Imperfect Periodical

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An Inconvenience Truth

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Musing on the Irrationality of Rationalization

The other night I pulled up to a local, non-chain gas station when the needle headed towards empty. I wasn’t going to have that kind of night. I hopped out of the car and slid my debit card into the pump’s reader. Punched in my PIN and waited. After a few seconds the pump informed me that if I wanted to pay I was going to have to head inside and see the attendant. I grimaced, I grunted, and I marched myself inside the gas station proper where- thankfully- there wasn’t any line.

The attendant asked “Debit or credit?” and knowing that the damnable card companies make more money off a credit transaction I smiled “Debit”. She handed me the card reader. I slid my card in (again) and punched in the code (again) and then waited (yup, again). Listened to the sound of the station modem dialing up the bank. Waited. Seconds ticking away. My blood pressure beginning to rise. The digital display still reading “Contacting bank for authorization”. Time dilating out until every heartbeat was like the exquisite tortures reserved for the most profane of sinners. The modem chirping. The display pleading for patience in it’s indirect way. Heat rising along my spine and…

Hold on.

Step back.

Our ancestors had to survive by subsistence farming with an ox driven plow. Here I am getting pissed off about the whole extra three minutes it was going to take to get fuel into my imported automobile for a night on the town? What the hell is wrong with me? With us? Because admit it- you’ve felt it too- that electric rush of frustration when the technological miracle that is modern society dares to not live up to the marketing copy on the packaging.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is the physical manifestation of the “irrationality of rationalization”.

The concept, which I first encountered in George Ritzer’s McDonaldization of Society breaks down like this: the more efficient and convenient our technology becomes, the greater our demand for an even faster and more convenient technology gets. It’s not enough to have fast food- we want it in our kitchens. It’s not enough that it takes ten minutes to cook dinner using the microwave- we want it in three.

There is a deep, intractable irony at work here. All of the technology- gadgets, workflows, jumbo jets- that are supposed to make us happier somehow manage to piss us off instead. On a daily basis. Our expectations of instantaneous gratification keep getting raised with every technological advancement. We seem to be caught in a cybernetic loop with this mania. What I fear is that our ability to see the power of technology and design to actually make our lives better is being clouded by the red rage of WHY WON’T MY XBOX TURN ON!?!?!?

Instead of focusing on the quality of a user interface experience or the largest possible benefit for the greatest number of people- a Greatest Common Dividend as opposed to a Lowest Common Denominator if you will- the powers that be still seem to be myopically focused on bigger, faster, cheaper, more. The cheaper is the real kicker, since those cut corners and hidden costs start to work their way into the fabric of our being. They become the static of our lives.

It doesn’t help when the designs are boneheaded. This handy infographic Boing Boing featured last month illustrates how all those anti-piracy warnings and crappy direct-to-DVD trailers give the advantage of the movie watching experience to pirated films. Yet at the same time, would it kill us to take the time “wasted” by those ads to, I dunno, go make a sandwich? Is the inconvenience such a high crime that we have to “pirate the hell outta that shit”?

Not that what we might call “PB&J Time” axiom is a reason to accept bad design. Disabling the “DVD Menu” button so you have to sit through the trailers is a dick move by the studios, and we should all bitch about it until they stop that. (Quit it! Stop that!) It just seems that undermining the economic support structure that brought you the entertainment you are trying to enjoy seems like a bit of a hissy fit.

So the next time you find yourself on the brink and ready to reach out and choke someone, step back. Chill. If you’re reading this I guarantee you that you’re great-great-grandfather never had it this good. Unless you’re descended from royalty. Then I am probably wrong. For the rest of us peasants it’s a simple observation, really. It is all too easy to slide into the “irrationality of rationalization” trap. If anything, it might just be our primary cultural mania. The factor that prevents us from seeing the world for what it is, an amazing miracle that is hampered by some big problems.

But the swift ain’t one.

Written by njnelson

March 9, 2010 at 10:51 am

Posted in 1

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