Hugo Rifkind

We’re swamped with nonsense gizmos and it’s all Steve Job’s fault

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

I keep being told that the big hot technological gizmo of the moment is a box that sits in the corner of your room and listens, and I don’t want one. They’re made by Amazon, largely, and the idea is that you tell them to order stuff — such as a pizza, say — by shouting: ‘Alexa! Order me a pizza!’ And Alexa, which is what the thing pretends to be called in this infantile, accommodating, psychotic age of ours, perks up and does so. Or orders books, or summons a taxi. Or it gets your phone to call somebody, or plays you a particular song. The rest of the time it just squats there. Silent. Waiting. Listening.

It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Probably you’d put it in the kitchen, and probably you don’t often have sex in the kitchen. If you did, though, exactly how confident would you be that the noise you were going to make at the point of orgasm would sound nothing like a request for Alexa to immediately telephone your great-aunt? I mean, sure, it’s a minor risk, but isn’t life already fraught enough? Not interested. And yes, I know I could already talk to my smartphone like this, but I don’t do that either. Nobody does, more than once. Not after the first time they ask Siri ‘Which way is home?’ and Siri starts dialling Ann Widdecombe. Which admittedly may not have happened to everyone.

I also don’t want a driverless car. Does anybody? It’s not about the safety, but the boredom. The whole concept takes the thrill of the open road, the knightly freedom of metal managed by man, and threatens to turn it into the Docklands Light Railway. I’m not a big fan of long car journeys but they’re a damn sight more bearable if you at least get to drive the car. Imagine being driven up to Edinburgh in a driverless car. Seven hours of nothing. You’d feel like that poor Chinese lady who got stuck in the lift.

Or a 3D printer. Totally don’t get the point. I tried one out a few months ago. I fed in a program, and it took three hours and made the whole house stink, and at the end all I had was a shit little black plastic boat. And sure, I know you can use them to make other things, too — widgets, firearms, Ikea flangey hoopdongs — but for all the hassle involved, you might as well just pay somebody with a lathe to do it properly. Nobody needs one of these unless they live on a space station. And you don’t.


I don’t want a fridge which emails me to say that it is empty. I will realise the fridge is empty when I take the last thing out of it. Is this strategy terribly analogue? I don’t want Google glasses, but then nor did anybody else. The whole concept of ‘wearable tech’ leaves me quite cold. Why would I want to wear my tech? Leave me alone.

Also, coffee machines. My God, coffee machines. You’ve all gone mad. Our coffee machine takes in ground coffee and water at one end and pumps out hot, drinkable coffee at the other. Because that’s how you make coffee. That’s what coffee is. Whereas now? With the pods and the capsules? Pull yourselves together. You know you can get them for tea, now? Drives me insane. Had we not already sorted tea? Was that one not, in every way, in the bag?

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it is because I am no longer young but not yet old, and so no longer live at the cutting edge, but also I have not yet grasped that nobody really wants me to. This, I suppose, is possible. I have many friends a decade older than me whose tiny London homes lose valuable real estate to endless CDs and LPs. When they come to my house, and see only a speaker, an iPod and a Spotify subscription, they’ll ask where I keep my soul. ‘Just search for James Brown,’ I’ll say. ‘No,’ they’ll say. ‘Your soul.’

Only I don’t think that’s it. I keep track of consumer technology. I write about it and enjoy it. I am a man who, with a weekend to myself, likes nothing better than putting a new touchscreen on to my cracked Android tablet, and a new Linux OS on to the 15-year- old beige desktop I found in the attic. And I sense, right now, that we are drifting into an era of… nonsense. Not just fads, like the Soda Stream, or miscalculations, like the Sinclair C5. White elephants. Drivel. Things nobody normal wants, or could ever want, devised by people who have forgotten what people are.

It’s Steve Jobs’s fault. He lived by the maxim of Henry Ford, who said: ‘If I asked the public what they wanted, they would say a faster horse.’ The iPhone was a mad idea. A phone without buttons? Sometimes I think back to my old Blackberry, on which I could type fast enough to use it while conducting interviews, and I wonder how the hell I fell for the hype. I wouldn’t go back now, though, for I have learned that I did, in fact, want the thing I was certain I did not. Only that doesn’t mean the same trick will keep working again and again and again.

Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes, the things of which girlfriendless Silicon Valley geeks most fervently dream in fact have no wider constituency at all. Like all those articles we keep having to read about how, within a decade, we’ll be able to have sex with robots. Jeez, guys. Pretty revealing. And anyway I bet you have already. With the coffee machine. Freaks.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • AdrianM

    This article makes the same mistake as all those who blame the advertising industry, the fashion industry and the quasi-medical industry, and that mistake is the misguided apportionment of blame. In case we have all forgotten, could the author just tell us exactly what, he thinks, people are?

  • George

    Good article. About time somebody said what a nonsense technological age we live in.

    If I may add my tuppence worth; the main problem with these “work-saving” gizmos is that they don’t work much of the time and therefore you spend more time trying to get them to work or repairing them then you would have spent doing the original job yourself.

    Much modern technology simply complicates life.

    • SunnyD

      some of it may complicate life, but I suspect many of “today’s kids” having grown up with it, are better equipped to treat it as “normal”
      besides, somebody needs to pay for and make use of the fruit of all the research and development our armed forces went to the trouble of undertaking

      • Father Todd Unctious

        Everything that exists when one is born is normal. Everything invented by age 30 is a novel innovation to embrace. After that every new thing takes at least ten years to assimilate. So if you are over 35 it is now 2006.

        • SunnyD

          I know there is something in what you say, but for the life of me (and I’m 40) I can’t quite come to terms with it being 2006… I say this, as only last night I unpacked and installed a Now TV box, bought on a whim by ‘er indoors – I was growing tired at having to download via torrents new stuff to watch on our TV in the bedroom… and I must say, I wasn’t quite as amazed at myself for having done it so easily – so for me it is very much the year 2016, although I suspect this may not remain the case forever…

    • post_x_it

      Quite.
      I have just read a review for a new car that celebrated the disappearance of almost all the buttons and dials from the previous model, as in the new version almost everything is controlled via a small touchscreen.
      This is my idea of a nightmare. It means that, if I find the temperature too warm whilst driving, I have to swipe my way from the navigation screen to the air conditioning screen in order to adjust it, then back again, which involves taking my eyes off the road for around 25 seconds. Fiddly, impractical, and unsafe. In my horrible old car I can simply reach for the oooh-so-outdated dial and turn it, which takes two seconds and I can keep my eyes on the road throughout.
      And what happens when the touchscreen freezes, as they are wont to do? Perhaps in the middle of a motorway journey? Presumably I just have to switch the car off and back on again…?

  • William Matthews

    I totally agree with most of what you said and nothing brings me more joy too, than installing Linux on scrappy bits of hardware. And certainly 3D printers, they seem to be a solution in search of problem, but the voice recognition ‘things’, I’m not with you there.

    I think the main problem is, is that they’re all a bit rubbish: Cortana, Siri, Google No Name are rubbish. Even the stuff they’re meant to be able to do is rubbish; like play a song or watch a movie. They’re digital pedants. They don’t seem to understand that not only am I too lazy to type, I’m also too lazy to project my voice in the correct manner, and too lazy to remember the precise name of a piece of media i want. So, rather than ask for clarification, these things make uneducated wrong guesses, which makes me cross and forces me to use my hands, which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place. They’re frustrating, but on the right track. (I believe)

    Problem is, I was sold a HAL9000 or MU/TH/UR 6000 from Aliens movies or the Red Queen from Resident Evil but what I get is parlor trick, that always starts with a burst of enthusiasm from me for voice control, and descends into frustrated disappointment. But, one day, it could be good. really good. I just know it will. I still believe.

    Also, I have that early adopters twinge of excitement about Microsoft Hololens, balanced by that cynical IT hacks sense of ‘I’ve been burnt before, and this will burn me’ doubt but I’ll buy it anyway…

  • davidshort10

    The writer is wrong on coffee machines. I fought against a Nespresso for a long time but now am a big fan. It is not really for coffee as the average Brit sees coffee – a hot drink in a mug that takes 15 or more minutes to drink. A Nespresso will make you an espress in 20 seconds. Two of those in the morning, I am ready to go. I don’t want to sit around sip,sip, sipping to get my morning caffeine. And no cleaning up, no mess, just a guilty feeling if you don’t recycle the pods.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      True Brits prefer tea. Coffee is a nasty acrid sludge.

      • davidshort10

        I’m taking a break here after working since 6.30 so that’s my excuse. What’s yours for haunting this site and writing silly remarks? Are you unemployed, rich, retired? Coffee is delicious if well made, as is tea. Not a case of one or the other.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          I have been sufficiently successful in the law to need only work a day or two each week.

          • davidshort10

            I did suspect idle hands. I’m sure you can find better things to occupy your day. Family, friends, sport, travel….

