Too Stupid To Fail

Why are the most important services the most error-prone?

For the last few years, at least until I started college, I’ve been using my phone as an alarm clock. And for the last few years every night has seen me wracked with anxiety, constantly checking and rechecking my iPhone to make sure that I did in fact set my alarm for the right time, that the phone isn't on vibrate, that the volume is all the way up, etc. Just one slip-up and I might be left snoozing while my morning lecture drones on half a campus away.

My mother has used the exact same alarm clock as long as I can remember—a black plastic Westclox travel alarm clock. It’s small enough to fit anywhere when folded, and I've seen it in my mother’s purse during every single vacation or overnight trip of my youth. Recently, she gave me an extra one she had lying around (it had a broken snooze button—to get me out of bed faster). Thus, for the last month I've been using a dumb plastic alarm clock. It doesn't have radio, it won’t tell me the weather, and I can’t check my Instagram on it when I wake up. And it’s wonderful.

The clock has three settings: time set, alarm set, and run, and there’s another switch to toggle the alarm. Want to turn on the alarm? Flick the switch. To change the time hit the buttons that are clearly labeled hour and minute. Why does it have to be any more complicated than this? I don’t need a skeuomorphic analog clock UI to help me choose the time. And I don’t need to change the alarm tone either, since the clock’s blaring pips are jarring enough to get anyone out of bed. Plus, with a device this stupid, breaking the alarm function will probably screw up the clock as well. No need to worry your alarm won’t go off—if it fails, the clock is probably broken. It doesn't need to be charged over night, or carefully placed so that it won’t fall off your night-table. And if it breaks, you get another one for ten dollars.

We entrust hundreds of different functions to our smartphones—they can manage our stock portfolio, facilitate communication across the globe, or let us play emulated copies of Final Fantasy VII while on the toilet. But for the most important services, shouldn't we trust a device designed perfectly for just our task, rather than some hastily coded Swiss Army Knife housed in cheap plastic? I don’t intend to come off as some neo-Luddite, but what seems more error-prone to you: fumbling through Bank of America’s iPhone app while on the subway, or going to an actual human teller and telling them where you want your money to go?

The widespread proliferation of smart technology, combined with its inherent portability and increasing complexity, has led to the notion that if we have the power to accomplish a task digitally, then we should. As previously mentioned, this notion is not entirely faulty—I would rather use Google Maps than something I pull haphazardly from my glove compartment, and nobody can deny the obvious utility of a phone that works anywhere in the known world. Except, all software has bugs—that’s why when you route something in Maps, Google reminds you to actually be aware of your surroundings and not blindly follow your phone. Are we truly destined to combine human error with machine error, placing our trust in not only ourselves but the quality and security of our devices? Are we truly destined to trade the most compelling user experience (the human experience) for the power of thumbs tapping busily away on aluminum boxes, shooting data through the air, connecting to nothing and everything, everybody and nobody, entrusting the whole of our experience to the supreme divinity of the developer and the code, the designer and the interface, the near-inaudible whir of solid-state drives and constant ticking of digital clocks?

Personally, I think I’ll stick with something too stupid to fail.

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