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Hugo Rifkind

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

This is an era of drivel technology, things nobody normal wants devised by people who have forgotten what people are

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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