By John Zeratsky

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?

Author Bio: John Zeratsky is an Interaction Designer at FeedBurner in Chicago. He blogs about design, tech and culture at

13 Comments on Living a simple life with complicated technology

  1. Tim says:

    I just commented on the simplifying your gadgets post, but I will reiterate again…the TREO 650. It is the coolest, most functional piece of technology that I’ve ever owned. It simplifies, consolidates, and organizes my life better than any other gadget I’ve seen.

  2. Randy Murray says:

    I do include the iPod as something that has simplified and enriched my life.

    After a period of complexity and much work, I have my complete music collection ripped – well over 40 gig – or a month of uninterrupted listening. So with my trusty 60 gig iPod I now have all of my music with me. And I find that I listen to more of my music, simply because it’s always accessible.

    And it’s a shear delight to read something or hear something in passing that reminds me of a certain piece of music, the Goldberg Variations, for example, and be listening to it in less than a minute!

    And I’d place TiVO and DVRs in general higher on the list. My TiVO, now 3 years old, has been relegated to a secondary TV while my twin tuner, high definition DVD does the heavy lifting. Life with a DVR is so much better than shuffling VCR tapes. And starting to watch a program 15 minutes after it started and still finishing at the same time is a wonder!

  3. Tim: I’ve heard a lot of people say that about the TREO.

    Randy: I figured someone would say that :-)

    You perfectly illustrated why I don’t think the iPod is a source of simplicity…

    Having your entire music collection with you, all the time, is not simple (in my opinion). It’s a source of complexity, because you have so many options. Figuring out what to listen is no longer as simple as “What CD is in my discman?” Now it’s about, “Which of these hundred albums do I want to hear?”

    It’s definitely a delight though. I’ll agree with you there! Maybe I’m being a bit overly academic with my definition of simplicity, but to me the iPod — even though it’s a joy to use — is not a source of simplicity.

  4. Eric Christensen says:

    The Treo thing doesn’t surprise me, but I would probably not include it for the same reason that John did not include the iPod: although it does have many benefits, it actually complicates the process of time management for me. Whereas before I could make do with writing myself reminder notes on a piece of paper or a day planner, I now have to contend with a device that gives me the ability to define appointments and tasks, categorize them in an infinite number of ways, cross-reference them with other contacts, tasks, notes, etc, and issue reminders to myself at inopportune moments. Combine that with a cellphone that gives people the ability to contact me anytime day or night and you have a device that actually increases my stress level without (I would argue) much of a corresponding increase in actual productivity.

  5. Eric Swayne says:

    Almost any device and/or service that allows portability of information could qualify in this category for me. For example, my Wi-Fi enabled Sony Clie lets me quickly download an instant “magazine rack” of channels through AvantGo, while holding everything from the Bible to Harry Potter for later reading. I especially enjoy using the combination of Plucker and Sunrise to download my favorite RSS feeds for reading later.

    While I agree with the Eric before me that a PDA can offer infinite complexity, the simplicity of living with complex technology requires you to make active choices in how you use these devices. Simply put, there are just some features you’re never going to use. Your iPod can be a calendar, but if you have a PDA that does that well, are you going to use that function? I ask each of my devices to handle a specific function (or functions), and do it well. Why use your Leatherman to julienne fries when you’ve got a standard kitchen knife?

  6. Tim says:

    It is interesting that each of us probably has a slightly different definition of what simplicity means. For me, it is the consolidation of gadgets (combining mp3 players, cameras, pdas, phones). For others it could be consolidating their entire music collection (while still being willing to carry multiple gadgets). For still others, it could simply be buying a universal remote, rather than carrying a holster of options around the living room with them.

    But I’m still sold on the Treo, which by the way, is being released in a Windows CE version shortly.

  7. Dustin says:

    My cell phone makes my life far simpler in terms of meeting up with people. Arranging meeting times and nonchalantly splitting up while shopping with people.

  8. Thanks for the awesome discussion, guys!

    Tim — you nailed it on the head. Everyone definitely has a different definition of what “simple” is, and everybody uses these devices differently. For some people, simple is have one device that does it all (like the Treo). For others, simple is having a bunch of dedicated devices (an iPod for music, a phone for calls, a PDA for contacts and appointments).

    For me, simple is not having to think about stuff. It’s the same reason GTD has a great simplifying effect on my life — it’s a totally complex system, but it takes stuff off my mind. That’s why I mentioned IPASS in the post.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  9. This was one of those posts that I read and had an “a-ha” moment. After thinking for a bit, I think that I simultaneousely agree and disagree with the TiVO/Podcast one. (I lumped in RSS aggregators in my head for good measure, as they perform the same “search and deliver” functionality) Computers were supposed to simplify our lives. They were supposed to automate things. Unlike the jet-pack that I was supposed to have, they delivered…and how! As a matter of fact, they have put before the average user, an inhuman amount of potential for productivity along with practically infinite quantities of information. Computers even allow people to do things they would otherwise have outsourced. (graphic design, for example…heh.) Over time, these “conveniences” became the norm, and the tasks associated with them are now owned by the user along with their PC. Where before, the limit to my daily news was the border of a newsprint, it is now a bottomless crystaline glass of electronic absynth, where upon each sweet refill only fires our desire for more. Where before, we delegated and outsourced tasks, we can no longer justify the expense when the only friction needed to complete them is between your ass and your chair. Though I am no Luddite, quite the opposite, these new technologies only have a market in this new era of mega-productivity. While indeed, they simplify our lives by somewhat tempering our addiction to limitless information, the fact remains that since the adoption of the PC, people are expected to know and do more than is healthy. If for a moment, one assumes computers have simplified processes, for example…consider this: think for a moment of the infrastructure around the maintenance and support of computer hardware and software in your organization. Then, if you are old enough, contrast that with the old days of paper stamping, folders, curriers, etc…
    Again, I love my PC and the convenience it brings, but the addictions and the productivity expectations have crushed me. Is it any wonder that the “GTD” group espouses more “analog” processes?
    Thank you for the thought-provoking article! I love my Debit/Check card, btw.

  10. Edwinek says:

    Great, now anyone with the authority or technology to do so can find out exactly where you’ve been and when… The technology is great of course, but I do worry about the fact that all this info is recorded somewhere and will someday be used in a way that is anything from unpleasant (unwanted mail) to downright dangerous.

  11. Mark says:

    Often times the problem isn’t the technology, but the way it gives us the ability to do all kinds of things that don’t actually need done. For example, if you spend 10 minutes selecting the font for a letter, you’ve used technology to complicate your life. If you just use your word processor to type you letter in less time than you could have done it with a pencil and paper, you’ve made yourself more efficient.

  12. Angel says:

    Simply, I can`t live without my pda and my smart phone

  13. Joe Ganley says:

    It’s funny how the definition of ‘simple’ changes over time. For example, you list TiVo as a simplifying technology, and it is certainly far simpler than shuffling videotapes and fiddling with the timer on the VCR. On the other hand, it’s a lot more complicated than what we had 30 years ago: Turn on the TV, and if none of the 5 channels are showing anything interesting, turn it off and go do something else.

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