Let’s Play Unintended Consequences

Ever since our son developed a voracious appetite for adhesives and sticky tape, they have become ephemeral, disappearing moments after purchase. When I stumbled across an unopened pack of Super Glue™, I checked quickly for flying pigs then remembered a little running repair for which it would be ideal. Later, with just the cat to share my secret serendipity, I furtively retrieved the tube, made the repair, then realised I had also stuck the pad of my right middle finger to that of my thumb.

When cyanoacrylate adhesives first became popular here in the 1970s, their instantly powerful bond was often misused on the unwary. For months before the public learned of the best way to break the glue’s grip, A&E departments tackled a steady succession of hands adhering to door handles, and bums bonded to toilet seats. I wonder whether knowledge of the magic effect of soapy water was deliberately withheld from the public to enhance the image of A&E, and perhaps maintain staff mirth.

Shortly after releasing finger from thumb, a message arrived on my iPhone 6, revealing the (very unintended) effect of Super Glue™ on a fingerprint: that, my designated finger for Touch ID, could no longer unlock my iPhone. Here was instant justification for adding another couple of digits to its recognition library.

Being a lifelong bibliophile and book-hoarder, most of the rooms in our house have books piled on shelves and the floor. Looking for a book among those thousands is invariably fascinating, resulting in discovery of several more that I also want to read again.

In contrast, looking for a document on my much more orderly iMac is far more frustrating, even when successful. Yosemite’s Spotlight may reach far and wide, but inevitably cannot match my rose-tinted recollections of its former glory (when it was probably searching a small fraction of the files that have accumulated since). And unless I focus a search with really unusual terms, the torrent of non-documents returned is only annoyingly confounding.

In the real world, unintended consequences are, as often as not, beneficial or even pleasantly surprising. Yet when it comes to computers, including those disguised as iPhones and iPads, almost every one is irritating or frustrating, sometimes both. There is no “I’m Feeling Lucky” button: every option seems to disappoint. Moreover I cannot access that feature in Google any more, as the moment that I start to enter a word, Google throws me into regular, boring search mode, then starts guessing tedious and irrelevant search terms.

This is not just a seasonal jaundice brought on by the shorter days and the inevitability of winter. Yosemite did bring fun and useful new features, such as integrated messaging and calls, and I like its clearer interface. But when anything unexpected happens, like iPhoto’s far too frequent freezes, there just seems to be further frustration which is not alleviated by Photos either. When asking to send the sixth crash report to Apple, it could at least have remarked on the spate of crashes, consoled me, and assured that someone would be taking note and getting the problem fixed.

Not that I would want to suffer the infuriating cartoon patronisation of Microsoft’s paperclip, Clippit, rather the subtle and slightly surreal wit of Siri. But wouldn’t it be wonderful – in carefully measured small doses – if OS X were engineered so that its unintended consequences were more insightful, interesting, sometimes wryly amusing?

So for El Capitan, could Sir Jony Ive’s teams of design gurus please be updated with some carefully chosen psychologists. Not Freudian ones dwelling on dreams and sex, or Adlerians proud of power, but uplifting in a Martin Seligman manner, and with a subtle sense of humour.

[Super Glue™ is a trademark of Loctite®.]

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 31 issue 2, 2015, its final issue – perhaps the worst unintended consequence of all.