️ ⏹️ ⏺️ ⏩ ⏪ ⏏️
Some fancy ones, and CD players also had:
And let’s not forget:
This might be an exception in modern tech (though I don’t think so), but I’m a Sonos user, and the only buttons that physical device actually has (the model I use anyway) apart from a + and – button for volume is:
I might just be becoming an old fuddy-duddy, but I don’t see that as progress. I see that as loss of control.
Okay, you might argue that there are software controls. Sure. And that those can be quite complex. But they can also be buggy, and they require updates, etc.
One thing that has bugged me to no end on Sonos when I’m using it with Spotify is I can’t skip to the next track unless I open up the controller on my computer (I don’t use cell phones and am opposed to them). So, I ended up buying this other add-on system called Lutron which gives me back:
Plus I can cycle through pre-programmed sources, which I have to program in the app. So in order to get a *fragment* of the functionality which came standard on multiple previous generations of technology, I had to cobble together a custom system, buy and install extra hardware and software, etc.
So what’s the point? Stop using Sonos and shut up? That’s one option…
Except the problem I think is much deeper, and more insidious than that. Because taking away controls is a trend across the majority of consumer technologies. And it’s done for what reason? Simplicity? Efficiency? Consumer demand? I’m not sure, but I hate it.
I hate it so much, I’ve been stewing on this blog post about it for weeks. Because I see the same thing happening with AI tools as they get released. The first generation of a tool comes out with, metaphorically speaking, a whole bunch of controls:
⏯️ ⏹️ ⏺️ ⏩ ⏪ ⏏️ ⏮️ ⏭️ ? ?
It’s pretty cool; people dig it. I guess some subset of people ends up “abusing” it (however you want to define that), or else some bigger company comes along to swallow up that user base and underlying tech, and then suddenly we’re left with just one or two axes of control – just one button:
I think this direction, especially when applied to AI, is going to prove to be incredibly dangerous and destructive to humanity and our ability to, 1) understand the full range of functionality of AI tools, and 2) to actually make effective and meaningful use of them.
Are there legitimate safety concerns around deploying AI tools responsibly? Absolutely. Should we strip down (nerf) their functionality until they are a shell of their former selves – i.e., remove all the “buttons” people might use to hurt themselves or others? I’m not so sure that’s the right answer either, because it puts an unwieldy amount of power into the hands of the owners of the tech – who probably already have too much power in the first place – who then get to decide on behalf of others what is “safe” and acceptable usage, and what is not.
I’m frustrated too because I see this same underlying dynamic play out again and again more generally in tech, in platforms, apps, services, etc. Developers/owners by virtue of having created or maintaining the tech basically get to set *all* the benchmarks of what this thing is, how it’s going to be allowed to be used, etc. And users meanwhile have no say, and no recourse. If you don’t like it, you get to either 1) whine about it fruitlessly on social media, and are told to 2) go “vote” for feature x on some feedback website whose pretense is to make it appear that product development is not (completely) an autocratic endeavor, and that the product team is “listening.” Hint: many/most of the time(s) they are not. Most of the times it has long ago been decided, or randomly and suddenly decided that from this day forth, we will only offer one button ⏯️ and you can take it or leave it.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I hate this trend and how prevalent it is, and how powerless the end use is to change it. Sure, you can stop using the tool or whatever. But that’s a drop in the ocean. And if the tool is big enough and popular enough, they can afford to shed tens or hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions?) of users who don’t like the offering, and others will line up to replace them.
Maybe there’s no way out, and this is just what it feels like to grow old – to see these things happening, to have seen them happen before, and to not have any lever to change them yourself. But that doesn’t make it any easier of a pill to swallow. ?
I guess maybe the only answer is that it’s time to break out the tape deck? That or rail against the howling wind…