The Usable Planet
The usable planet, By Gary Bunker
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far – well, actually not so far away, I wrote a short story that was meant to take a humorous look at a future where technology and usability parted ways. Recently I found it again, and for anyone interested, here it is. Don’t take it seriously – unless you’re planning on designing a voice activated TV, that is...
I've been asked to keep this journal, and to record everything that happens to me each day. I've had some problems figuring this little device out, but I think it's working now. Let me... yes, I can see the text coming up on the little screen. Okay.
Um, let me see, well, I woke up this morning in a glass tube. The last thing I remember I was in St Mary's Hospital, Portsmouth, England. Waiting to die from the illness that I'd been fighting. This morning I wake up in this bizarre cylinder...
I couldn't get out at first. There was a button on the inside, just above my head, but my arms were locked at my sides so I couldn't reach it. It was hours until someone walked into the room and I got their attention and they let me out.
This is going to sound crazy - at least, it sounds crazy to me - but they told me that the year was 2367! Apparently I was cryogenically frozen back in 1999, and I've been in that tube ever since! They say they've cured the cancer and that I'm going to be fine - I can hardly believe this, but it's true - I'm just going to lie down now, I feel exhausted.
Still day 1, I think. I'm in a room now, it looks like a hospital room though I don't recognise any of the machines. There's a machine that looks like it serves coffee over there, boy I could do with a good coffee - hold on a sec...
***Beep*** Ow!!! Oh you ***Beep*** machine!
Damn! Sorry, I touched the front of the machine and it spat boiling hot coffee all over me! Jeez, it's scolded my chest, it must be broken or - hold on, here comes a nurse. ***Paused***
***Resumed*** That's better. She put some cream on it and the pain is going away now. She laughed when I told her what had happened. Apparently you have to set the direction of your cup and the type of coffee you want before you touch the panel on the front. There's buttons on the top for that, but I didn't see them. I told her that was a dumb design and pretty dangerous, but she said it was just because I haven't been around since the big change. When I asked what she meant, she said that back in 2022 there was a revolt. The programmers and designers of the world executed all the HCI and Usability experts, and since then there had been nothing standing in the way of designers building the best products. She said I just had to get used to things being a little different.
Oh well, I'll be more careful next time - I guess I've got a lot to learn here! I still can't get over the fact that it's 2367...
Sorry I've not recorded for a whole day, they've been testing me and asking me questions all day. It's now day 3 But the good news is that they've said I can walk around the hospital now. I'm not allowed to go outside just yet, not until I've acclimatised and they are sure there are no further problems, but just getting out of this room is going to be great! ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Well, my first outing was less than successful. The floor I'm on is pretty much empty, but there's a lift at the end of the hall. It looked pretty much like lifts from 1999, but there's no button to call it. I was stood around waiting for it when it just kind of arrived, so I got in - but there were no buttons inside.
I thought it might be voice activated, you know, like on Star Trek, but no matter what I said it just sat there. In the end the doors opened again, and red lights started to flash. I was pretty embarrassed so I just came back here to my room. I feel like an idiot in this place...
Okay, day 4. That lift isn't going to beat me. I asked the nurse, and she said that it was activated by a personal navigator. She gave me one, it's this tiny little pad that interacts with the building you're in. It shows you where you are, lists what's in the building and you can use it to tell the lifts where you are going. She said it's great, because you don't need to worry about floors any more, you just need to know your destination. I'm going to try it today. ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Well, I'm ready. I've set the personal navigator to take me to the rooftop café, it's a lovely day out there - I'm off!
Uh, okay, I'm at the lift and waiting. I guess it just - oh! Here it is, okay, stepping into the lift now... The doors are closing... And we're off! This is so cool!
Going up, going up...
Ah. The lift has just stopped and the doors aren't opening. I must have done something wrong. Let me just... No, I've set the destination again. I think I've got the right button, but nothing's happening. No emergency telephone. Oh ***Beep***...
Okay, don't panic, don't panic. I'll just keep pressing buttons. There's no labels or anything, just funny little squiggles on them. I wish they'd tell me what all these do! I'll just keep messing around until someth- Oh! Jeez, it's going up again but it's moving pretty fast, oh way too fast! Hoooolllyyyy craaaaaaaa- ***Beep*** Ouch, Oh my ***Beep*** "Violent motion will damage this device, please refrain from throwing it to the ground"
I am not happy.
That ***Beep*** ***Beep*** personal organiser somehow crashed the lift into the roof of the hospital! They had to call the Police!!!
How the hell do they expect people to use those things? The nurses had to do some fast talking to stop the police from dragging me away for criminal damage, then they had to fix me up again -I bounced off the roof of the lift when it hit! My head still hurts... I'm not going to let it beat me though, I'm going to get that lift working if it kills me.
Day 7. They've told me to stay put in bed while they teach me the 'basics' of life in this new world. They look at me like I'm backward or something. I hate it. But I'll prove them wrong today. They didn't take away my personal navigator, and I've been playing with it. It's hellishly hard to understand but I think I have the gist of it. I'm going to use it today and get that damn lift to take me down to the gardens. I want to be out in the open air again.
Wish me luck.
Okay! I'm in the lift and it's going down. There's no counter so it's hard to say, but I think we must be getting near the ground now. It's slowing down. Slowing down... the doors are opening!
