Friday, February 01, 2008

Multifunctional Choices - Dysfunctional Choosing

A Multifunctional Landscape
Several years ago, before the popularity of multi-function machines, we were content with simply having a single function device. The computer is a basic data processor. The ink-jet printer is solely used for spitting ink on paper. The telephone is a tool for talking with another person. Times have changed, and the tools thereof. Modern computers resemble a physical ‘David’ with ‘Goliath-like’ talents. Not only do computers process data, they communicate with other machines. They run multiple programs and they are very mobile. Even the traditional humble printer has been increasingly assimilated into a gargantuan multi-function machine, which can also fax, scan, read memory devices, run telephony work and even threatens the future of their photocopier-only cousins. Cellular phones have gone beyond their traditional use to include gaming, appointment calendars, MP3 players, digital photo albums and a growing list of digital functions. The justification to buy multi-capable devices is simple. Not only do I pay less for a machine that occupies less space, I have a machine that does everything I have ever wanted. More-for-less, why not? This short essay questions this assumption. Are we really getting more for less, or is it more virtual than real?

Scattering the Mindscape
Many of us encounter moments where we simply do not know what to do with what we have. One sign of affluence is in terms of the huge array of choices before us. We have so many selections that knowing how to choose becomes a fine art in itself. We rely on specialists to give us an opinion about how to purchase stuff, often assuming that they know better than us about what we need or use. A good guide will be one who asks us questions rather than shoving some information down our vulnerability. Often, we find our own answers, if only we are willing to spend some time and effort to know we we need. It is a fallacy that you need a technologist before you can buy technological solutions. Often, the best decision-making is not based on what the technology can do for you, but we understand about what we need. If we find a salesman not explaining in lay language about the technological solution, we must not succumb to any avalanche of jargon but to simply walk away and talk with someone else who bothers to speak something more human. It is a shame that some have fallen prey to technological razzle-dazzle that they eventually buy something they do not need. (For example, buying a multifunctional machine that is supposedly value for money, when all one needs is a normal printer.)

In this technological world, as we try to make machines behave more like people, people end up behaving more like machines. They speak computer terms, and think that computers help to evoke their sense of identity. Sherry Turkle, a Professor from MIT, is one of the earliest researchers who is interested in not simply what we can do with computers, but what computers are doing to us.
“Ours has been called a culture of narcissism. The label is apt but can be misleading. It reads colloquially as selfishness and self-absorption. But these images do not capture the anxiety behind our search for mirrors. We are insecure in our understanding of ourselves, and this insecurity breeds a new preoccupation with the question of who we are. We search for ways to see ourselves. The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object.” (Sherry Turkle, The Second Self)

Turkle has a point. We have a strong temptation to reduce ourselves to machines speaking machine language. We do not simply lose our sense of identity. We replace it with an inferior one, thinking that a technological solution is the best for us. With scattered minds, we aggravate a fallen self with bad choices that spin our identity crisis out of our orbit of authenticity. We are what we choose. Our choices reflect a lot of who we are. We are fallen people living in a fallen world. Sophisticated individuals may admit they are fallen, but they can try to live as if they are not, thinking that they are an exception. They may even behave as if the world owes them a living, putting expectations on others that they do not normally expect of themselves. On the human nature, Donald Bloesch claims that:
“Man in the technological society has been reduced to the level of a machine. But a machine cannot sin means a rupture in a personal relationship with God. The machine runs mechanistically, but man is a free being endowed with infinite possibilities. The tragedy is that he has misused his freedom and has thereby fallen into slavery to his own lust for power. Yet even in his slavery he remains free, though no longer to do the good but now to satisfy his selfish desires.” (Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology Vol 1, Harper Row, 1978, 89)
Scattered Minds, Scattered Choices – THE MFM
A multifunctional landscape, combined with a dysfunctional mindscape is a potent mix for identity confusion. I shall give an example of how choosing multifunctional machines (MFM) reflects this human condition.

The popularity of MFMs is predicated on the promise that these modern devices are not only more capable but they are also cheaper than the sum of all the individual purchases. Salespeople will look for whatever means to increase their sales. Buyers will find many ways to make sure they are getting value for their buck. Is the buyer’s primary purpose to get the best value for the buck? Or is the primary purpose to purchase a tool to fulfill one’s need? A lot of people no longer know what they want, so they make a simple choice of buying an all-in-one under the false assumption that ‘someday-perhaps-I-will-need-it.’ They become distracted by the subtle value-for-money proposition, which makes them pay more for additional functions they may not eventually use. One of my ex-colleagues once said: “Free things, people hardly use.” This is a sad result of getting something without really paying for it directly. I think of all those free CDs that Internet Service Providers distribute free of charge with their computer magazines. Many of them eventually go down the trash without even being opened. Buy one get one free, appears attractive, but usually we end up paying more for the first item. Another factor is convenience. An affluent society worships the idol of convenience. All-in-one hybrids. 24x7, fast-food, quick and easy, convenience stores, more-for-less, cheap-n-good, are all branches of the trunk of convenience, drawing nourishment from the roots of a serious identity crisis. Convenience has been enthroned as the new god, and many pay a high premium for it.

