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Under Control

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

We aren't good enough for our machines. We are surrounded by appliances, gadgets, and automobiles that have no confidence in us.

My office computer has a cartoon character that looks like a mutant two-headed worm from The Simpsons to offer help when I, stupid human that I am, have trouble with my overpriced, cumbersome, bug-ridden software.

That mutant worm is far from alone. At home, we have a coffeemaker that informs us when it needs cleaning and prefers to do most of the job itself, lest we botch it. Our vacuum cleaner notifies us when its bag is full. If we overtax its motor, it takes a break, then allows itself to be turned on once again. A friend recently wrote to tell us about a central feature in her new kitchen -- a range hood that, after 30 hours of use, announces that its grease filter must be changed or the house is likely to burn to the ground.

The most condescending machine we own, however, is my car. It should have been fair warning when the dealer insisted that I take a class on how to meet its demands. I flunked. After three miles, I was back for a refresher course. It was all my fault. The alarming booming noise came about because I turned a dial one notch beyond what the car believed to be appropriate. The weird numbers popping up on the dashboard represented information it thought I should have. If I wanted information I thought I should have, I should have pressed the correct switch. If I named cars, this one would be Helga, The Dominatrix. Imagine her with dipstick at the ready to whack a naughty driver into submission.

Helga is so intimidating that I've done something as unmanly as asking for directions when lost. I've actually read the owner's manual. I've only done that once before, the prior exception being a 1960s-era Japanese sports car. I had wanted to see how many pages the manual could go without using "the." I was also transfixed by the fact that it referred to the car as "Fair Lady." The thought that Fair Ladies came with manuals was appealing. Particularly enjoyable was the section on maintenance.

Helga's manual is quite different. It is filled with warnings, admonitions, and restrictions. Typical is a passage instructing the driver that a particular feature can be turned off, should one wish to do so for some unfathomable and foolhardy reason, but Helga will not take responsibility for any unfortunate consequences. She will, moreover, turn this feature back on the next time she starts. There is no way to stop her. I also learned that when Helga posts a snowflake icon on her dash, it is not only to let me know that it is cold outside, but also to inform me that she has disabled the air conditioner. In fact, Helga prefers to determine the best, most economical and healthy way of circulating air, but will uncharacteristically defer to me if I insist on being wasteful and unhealthy. Unless I try to turn on the air conditioner when it's freezing outside. That is verboten.

Helga even speaks her own peculiar language; a driver must master it, or suffer the consequences. If, for instance, an icon resembling an engine suddenly appears on the dashboard and is flashing, one may drive a bit further -- but Helga wants service and wants it soon. If the icon is unblinking, one must pull over immediately, turn off the engine, and file for bankruptcy. I learned about this feature because the manual neglected to tell me that each cylinder of Helga's engine came equipped with its own defective electrical part.

If Helga were expensive or a gas guzzler, I would take this auto abuse as divine punishment. Instead, I take it as a sign of the times. Call me sentimental, but I liked it better when machines didn't treat us like idiots. You knew coffeepots needed cleaning because the coffee tasted awful. You knew vacuum cleaner bags were full because the machine was spewing dust. You could tell it was overworked by the bad smell and white smoke.

Those were the good old days when cars either ran or didn't run, but didn't discuss it with you. Machines may be right in their gloomy assessment of us, but I thought one of the points to our buying things we don't need is to compensate for our inadequacies, not to have them commented upon.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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