          • davidshort10

            And by the way, that’s over and out for good. Please try not to comment on my posts from now on.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Sorry. You want to pontificate on here with nobody challenging your triteness?

          • Tamerlane

            When do you start?

          • Father Todd Unctious

            When do I start what?

          • Tamerlane

            ‘Challenging’ people as you claimed originally before you did you usual sad little man thing of changing what you wrote.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            What are you on? Weirdo.

          • Tamerlane

            Now, now, more hooks for you to wriggle from Yvonne/Barry.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Still struggling to find that fee free mortgage you boasted about?

          • shadsfan

            Having read your posts, from my side of the Atlantic you sound like an unworldly and shallow Brit to me.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            How so? I am British (not English thankfully) but what do you do d shallow. Is it the facts, the statistics or the truth?.

          • polidorisghost

            Same from this side: England’s gene pool has a shallow end.

          • #toryscum

            Will you and Tamerlane just suck eachother off and get it over with?

          • IMBMB

            Re Farter Todd

            “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You
            get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

            George Bernard Shaw

          • Tamerlane

            Good one. He does like it, that I had noticed. If I ignore him for more that a day he comes looking for me. Strange man.

          • SunnyD

            who needs a TV, eh? thank you for brightening up my day. I never tire of seeing the two of you jousting (for want of a better word)

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Arguing with Tamerlane is the debating equivalent of holding a midget at arms length and repeatedly kicking him. He is a poorly informed, chippy and dishonest. But truth will out.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            It is Father,as in Catholic priest. Fatter would be someone who is full of wind and who creates a stink. That would be Tammy the shill.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            I help repair redundant churches. I have a love for the medieval architecture.

          • Tamerlane

            You were a mortgage broker a few weeks ago. What’s it next week? Banker probably. Imitation and flattery eh Yvonne/Barry. You love to hate them because you wish you were one. Sad man.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            That’s another of your lies. I mentioned that I am adept at finance as well as the law and have advised my family members as regards their mortgages and so on. Many are paying less than 1.7% interest. That does not make me a broker. It makes me a valued family member.

          • Tamerlane

            Well we’ve certainly established one thing, at 1.7% you ain’t no broker given there’s 1.29% out there and has been for a while now. Maybe in worzel-shire, who knows what the logic is down in the mud eating world.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Those would be mortgages with punitive fees. My family avoid all fees, thanks to me. The mortgages you quote are in effect at 2.5% or more. You must be easily duped.

          • Tamerlane

            No, the mortgages I quote are 1.29% flat, you’re just not very experienced and don’t have good enough contacts Yvonne/Barry, I’m not playing in your little boy world of fees and mortgage calculators, seems to me you’re the dupe. Sorry about that. You should’ve sent your family to me, I would have taken far better care of them than you can.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            You are of course, a liar.

          • Tamerlane

            No, just better than you at the things you think you’re good at. It’s wonderful really.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            I think you just say stuff for effect. Most of your spurious claims are unfounded claptrap. Shill.

          • Tamerlane

            You wish. Remember Yvonne/Barry 1.29%… right here (there was a 1.05% knocking about a few months ago if you knew the right people, but you didn’t).

          • Father Todd Unctious

            What a shame that you still need a mortgage. Did you overstretch with the liar loans?

          • Tamerlane

            I don’t, never had a mortgage in my life, it’s what I can do for your children that you couldn’t. 1.29% right here Yvonne/Barry, 1.29%.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Yes you do. Of course you do. Why else take such interest in the rates? You are one of life’s sad little failures. I bet you lived with your mum until you were at least 35.

          • Tamerlane

            I take no particular interest in mortgage rates, I just know a lot more about it than you and have access to it in a way you never will either and because you’re impressed by that you assume it makes me an expert when in reality it’s a paltry amount to your insignificant amount but that still seems a lot more to you. Just the way it is Yvonne/Barry. Who you know etc…

          • Father Todd Unctious

            We wait with baited breath , for the evidence of the 1.05% mortgage with no fees, so widely available until only days ago.
            Evidence please shill.
            I don’t think you are an e left at all. I think you are no nothing loud mouth and I your failure to provide evidence proves it .

          • Tamerlane

            A few months ago, not days. As I’ve said before to you a few times Yvonne/Barry the day I justify myself to the likes of you is the day the revolution has indeed happened. Until then you’ll just have to take my word for it and if you don’t/won’t/can’t take a guess how much I care.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            I don’t take your word for it. You are a proven liar and an employee of the Barclay’s.