There are several arguments against uncritical buying of multifunction equipment. Technically, if a key component fails, the entire machine breaks down. Repairs can become much more expensive than buying a new machine altogether. Environment-wise, frequent upgrades and disposal of old equipment lead to the unfortunate buildup of e-waste, which can potentially damage our environment and health. Quality-wise, for example, the best printout of a multifunction printer cannot compare with a pure printer of the same price. One gives up some print quality for the price of convenience. If we print more than 90% of the time, does it justify paying more for a 6-function machine? If we know we are going to print more than we scan, would not it be wiser to invest in a more reliable printer than a machine that is prone to damage when we switch functions? A friend of mine was looking for a fax machine and was attracted (probably distracted), toward a multifunction machine. My advice was to buy something that is reliable based on the projected usage of the device. Shrewd purchasing requires a keen sense of knowing what we want. Good purchasers must educate themselves properly, otherwise more-for-less will mean more for the seller, and less for the buyer. As machines increase in their functionalities, it can become more complex. Users may eventually spend more time fiddling and trying to get their machine work. Having all the features in one machine may be convenient, but it causes lots of other issues. Nothing is for free. It will cost us something elsewhere.

I have no doubt that the quality of multifunctional equipment will improve. People will increasingly prefer multi-functions to single function ones. In fact, multi-function machines might possibly become the single-use machines of yesterday. My problem with this trend is not about engineering or technological creativity. My key apprehension lies in our constant struggles to play catch-up with the technological pace, losing our focus on what we really need. Put it this way, none of us will never ever stay ahead of technological changes ALL the time. If we use technology as an all-in-one tool to resolve all our human predicaments, we unwittingly let our technologizing exceed our theologizing. We allow knowledge to accumulate faster than our speed of wisdom. We overload our minds when we lose our ability to discern the important from the unimportant.

For Christians, dysfunctional choices makes us vulnerable to make choices that treat technology like an idol. This is perilous. When we let technology make choices for us, the question: “What do we really want?” does not need to be answered anymore. Why should we choose whether we want a printer or a scanner when we can have both at the same price! However, have we thought about what it is doing to our freedom of choice? Not answering a question deprives us of the opportunity to exercise and grow our discernment ability, and ultimately our sense of identity. What we do not use, we will eventually lose touch. What is true of language is also true of discernment. Ticking “All of the above” is symptomatic of avarice clothed with the phrase: “I want everything.”

We must learn how to choose the most appropriate for the corresponding contexts. Making good and appropriate choices in life remain one of the most important core human skills we need to continually develop. Allowing a multi-function mentality to free us from exercising discernment and good judgment is intellectual robbery! In this multifunctional landscape, with rising scattered minds, we can help one another become wiser in our life choices. Not making a choice is detrimental to our self-identity. Making a good choice is preferable. Sometimes, making a bad choice may not be a bad thing, especially if we can learn from it. Not having to decide anything will not only remove the freedom of choice, it does nothing to help us develop a healthy self identity. Specialists can only guide us up to a point. We cannot mindlessly let them do the choosing for us. Beware the Multitasking and the Multifunctional, that seems to promise everything on the surface. Beneath the fa├žade of features, it could cost us something in the short run, perhaps everything in the long run.



Rosie Perera said...

Very good article. One corollary I'd like to point out is actually the converse of what you are saying. Namely, sometimes choosing a single-purpose tool when a multi-function one would serve well enough is the dysfunctional choice. Case in point: the proliferation of specialized kitchen tools. I once got suckered into buying a tool for scooping the insides out of avocados. I kid you not. That's all it was for, and it was supposed to do it really well (better than a simple paring knife or spoon could). The video in the all-in-one kitchen/bath/bedroom mega-store (I could go of on a tangent about whether those are really better than the local kitchen shop, but I won't) proved it to me, and I fell for their sales pitch. I kept it for a few months, used it only once or twice, and realized it was taking up more room in my gadgets drawer than it was worth. So I got rid of it. Moral of the story? Sometimes a multi-purpose tool is better than a lot of different single-purpose tools. So the choice is not necessarily about how many functions something can perform, but how complex it is. And of course your point about whether you really need something or not is the bottom line in both cases. But the assessment of whether you need something is not merely a case of how often your needs match up with what that particular tool can do. Rather whether there is a simpler tool that can do it just as well, if not better.

Wendell Berry's rules for technological innovation are very helpful:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

A postscript: it isn't enough to have just one kind of specialty avocado kitchen tool. No, there are at least nine varieties! Several different Avocado Slicers: Chef'n Flexicado, Danesco, Tovolo Standz, Progressive International, Trudeau; the Ecko Avocado Slicer & Masher set; the Amco Avocado Slicer and Pitter; the Rick Bayless Avocado Scoop; and I think the one I bought was the Avocado Slicer from Bed, Bath & Beyond (same as the AsSeenOnTV one, I think). Wow! Mind boggling. I'll stick to my paring knife and spoon, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful words. You are correct that sometimes, a multipurpose tools is better suited, but only if, it has been deemed appropriate.

With the increase of knowledge, wisdom must keep pace. If the former runs faster than the latter, we have a problem. If people start to think that the only way to cope with information overload, is 'more' information, without ever making a courageous decision, or to know when to say 'enough,' we will be victims of a technological society, where we trust machines more than humans.

I like Wendell Berry's contribution. Many thanks.

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