Trying To Do Too Much at Once

For much of the history of automotive transportation, single-function has been the way to go. We navigated with single-function devices — maps. We entertained ourselves with single-function devices — our radios. We communicated locally by talking to passengers in our car. As technology infiltrated its way into our vehicle, single-function remained the way to go. We augmented our radios with cassettes, eight-tracks, and finally CD players. We augmented our navigation with single-function devices — remember the little GPS navigation devices for cars. Even as we moved to the personal device era with the introduction of the iPod at the turn of the century, they were single-function devices. iPods and other MP3 players allowed you to play music, and perhaps record a voice message. They were rarely wireless; if they were, it was to communicate to the speakers, not to other devices.

Telephones, on the other hand, have morphed into multifunction usage devices. Our original phones — remember those, with rotary dials — were hard wired and non-mobile. The first mobile phones (often built into cars) were bulky, but single functions. Even early cell phones were single functions. Multifunction crept in with text messages. Then came the iPhone, and functionality exploded. The world of apps was created, and the growth of iOS and Android meant there was no turning back. Apps supplanted the single-function devices, bringing in music apps and navigation apps and text communication apps, and photography apps. All the single function devices disappeared, except for niche users like me who prefer to use iPod Classics, maps, and cameras.

That brings us to today, and this post. I was reading a Mr. Roadshow column today about the new law in California: if you use an electronic wireless communications device, it (a) must not be held during operation (i.e., attach it to a mount such as a dashboard, vent, or CD mount), and (b) must only be controlled by voice or single-swipes. A father had written in about his kid, who couldn’t navigate without his phone: “These kids need to use hands-free, voice directed GPS to get around. Otherwise, what are they going to do? Use a paper map? Stop and ask directions? Not gonna happen.”

Me? I think any respectable parent should teach their child to use a map (either paper or electronic), consult it before going anywhere, and plot out some routes ahead of time. But how few respectable parents do you know?

Thus: this post, and a plea that perhaps our multi-function world has gone too far. The new law in California specifically refers to “a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device”, where “electronic wireless communications device” includes, but is not limited to, “a broadband personal communication device, a specialized mobile radio device, a handheld device or laptop computer with mobile data access, a pager, or a two-way messaging device.” The key aspect here is two-way communications.

What isn’t a problem under the law? A dedicated GPS device. iPods other than the iPod Touch (in particular, the iPod Classic, which can only play music with a physical connection to the audio output). [Also exempted are “manufacturer-installed systems that are embedded in the vehicle”, but who actually can figure out and use the internal car systems]. I’m perfectly fine with my iPod Classic on a mount for music, and a paper map next to me for directions.

In trying to make one device to serve them all, we’ve created an overly complicated and distracting world. Although it may mean multiple device, often single-function devices are easier to use and safer. Just ask anyone familiar with cybersecurity, and then will tell you the risks from extreme complexity and feeping creaturism.