I found myself behind the wheel of a big, expensive German SUV the other day, and very nice it was, too. Especially once I had shrugged aside my notion of it assaulting me with information from every direction.
The instrument cluster, as well as feeding me with vital statistics pertaining to speed, engine revs and sundry other aspects of vehicle condition, had so much more to offer – whether I wanted it or not. With the full 3-D map set to occupy much of the cluster, It also showed me the size of back garden of each property I passed, and whether it had a pool or not, as well as a constant reminder of the age and copyright details of the aerial photography displayed.
No doubt, had I dived into the menus, I could have set it to be less elaborate, but not without parking up to consult the manual. “Too much information!”, I howled, hysterically, before checking myself with a harsh dose of reality: “I’m old and irrelevant. What do I know?”. Yeah. What do I know?
At the ripe old age of 38, I’m well and truly aware of how the world has overtaken me, and a recent trip to the pub underlined just how outmoded I’ve become. Drinking with friends, I was challenged to a game of chess by their eight-year old daughter. Fine, I said; I hadn’t actually played since I was fifteen or so, but I figured that my recollection of the rules would be enough to bluff my way through a game against a child.
Inevitably, the scale of my defeat came as quite a shock. I was quite simply pulverised. Not only did she understand the rules with such clarity that you’d think she written them, but clearly had an infinite number of subsequent moves stored in her RAM, ready to be deployed after every nervous manoeuvre I made.
My embarrassment ebbed away, though when I factored in just how much the world has changed since I was her age. Yes, this was a particularly bright little girl, but she was born into a world where stimulation, information and influence is more abundant than ever before. Chess might become a near obsession to one child, Minecraft or Fortnite for others; each presenting the same goal of victory over their peers, and the status or reward it brings.
In every one of those forms of entertainment, there’s a whole lot of stuff going on. Winning depends on how deeply you understand what you’re doing, so participation becomes instinctive rather than reactive. When I played chess, I was playing reactively, and my young opponent must have recognised my utter lack of strategy.
Anybody with a mind agile enough to assimilate the many rules of chess is at a natural advantage when it comes to dealing with a busy flow of information. I grew up on sideways-scrolling platform games and then three-dimensional racing simulators, and was consequently better able to deal with complexities such as programming the VCR or signing up to up AOL dial-up than my less technologically cultured parents. But, over the course of time, I too have been leapfrogged.
It strikes me that the ergonomic principles that I held dear in the course of failing to become a car designer, are no longer relevant. Until recently I almost felt insulted that clear, simple dials and instinctively placed controls have been swept aside by ever more complex touchscreens and graphical instrument clusters with more going on than a team meeting in a beehive. The millennials, or younger, who designed these machines and will doubtless end up on crippling finance plans to buy them, expect such sensory assaults 24/7. And the latest generation of toddlers, who play on iPads rather than with Fisher-Price, and exploratively prod the television expecting the screen to be touch sensitive, will even more so.
I’m a millennial myself, just, and consider myself proficient at using the technology that has become all-pervading in every facet of life, but keenly remember when stepping into a car was to retreat from all that. The trip home from work used to be a blissful half hour of living off-grid, with no calls, no blinking lights and no one-touch access to unlimited media impatient to suck me in.
For me, never has Saab’s ‘night panel’ button, enabling you to vanish every display you don’t need for safe driving after dark, seemed such a good idea. But as we’ve established; at 38, I’m old, irrelevant and better off left in the past.
[Images courtesy Audi.co.uk, Lego.com and Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2019 respectively]