Dear Silicon Valley bigheads, tech doesn't make everything better

You're still laughing at the Democratic Iowa caucus app, aren't you? I'm staring at a report that suggests Amazon's Alexa isn't all that either.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Oh look. It's a clock you can shout at.


Everything that used to be hard can be made softer thanks to the wonderful invention of software.

Some coding here, some coding there, and life will be so adorable that you'll never have to take codeine again.

That's the whole point of the world-bettering Valley. Isn't it?

Yet here we are, cackling into our Chardonnays at yet another tech debacle. This one, perpetrated by the Iowa Democrats and their tech posse, has seen a mere app -- theoretically a simple thing -- heretically failing at the one moment it was needed. To count some numbers, no less.

It may be that, as my colleague Larry Dignan explained, this app's creators didn't follow the best-trodden IT paths. But perhaps someone could remind me: What was so wrong about VVP? Voting Via Papyrus. Oh, it might have been a mite slower. It did seem, though, to offer a certain sort of accuracy.

Moreover, it also offered an actual physical record of how someone might have voted. Unlike, for example, certain voting machines that could be hacked by anyone with a nefarious bent -- and there are whole countries currently hellbent on messing up our lives and rendering us even more bonkers than we already are.

Tech's grand delusion is that everything can be made better by tech. It's astonishingly egotistical and astoundingly inaccurate. It also assumes desires in humans that weren't ever there.

Were we all really craving to shout at machines so that our curtains could be drawn? Were we really desperate to stop driving and allow ourselves to be ferried around in four-wheeled advertising vehicles? You know that's what self-driving cars really are, don't you?

I only ask because I've just been assaulted by an eMarketer report. It reveals that people are generally not allowing Alexa to be their constant, all-purpose servant.

The report is headlined: "Purchases Via Smart Speakers Are Not Taking Off." It's a crisis. You mean the minute people need to buy something vital to their lives, like a six-pack of candy bars or a truly soft toilet roll they're not immediate chanting: "Alexa, Snickers, and Charmin now!"?

eMarketer explained that it's lowering its forecast for smart speaker purchases. A mere 26%of smart speaker users are expected to buy via Alexa and the like in 2020. The previous forecast was 27.9% eMarketer puts its sudden pessimism down to smartphones being perfectly convenient ways to tap into our desired products and, oh look, security concerns.

Moreover, too many of these smart speakers don't have screens. And humans, being inadequate types, often like to look at a product before buying it.

Humans also like to take technology and embrace the simpler uses of it. Indeed, eMarketer says it's being more generous with its estimates of people who use Alexa and her friends to listen to audio (81.1%) and making inquiries (78.9%).

eMarketer principal analyst Victoria Petrock offered this slightly sobering thought: "Many consumers don't realize that they need to take extra and more specific steps to utilize all capabilities. Instead, they stick with direct commands to play music, ask about the weather or ask questions, because those are basic to the device."

You'll tell me that, in time, everyone becomes more adept at new technologies. And I'll tell you that's because too many new technologies aim to be all-embracing, forcing consumers to be part of a system, whether they like it or not.

One day, I'm sure humans will be voting via mind-control and shopping with an eye- witch. In our times of painful transition -- from human to robot, that is -- the knee-jerk insistence that an app, a click, and a voice makes everything better simply isn't true.

Sometimes, tech creators, it's worth thinking your products through a little better and for a little longer before releasing them into the world -- and promising you'll just send out a patch if something goes wrong.

And sometimes, you know, people really are perfectly happy the way some things are. Because they just work. You remember Steve Jobs saying that, don't you?

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