I recently rented a cottage on the Bruce Peninsula and found myself infuriated by the tiny device to control the smart tv: to search for a specific movie in Netflix, you had to swipe across and across and across, back and forth, to move the cursor along the alphabet arranged in a long 26-characterer single line, to click on the desired letters one at a time, understandably often overshooting the mark, then having to swipe across across across to the ‘x’ to backspace and delete … My god, it took me a good thirty seconds per title. Back home, when I watch Netflix I do via my laptop, which I’ve connected to my (dumb) tv. Thus, using all ten digits and the qwerty keyboard, it takes me three seconds per title to search.
I understand the absence of a qwerty keyboard, because it was designed with the mechanics of typewriters in mind, but even a five-by-five (plus one) layout of the alphabet would’ve been more efficient. A wireless keyboard rather than the ipod-sized device would’ve been more efficient still.
But I guess this is the way of the world now? I don’t have a smartphone (no need—I have a laptop for work at home and a pay-as-you-go phone for emergency calls when I’m on the road) (and a gps unit and maps for navigation). Nor do I have a tablet (again, no need). So—touchpads have taken over?
I find that as incomprehensible as the take-over by 16:9 screens for laptops. (I suspect that laptop designers didn’t realize that some people, perhaps even many people, use laptops for reading and writing.) (Substantive reading and writing, not texting-twitter reading and writing.) It seems to me that touchpads are either designed by idiots or designed intentionally to discourage personalized choice—after all, with them, it’s so much easier to just choose from a provided menu than to search for something. In theory, a touchpad could display a qwerty keyboard that one could then use, which nullifies most of what I’m about to say, but at the size of a smartphone or a tablet, it’s not going to be easy to use, in which case most of what I’m about to say is not nullified.
So what am I about to say? That the consequences of the ubiquity of touchpads and therefore menus are scarey indeed.
1. Loss of initiative. The menu—i.e., the realm of possibility—is completely determined by someone else. Poking at options may feel active, but it’s really just reactive. Furthermore, offered only orange or apple juice, one ‘forgets’ there may be pear and pineapple juice out there for the asking—and so they don’t ask.
2. Loss of imagination. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to just choose from a menu or catalogue, but as a habit, for everything in life, it’s a good way to kill imagination and creativity. (I think this is what’s happened to music composition. No one actually composes music anymore: they don’t think of, imagine, a melody, then arrange the harmonies, then the instrumentation, etc.; instead, they just keep choosing from menus and submenus and subsubmenus of music software programs until they have end up with something they like.)
3. Loss of social diversity. When most people use the menus (rather than search beyond the menu or even just past the first ten options), most people are exposed to the same things. Well, you are what you expose yourself to.
4. Loss of product/service diversity. Surely a menu of drama, comedy, thriller, horror, action, and romance doesn’t exhaust all of the movies out there. Some providers (for example, Prime Video—at least on my laptop; maybe the menu is reduced for device/smart tv use?) also list categories like indie films and foreign films, but a complete directory would be a nightmare to access on a touchpad. (You’d be scrolling down for hours just to come across what you want … ) (Unless of course, one could search for a genre or an element—hey, that’s an idea!)
5. Loss of product/service quality. The menu approach opens the door, widely, to errors in categorization. Suppose I want to see such and such a movie, so I look for it in drama, but since it’s not there, I assume it’s not available, so I go to another provider. What if it turns out it was filed in comedy instead? This sort of thing is likely if the categorization is done by idiot algorithms (see “IT, AI, and Us”). I was horrified to find a mud wrestling show on a list of feminist shows; I guess it was deemed feminist because it’s dominated by women—is that what the guy who programmed the algorithm thinks feminism is? And see, right there: with touchpads and, therefore most likely, menus, we’re at the mercy of some guy with a limited education: most programmers are male and, I suspect, haven’t taken a science or humanities course since high school and probably didn’t do well in either at the time, so they very likely have a skewed and woefully inadequate awareness/understanding of the world (I was appalled to hear even a male poli-sci student confess to being unaware of sexism). And that skewed and woefully inadequate awareness/understanding is creating your realm of possibility.