How to find out if technology is genuine progress: try my three tests

by Jill Boulton

I RECENTLY received an email from the consumers’ champion Which?, inviting me to enter a competition to win one of their Best Buys.

I used to be a keen Which? member, and once bought a Best Buy telly in the very early days of internet shopping. The telly turned up as expected, lasted me at least 14 years, and was still working perfectly when I gave it away.

Thinking the Which? prize draw may be a chance to acquire another telly or maybe a sexy kitchen gadget, I read on with some enthusiasm – until I saw the prizes.

A Google Nest smart thermostat, (£130) a Hive View indoor security camera, (£146) and a Ring video doorbell, (£174) left me distinctly underwhelmed.

I sighed a big sigh of disappointment (tinged with a hint of depression) in response to these fashionable pieces of kit, which some people will no doubt buy each other this Christmas.

I can’t help but think there’s a touch of the Emperor’s New Clothes about all this tech we didn’t know we needed (we don’t). Now, I know a little bit about The Internet of Things and smart homes and all that. But, at the risk of being shouted down for being old-fashioned and a Luddite, I want to be the proverbial child who announced that the Emperor was naked, and ask … is this really progress?

What is technological progress? To me, it should meet the following tests:

1.      Is it necessary?

2.      Is it progress?

3.      Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Take the video doorbell. My brother and his wife have one, and I recently experienced this marvel of technology when I pressed the button next to their new front door a few months back. I soon received a phone call from my lovely sis-in-law, explaining to me that they “were on their way to Cambridgeshire” or somewhere, and weren’t at home in central York.

Okay, so you’re not at home, but I would have found that out when you didn’t answer the door, and maybe I would have phoned you, having discovered that you weren’t at home.

I know that some people will find the video doorbell useful, and perhaps it’s a reassuring security feature for others. But it leaves me stone cold, maybe because I’m someone who doesn’t even own an ordinary doorbell. I’d quite like a door knocker, actually.

So, the video doorbell almost meets two of my criteria, but definitely not the third. If you look at the cost-benefit analysis, it fails miserably. An ordinary door knocker does almost as good a job but it doesn’t need batteries, a camera or an internet connection. The benefits, to me, do not outweigh the costs. This is an electronic gadget so therefore is environmentally unsound, too – the environmental cost is far greater than that of a door knocker, which could be made of metal or wood. So that’s a big fail.

Let’s turn to the indoor security camera. Surely, if someone has broken into your house, it’s a bit late to be filming them, isn’t it? Unless the camera is used to check that your vulnerable family member is okay, in which case, yes, I understand that, but I’m not sure how useful it would be in practice (and presumably, you’d need one for every room). According to Yale, who sell indoor security cameras, they can be used “to talk to your pet when you’re not at home”. So, let’s do the test …

1.      Is it really necessary? Possibly, in certain circumstances.

2.      Does it move us on? Not really, because we’ve had CCTV and baby monitors for a long time.

3.      Does it pass the cost-benefit test? Doubtful. Ask your dog, or the burglar who’s hacked into your internet connection and used your ‘security camera’ to find out what you’ve got that’s worth stealing.

And so to the smart thermostat –  a thermostat (we’ve had those for as long as I can remember) which can be controlled from your phone. An ordinary thermostat does exactly the same job, but without the very slight advantage of being remote controlled. Is this progress? To some people it may have some advantages. But in terms of moving us on technologically, it’s a big thumbs-down from me, sorry. It’s not really necessary, it doesn’t move us forward much, and definitely doesn’t pass the cost-benefit test.

Of course, we live in a consumer society, so it’s someone’s job to sell us new gadgets we didn’t know we wanted, especially at this time of year.

But here’s a depressing thought. Have we got to the stage where the manufacturers are making stuff because the technology exists and because they can, and we’re buying it because, well, we can?

In this year of Cop 26, maybe we should think again, and use my three tests before buying more stuff. This year’s toy, next year’s landfill.

Technological ‘progress’ isn’t exclusively represented by shiny new gadgets with batteries that link to your phone. It’s often personified, in this case literally, by software, particularly in the realm of customer service.

Robots that answer the phone and chatbots that purport to answer your questions, are hailed as steps forward for the business and the organisations they represent, but often do little or nothing for customer service.

At Visorcat, we use Royal Mail to send the majority of our small parcels. The service is generally excellent until something goes wrong, which it did recently when a tracked parcel was not delivered to the customer. According to the tracking information on Royal Mail’s website, the parcel was at the customer’s local delivery office, so I tried calling Royal Mail’s helpline to confirm this. But the robot telephone answering software didn’t recognise my pronunciation, even when I used my poshest Yorkshire accent and then switched to my best Queen’s English “This is the BBC …” voice, learned at an early age from my teacher mother.

Having tried several times to give the tracking number to the telebot, I thought I would ask the chatbot for help, but she held up her bot hands in horror at my request.

I gave up, and issued a refund to an unimpressed customer. It almost goes without saying that there was no direct telephone line to the delivery office.

Is this progress? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-technology and would love a robot in my home, as long as I can switch it off and it’s not connected to the internet. I still lust after a robot vacuum cleaner, especially if it’s one a cat will sit on while the bot clears up the crumbs on the kitchen floor.

But some companies are using technology solely because it’s far cheaper than employing someone, giving the impression that Royal Mail and many companies like it clearly don’t give a byte (or a bot) about after-sales service, or employment.

This is a sad state of affairs in 2021, when we discovered that human interaction cannot be permanently replaced by a Zoom call.

It’s this human factor that’s so important in business as it is in all aspects of our lives.

Visorcat passes my three tests, and we have a mobile number for people to access our excellent after-sales service. Next time you consider buying some ‘tech’ or a gadget, check if it passes all three tests. And if you’re a business owner, find out if that clever piece of software really delivers the personal touch that’s so crucial now, maybe more than ever before.