Jewish World Review July 14, 2004 /25 Tamuz, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

Digital disgust | One of the maddening things about some computer programs and computerized products is their making you fight your way through a maze of complications to do simple things. Whether you want to play chess, take a picture, or do some other obvious and straightforward thing, you must first deal with a zillion options to do things you have no interest in doing.

The fact that there are innumerable features built into any product — whether computerized or not — does not automatically mean that you have to deal with the features you don't want.

There are cameras with features that you will never use — and that will never get in the way of your taking a picture. Some of these are complex computerized cameras that have a "program" button you can press, so that you can take a picture without having to slog your way through innumerable options.

Your automobile may have a global positioning system and other high-tech stuff, but you don't have to work your way through it before you can turn the key in the ignition and drive away. You don't have to work your way through all the options on your television set before you can turn it on and watch a ballgame.

Too many other computerized products and computer programs, however, force you to get bogged down in so many options, functions, and modes that you may just give up before finding the simple thing you want to do. Moreover, the simple thing may be what most people do 90 percent of the time.

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Those who design some computerized products or computer software seem to have no interest in making it easy to do simple things, and will seldom tell you what to do in plain English if they can coin some new jargon instead. They keep adding features in such a way that even programs that were once easy to use become a struggle to deal with, even if you only want to do the same things you have always done.

Playing a game of Scrabble on the computer used to be a quiet, relaxing pleasure and you could install it from a floppy disk or two. Today, it takes a CD to hold all the bells and whistles that have been added — and the patience of Job to work your way through all this stuff just so you can play a game of Scrabble.

As for quiet, the new Scrabble comes on with loud noises that some may call music. If you are awake in the middle of the night in a hotel room and your spouse is asleep, you would never dare to turn on the new Scrabble game. It would wake up your spouse and maybe people in the next room.

Playing chess is the same story. Since my old computer chess game will not work on the new computers, I had to get a new chess game — and a computer guru to come in and disable all the junk that has been included with it.

Some computer software is used for work, rather than play, but the same problem arises. Over the years, I have found it helpful to have reference works like a dictionary, an atlas, and an encyclopedia in my laptop, so that I can look things up when I am traveling and writing.

It seemed like a simple thing to buy some new software with these reference works to put into a new laptop. But so much audiovisual stuff had been added, to make looking something up in an encyclopedia seem like a trip through Disneyland, that just installing it took so much time that it made my computer guru late getting home for dinner.

Finally, we had to stop the installation, so he could at least get home in time to see his family before they all went to bed.

This is not to say that the things loaded into computer programs are worthless. They no doubt have real value to some people. The problem is making all people jump through all the hoops to get past all the bells and whistles and do something simple.

It is not the computer or computerized products, but the mindset behind those who make such products, that is the problem. At one time, back in the 19th century, photography was something that required all kinds of expertise. George Eastman changed all that — and made a fortune — when he began producing Kodak cameras for people who were not photographers but who just wanted to take simple pictures of people and places.

Where is our new George Eastman today?

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment please click here.


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