Why is it that so many basic things don’t work as well as they used to?

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A frustrated woman in a public bathroom.

As a young teenager, I used to gab on the phone for hours every night with my friend Liz. There was an attached-to-the-wall, landline phone that I would hold to my sweaty ear as I paced back and forth while chatting away about … well, I have no idea what we talked about, but it seemed important at the time.

Liz and I just celebrated our 40th birthdays within a few weeks of each other, and we still have some epic phone calls during which we talk about big, serious things like … well, I’m still not sure what we talk about.

But these days, I find myself sometimes dreading the calls — not because I don’t love speaking to Liz, but because no matter what system I use, VOiP (voice over IP, which relies on WiFi) or my mobile signal, the call quality usually stinks. In an hourlong call, I expect to be dropped at least twice and/or experience echoes, fuzziness or some other interference.

And it’s not just the connection that’s worse. In the quest to make smartphones ever smaller, the speakers and microphones are much lower quality compared to the analog phones I used as a kid. It’s harder to hear the person you’re talking to in a loud room using an iPhone, and I often find myself yelling. I had none of those problems with this late ’80s pride and joy, my ridiculous transparent/neon Conair phone that lit up when it rang. My ear fit comfortably into the concave top, I could squish it against my head, creating a seal to block out other sounds, and I could cradle it against my shoulder if I needed to use my hands.

While I definitely appreciate that you can call people from ever-more far-flung locations, it seems that the more places you can conceivably get a cell signal, the fewer clear calls there actually are. And I won’t even get into how obnoxious it is to hear other people yelling into their phones to be heard in public places, degrading public spaces as well as the calling experience.

older phone with huge buttonsLandlines like this one with the amazingly large buttons weren’t as stylish and convenient as what we have now, but the call quality was wonderful. (Photo: Worawit Akepatcharapan/Shutterstock)

Phone calls aren’t the only thing that are worse. Toilets that auto-flush, ostensibly to save water and keep bathrooms cleaner, rarely work either. Most of the time, the toilet flushes at least three times when I’m in a stall with an auto-flusher — the first time usually when I’m still using it, so it disconcertingly flushes underneath me. I try not to think about the inevitable splashing, which makes using a modern toilet less hygienic than its sensor-free predecessor. It usually flushes again when I stand, and once again when I open the stall door to leave. That’s a huge waste of water, which frustrates me because I make a lot of effort to conserve water. (And studies showing what water-wasters these toilets are only back up my anecdotal observations.)

If the toilet doesn’t flush three times, it doesn’t flush at all, and I have to find the tiny button on the side of the toilet to make sure it has done its job.

Cars have a whole host of “helpful” technology, like the one I rented last year that didn’t allow the radio to be turned up beyond a certain level. (For safety reasons, the car rental company insisted.) But I also couldn’t listen to anything when the window was open, because the volume didn’t compensate for the noise of the wind. Then there’s the woman who backed into my car while I was parked in line at the gas station. She was very apologetic after the rear of her Cadillac SUV plowed into the front end of my car, explaining, “Oh, it was supposed to beep if I was going to hit something!” Of course, if she had actually looked, she would have seen me.

water faucet with a sensorYou should never walk up to a public sink and wonder, ‘OK, what I do now?’ (Photo: Warongdech/Shutterstock)

I thought technology was supposed to make our lives better, and in some ways it certainly has. Let’s keep our smartphones for looking up maps while we’re on the go and texting messages to let our friends know we’re running late. But maybe we need to rethink if adding sensors and power to things that work just fine without them — like, say, paper-towel dispensers, which always spit out more or less paper towel than I need. Or how about having landline phones in private areas like offices, homes, telephone boxes, so we can actually hear and be heard on calls? What about a foot pedal for paper towel dispensation — if you want hands-free, but also sensor-free control — or a simple hand crank?

Ian Bogost at the Atlantic shares my frustrations, and writes: “So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized … that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable.”

The worst part is, we’re becoming used to these design flaws, accepting them or figuring workarounds for the abysmal technology that is the voice-recognition software I’ve come to expect when I call any larger company or bank. I know I’m not the only one to be dissuaded from even bothering to call because it’s so frustrating. (Sometimes I just yell into the phone and press 0 repeatedly until a human picks up, as barbaric sounding as that is).

What we don’t need is instability and unpredictability when it comes to simple things like flushing toilets or contacting customer service. Technology that’s added to something should improve its function, not make it worse. Maybe someone should make an app for that.

The other side of the story: Tech writer Lloyd Alter couldn’t sit still after reading this post. His response: Has technology made basic things demonstrably worse? No, actually, they’ve never been better.

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