Stupid Machines

Because -- and not in spite of the fact that -- I love gadgets, I have grown increasingly antipathetic toward a category of devices I call "stupid machines." They're stupid because they either invented for stupid reasons or attempt to solve problems that don't exist.

One example is the electric rice-cooker. Steamed rice is pretty much the next-easiest thing to cook, after a bowl of cold cereal. You don't even have to measure the rice. You just pour rice and water into a saucepan and apply medium heat until the rice is finished. We can try to complicate it with more nuanced instructions, such as "bring the water to a boil, then cover and reduce heat," but if you left a six-year-old alone in a house with saucepan, a bag of rice, and water faucet, the child would be alive for as long as the rice lasted. There is no need to create a special device for making steamed rice "even easier." There is nothing that a rice-cooker can do that a saucepan cannot. It's stupid.

Okay, I concede that perhaps rice-cookers were originally invented for space-limited kitchens in dense, urban, Asian kitchens where range tops may not be big enough to cook rice, meat, and vegetables simultaneously. Outside of that narrow situation, however, a rice-cooker is stupid, and they still sell quite well in the American midwest and similar places.

Electric pencil sharpeners are another stupid machine. We use a loud motor driven by a fair amount of electricity to avoid having to crank a lever for, what, three seconds? Or, if you're a young child, twist your pencil in that little doohickey with the hole for three seconds? Why do we waste electricity and fossil fuels to sharpen pencils electrically? It makes no sense.

The mechanical pencil is plausibly not stupid, since enables us to avoid writing with trees. But the disposable mechanical pencil is certifiably insane. What a stupid machine!

I am a big fan of electric scooters. I think they are fun to ride, and I think they are efficient transportation for people who need to cover sizable distances faster than they can walk. I can walk a mile in about fifteen minutes, which is perhaps on the faster side of normal. But an electric scooter can get me to the same place in five or six minutes, possibly less. That's ten minutes faster, or a 66% improvement. This is not a stupid machine.

But a hoverboard? Get real. Why did someone feel the need to invent an electric-motor-driven, unstable skateboard whose primary purpose is entertainment? Skateboards, scooters, and roller skates were already fun, and no electricity required. And we can see that, now that hoverboards have been around for several years, they are definitely not "catching on" and becoming a new sport like rollerblades did in the 90s. Yet, people still buy hoverboards, instead of a $20 skateboard or a $10 razor scooter, for "fun." They ride them for two weeks and then store them in the closet. What an utter waste of resources.

Here's a funny one: If I want to know what temperature it is outside, I pull out my smart phone, open the weather app, transmit my signal to a radio tower, then to a satellite, then back down to another radio tower, then to a receiver attached to a computer server, then the signal is processed and computed, and sent back to me the way it came. The fact that phone manufacturers consider this more efficient and cost-effective than simply equipping the phone with its own thermometer -- onboard thermometers are currently available on smart watches, by the way -- a truly baffling display of stupid machine-building.

There are many such stupid machines out there. I'm sure you've noticed a few all on your own: electric things that don't need to be electric, SmartThings that don't need to be "smart," plastic things that don't need to be plastic, cloud storage that doesn't need be cloud storage, things that transmit information that does not need to be transmitted anywhere...

Why are there so many stupid machines out there?

Some, like the rice-cooker, start out as legitimate problem-solvers that somehow find their way into the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

Others, like the electric pencil sharpener, seem like cool ideas in theory, until you stop to consider that it wasn't a problem anyone wanted solved in the first place.

There are those like the disposable plastic pencil, which exist almost purely as an artifact of price distortions in the plastics market. And there are those like the hoverboard, which someone hoped would be a smash hit toy sensation, but which really only served to dump more plastic into our oceans and more dead batteries into our watersheds.

And there are those like the current-temperature-app, which was invented by a software engineer who probably never considered how easy it is to put a thermometer on a phone. Or perhaps the software engineers just never get to talk to the hardware engineers, and so no one ever takes full, over-arching responsibility for the efficiency of the product as a whole.

Thus, for various reasons, our world is absolutely littered with stupid machines; problems waiting to be fixed by savvy people who can reinvent the manual pencil sharpener or create a hoverboard worth riding for more than a week. I hope you're out there, I hope you're reading this, and I hope you will develop better future technology for us, whoever you are.

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