over-softwaring our lives

August 26, 2009

How many times have you seen a program, a desktop widget, a web application, and thought, “Wow, that would really make my life easier!” I know I have. Many times. And yet, so many of them — while theoretically quite useful — never actually end up being used that much because they take a significant investment in time to learn how to use and often take more time than what we’d otherwise do to address the need.

Here’s an example, from Lifehacker.com, which (while I love them) often features such programs: Kitchen Monki. Kitchen Monki is a recipe planner/shopping list organizer that allows you to plan meals and then load the ingredients into a shopping list. (Note: the following criticisms aren’t meant at all as a hit against the programmers. The application actually looks very well thought out and easy to use. It’s the idea that we even need such a program that I’m criticizing.)

Who really sits at their computer and plans a meal? And even if you do, man, what steps you must go through: finding a recipe, adding it to your meal, checking to see what you already have, making your shopping list, exporting it to your phone or printing it out, etc. What ever happened to the pen and paper? I’m guessing that almost anyone can do all this much faster just by thinking about it in your kitchen with a cookbook and writing a few notes down on a scrap of paper.

Contrast that program with something like Mint.com, a personal finance web app that automatically categorizes your credit card and banking transactions for the purpose of keeping a budget. That’s a really useful tool, and I can say that from using it for 16 months or so. Another recent software favorite: Dropbox.

My point is not that all software (or technology in general if you like) is bad. Some of it is quite useful and improves our lives, but much of it seems like a good idea at the time and then is never used after about the first day. I’m also not trying to stifle developers’ creativity: I write programs that I think will be useful but other may not. Indeed, I imagine many of the programs that we encounter are the successful personal projects of developers that have been taken into the public sphere. So it’s really up the consumer to decide whether they should use it or not.

It’s almost ingrained into our psyche when we see something new and seemingly useful: “Ohh, I want to try that.” This is applicable in everything from organizational stuff from stores like Organized Living and to electronics to video games (like those of you who’ve downloaded every arcade game ever invented onto your PC or XBox) to software. We’re programmed (getting into a bit of social theory here) to want more stuff. And so we acquire it if it seems even remotely fun or useful without much thought about whether we’re actually going to use it or to a simpler alternative. This point holds especially true for software, most of which is free these days.

As consumers of everything, we need to be mindful of what we need (or want) and what we don’t need. And for those things we need, what’s the balance between their advantages and their efficiency (in time, energy, and money). Otherwise, we’ll go through trailing a mess of physical and digital detritus.

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