Tech 1.0

‘At some stage, someone, somewhere made the utterly catastrophic decision to allow anyone CC’d on an email to REPLY ALL’

Notebook
just might

A week or so before Christmas I found myself at a birthday party in the private room of a New York restaurant. Apart from my wife and the hosts, of course, I knew no one else in attendance, and was relieved to discover it was one of those (all too rare) events where people are prepared to plunge into the conversational waters rather than simply eat in huffish silence. (I mean, why even leave the house if you’re not prepared to sing for your supper? It’s not as if any of us needs the calories.) Because of this pleasingly clubbable atmosphere, it took longer than usual for the conversation to grind round to the “What do you do?” stage — and so I was a couple of glasses down when my interlocutor opposite admitted he was a lawyer. “What flavour of lawyer?” I asked. “Well, at this precise moment I work for the Special Counsel.” This was something of a fork-dropper. “When you say Special Counsel,” I asked, “you mean . . . Robert-Mueller-Special-Counsel-Special-Counsel?” He did. Clearly there was no point interrogating him on issues of confidentiality or national security, and so I told him I would to take a moment or two to formulate a question he be able to answer. “Oh, really?” he grinned. After a sip or two, I had an idea.

“Okay, so: of all the information about the investigation that I know, what percentage is that of what you know?” There was a long pause. “Good question . . . very good question . . . yeah, sorry, can’t answer that.” Well, it was worth a try.

***

The 1977 document Standard for the Format of ARPA Network Text Messages required early emails to have a REPLY TO field distinct from the SENDER field — which itself was distinct from the FROM field. All of which was premised on the assumption either that messages would  be sent by secretaries on behalf of their bosses, or that bosses would expect their secretaries to handle any replies. This “Take a letter, Miss Jones” approach seems absurdly outdated now that presidents and prime ministers Tweet with reckless abandon, but it reflects an orderly formality we might do well to bring back. At some stage, someone, somewhere made the utterly catastrophic decision to allow anyone CC’d on an email to REPLY ALL. Occasionally this is a source of bleak amusement, as when some increasingly irate stranger gets bombarded with replies to “Gary’s retirement drinks!!!” — but more often than not it simply adds to our email overwhelm. Recent history is awash with “replyallpocalypses” — including the infamous 2016 “NHSmail” test which saw 186 million emails paralysing the accounts of some 1.2 million doctors, nurses, and administrators. The situation was naturally exacerbated by users demanding to be taken off the original chain by REPLYING ALL to the entire NHS workforce.

Every time someone designs a new service, or a new feature within a service, they should ask themselves: Does this have the potential to become a REPLY ALL nightmare? Remember, it took Twitter eight years finally to introduce a MUTE function; and Instagram (the “nice” social network) only buckled last May to the idea that 50 photographs of Cindy’s new yoga routine might be 49 too many.

***

Speaking of technology, I’ve recently been trying to help my nonagenarian father-in law operate his iPhone. It’s amazing how often I have to say, “No . . . it’s not you . . . it’s just very fiddly and counter-intuitive.” And this is on an Apple; one can only imagine the horror of an Android handset. What smartphones (and many other devices) need are entirely separate, sensitively designed interfaces for the elderly, or anyone else with accessibility issues, for even assuming unimpaired cognition, challenges of eyesight and dexterity will come to us all. As a child of the personal computer age (by which I mean the Sinclair ZX81), I once took pride in being able to programme the family VCR and, later, to understand every function of a piece of software. But as I have aged, and technology has accelerated, I’m content to understand only the functions I need, glossing over the rest of the manual I never actually read. It may be that we are in a “Tech 1.0” moment — stuck between a tsunami of complexity and the achingly slow flowering of Artificial Intelligence.

Soon, perhaps, as promised for years by futurologists, my father-in-law will be able to yell demands to his iPhone, as he would to a bartender. But, until we reach the long-predicated “singularity”, we need to design technology for minds less agile, and fingers less nimble, than those of a 12-year-old kid. In other words, iPhones need a massive blue button that simply says: “Skype my grandchildren.”