Modern technology is often blamed for adding complexity to our lives. I frequently hear references to “a simpler time” before we had computers, PDAs, cell phones and home theaters.
Well, that’s a bunch of crap!
I will concede one point — computers and their technological brethren are enormously complex. But the best-designed gadgets and systems actually go a long way toward simplifying our lives.
Here are some of my favorite complicated technologies that make my life (and the lives of lots of people) much simpler. Each of these are, in my opinion, beautiful things.
- I-PASS from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (phew, what a mouthful!)
Tolls have annoyed me since I was old enough to know what they were. Not only do you have to pay to use the road (a foreign concept to us Wisconsinites), but you have to remember toll money, wait in line to pay, and deal with irritable toll-booth attendants (if you don’t have exact change, which you never do).
I-PASS does away with all of this. For a $20 deposit, you get a small radio transmitter to put inside your car’s windshield. Go online and load up your account, then hit the road. When you reach a toll, special I-PASS lanes let you zip through at (almost) full speed while automatically debiting the 75¢ (or whatever) from your account. Best part — when your account gets below a certain threshold ($10 I think), it reloads automatically from your credit card or debit card.
- Chicago Card Plus from The Chicago Transit Authority
This one is like I-PASS for public transportation. You maintain an account with the CTA, which is accessible online and automatically reloads when it dips below a threshold you set. The card itself is a smart card — there’s no magnetic strip to scratch and you don’t have to swipe. Just touch it against the card reader (it even works through a wallet or pocket) and your account is automatically debited.
What makes this truly complex — and truly simple for the people that use it — is that it’s smart enough to know if you’ve recently used the card (in which case it will charge you 25¢ for a transfer instead of the full $1.75) and where you’ve used it (you can login to your account online and see everywhere you’ve used the card).
- TiVo and iTunes podcast support
I’m listing these together because they both simplify my life in the same way — they look for new content, then collect it in the place where I want it.
TiVo does this with television shows and movies (to be fair, I am using a Comcast HD-DVR for a variety of reasons). I tell it what I want to see, then it records those programs so I can watch them later.
iTunes does this with podcasts. What’s important to me is that not only does iTunes look for new episodes and download the audio files (pretty much any feed reader can do that), but it loads them on to my iPod automatically. So, when I get on the bus in the morning, the newest episodes of my favorite podcasts are waiting for me on my iPod.
(I didn’t include things like the iPod, which I consider to be very simple but actually a source of additional complexity in my life. What struck me about the technologies I mentioned here was that, even though they were highly complex behind the scenes, they help to simplify the lives of people that use them.)
So, your turn — what are your favorite simplifying technologies? What tools or systems bely their complexity by helping people simplify their lives?