          • Tamerlane

            Guess how much I care.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Judging by the 85 posts you made available against me in the last week…..you care a considerable amount.

          • Tamerlane

            85, that high? You’ve actually counted them. Looks like you are care quite some yourself.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            When it became obvious you were stalking me, in four different guises, I thought I’d check the extent of your obsession.
            Just on your Tammy profile, three quarters of all comments are directed at me. Coupled with your other IDs you must spend most of your time reading what I say and researching something to use as a reply .

          • Tamerlane

            Looks a heck of a lot to me like you’re the one with the obsession here. But hey, you please yourself.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            No. You respond to my posts. Check it out for yourself.

          • Tamerlane

            Thanks for your response.

    • IMBMB

      I’m with you Nespresso all the way. Leaves instant coffee for dead!

      • davidshort10

        I was converted to drinking espresso after working in North Africa for a while and would use an old-fashioned Moka pot on the hob. Nespresso really is a revelation. The machines are very cheap. i gave one to some friends whose house I stay at now and again, purely for selfish reason. When I travel for more than a few days, I take one with me. You can, because they are small and fairly light. Beats hotel coffee by a thousand miles, plus if you want a coffee at 6am, you can have one. A real coffee, not a gruesome Nescafe. Pity that we are feeding Nestle money when we buy the pods. But you can get non-Nestle pods at places like Waitress. However, as I am working in West Africa at the moment, I am glad there is a Nespresso shop where I can get my pods in one of the malls.

      • #toryscum

        You’re not bothered by the HUGE amount of plastic waste?

        • davidshort10

          Well it’s not a huge amount compared to all the crap packaging so many people carry home from supermarkets and other shops, but yes it bothers me. But it bothers me more that so many people queue up at Starbucks and the others an carry away big cups that are used only once.

    • polidorisghost

      “Two of those in the morning, I am ready to go.”

      Gin martinis are more effective, though you run the risk of telling your boss where to stick the job.

      • davidshort10

        Vodka is a better breakfast drink……less likely to make you whiff. As for telling the boss to stick the job, you can do that sober too. If you don’t like your job, I am imagine a day-long alcoholic wooziness might make things more tolerable…..

        • polidorisghost

          I defer to your expertise in the matter

    • John L

      But why pods? A simple coffee machine allows you better coffee without turning yourself into a consumer dependent on a single supplier. No, give me my electric Moka and a packet or two of coffee from Illy or those of any other of the hundreds of Italian coffee merchants. A better machine would improve that by grinding the beans for you directly – technology that really assists you.

      • davidshort10

        I didn’t know there was an electric Moka. But I do have a bean grinder or two and the Moka and cafetieres. . Believe me, I resisted the Nespresso for the reasons you mention but once you have one it just makes a lot of sense if you don’t want to sip, sip, sip but just have a couple of espressos in the morning. You can buy pods that are not Nespresso from Waitrose. I work abroad a lot so don’t often get to Waitrose. One of the malls here in Abidjan has a Nespresso shop for the increasing number of Africans that like to show off so I buy Nespresso pods – many Africans for instance think it is upmarket to drink Nescafe rather than real coffee. I also often buy them on Amazon because I don’t like going to shops unnecessarily. The thing about the Nespresso is that you have an espresso in 20 seconds. No preparation. No mess. And as I say I can put a machine in my suitcase and take it on a trip with me. And the Waitrose pods are even less environmental as each one is wrapped separately…..

  • davidshort10

    No point in printing out a 3D firearm unless you can print out live ammo, which of course is impossible.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Well. As of 2016 it is.

      • davidshort10

        Yeah, sure.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          Is that a no?

    • Bonkim

      How do you know?

  • davidshort10

    I think someone should invent a device that sits in the corner of your living room and which sends out entertainment. All you have to do is switch it on and watch it from your couch, controlling it remotely. You don’t have to download Silverlight every time you want to watch something, you don’t have to have it on your lap in order to be able to hear it and see it properly. You don’t have to pay for the entertainment, unless you wish to have more than what is perfectly adequate and given free (if you don’t wish to pay a state licence fee tax, the chances are you won’t need to). They could call it a television.

  • davidshort10

    Who’s Steve Job?

    • Father Todd Unctious

      I think someone should invent a toff relative of a former Tory cabinet minister who can do grammar and punctuation. Then at least the Speccie could say they got the gig on merit and not from nepotism.

      • Gweedo

        To be fair, the teabags gag was quite funny.

  • Jonah Varlik

    Bodem. Done.

  • Bonkim

    Idiots buy such things – let them.

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