Right! Oh... ***Beep***
You're not going to believe this. I didn't quite get it right, I ended up in what looks like a basement level rather than at ground. Close, but no cigar.
The lift had already closed behind me before I realised. I've been waiting for it to come back, but it must be busy. ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Haven't got a watch but it feels like half an hour since I got here, and still no lift. What's keeping the damn thing? ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Jeez! It's been hours and the damn lift won't come back! I've had a good look around the place but there's no other way out, and nothing I can figure out that will help me, no phones. I banged on some pipes for a while, but nobody came. I'll just have to wait for the lift. I have to remain calm.
***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** you ***Beep*** lift!!!!
Two days!!! Two DAYS I was down there!!! I hate that lift so much!!! I'm NEVER going in a lift again till the day I die!
Okay, I'm a little calmer now. It's day - 15, I think. They've taught me a lot of the basics, as they call it, and they say I can now go out into the world. Apparently I don't need to work and all food and services are free, so I just need to find a place to live. They're organising an apartment for me today and I should be able to go there tomorrow. I've asked them to make sure the building has stairs.
Free at last!!!
Today is the day! I'm now in my own apartment! It has a fantastic view out over this city - they say it's London, though it doesn't look like it to me. Wow this city has changed...
They showed me around but it's pretty basic - a small kitchen area, a bedroom and a large living area with a picture window looking out over the city. I'm a long way up, I think it was the 69th floor but it's hard to tell, because of these damn personal navigator things they don't think floor numbers are important anymore and took them all down.
So, I have a home, and I don't need money - apparently they've done away with money and taxes and everything else, everything is free. I just need to figure out what to do next...
There's a TV here! I didn't think they'd still have TV, but there's a huge one hidden in the wall. I found it when I tried to turn the lights off. Now how do you turn it on..? Ah.
Hey, lovely picture! Oops. Volume is going up, I must be standing on the remote or something... it keeps getting louder... Damn! How do I..?
Won't turn off! It's GETTING TOO LOUD! I CAN'T ***Unintelligible response, please rephrase your statement***... "Mary, I love you, can't you see that?"..."But Hank, I love Starla and I'll always be hers, you must know you can't tear us apart! I'm going to live with her on Mars and raise..." [unintelligible] / [unintelligible]... ***Paused***
***Resumed*** If I ever meet the guy who designed that TV, I'm going to ram a personal navigator so far up his ***Beep*** he'll be going up and down in lifts for months! That damn TV wouldn't turn off and wouldn't turn down, in the end the guy from next door burst in and turned it off for me. Apparently you turn it on by touch, and then the volume goes up until you say a command - 'Level' I think he said. I didn't know the command, so it just kept getting louder and louder. You then operate the thing completely by voice commands. Stupid! Absolutely stupid! What the HELL were they thinking when they designed the thing?
No more TV for me. I'm going to bed.
I hate this place already. I found the shower, but can I get the hot water to flow? No.
Can I find towels? No. I had to have a cold shower and then dry myself with the bed clothes. I'm not asking for help though, I've made myself look stupid enough already. I'm going to figure this century out, it can't be much harder than this, it really can't. If I can just understand how their designers think... ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Next challenge. Breakfast. I'm calm, and I'm thinking rationally. There HAS to be a design process here, something that makes it obvious if I just think like them.
The food dispenser is stood in a corner in the kitchen. A little glass door similar to the one at the hospital, but they never showed me how to work that. I've tried voice commands but so far no luck. I've felt all over it, but no buttons or controls I can see.
Stay calm, stay calm... ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Two hours. Two hours I've been working at that thing, trying to get food out of it. Not a word, not a beep.
Then it gets up, rolls across the room, and starts hoovering the floor.
I'TS A GODDAM VACUUM CLEANER!!!
I haven't eaten all day and I'm starving, I'm going out to eat. There must be somewhere to eat in this city. Let me see... no key or lock on the door, I guess it just recognises me like the doors at the hospital. Okay, it's a warm day, don't need a coat. I'm off!
***Resumed*** Okay, I asked for a building with stairs and this one has stairs.
Only they put me on the 69th floor, didn't they... Oh ***Beep***.
Alright, I'm not taking the lift, I'll walk it. I'm pretty fit, and I've got all day. It's not a problem... really... ***Paused***
***Resumed*** ..... ooooh.... I......I can't walk anymore.... Got to..... stop....
Ah! Hey....! Hello there... Can you... can you tell me what... what floor...this is? Oh ***Beep***... I'm only on 31, I've still...got 31 floors to go.... And then I've got to climb back up 69 floors to get home..! ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Right, this is silly. I've got my breath back, though I don't think my legs will ever work right again. I have to learn how to use that lift, there's nothing else to do.
Okay, I'm at the lift. Waiting... it's opening, right, now my personal - oh no, I didn't bring it! Damn damn damn damn!!!!
NO! The lift's going up! NO!!!!! ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep***...
[unintelligible]...no, it's okay, I'm getting out... what floor is this? 82... thank you... ***Paused***
***Resumed*** I'm back where I started. I'm back at the apartment. But the ***Beep*** ***Beep*** door won't open for me!!! Oh man I hate this place!!!
Next morning. Don't ask me what day it is, I've lost count. I haven't eaten in two days and I've just had a cold shower. Didn't bother to dry off this time. What's the point?
I had to get the neighbour to call the police for me. They did something to the lock and spent a long time laughing at me. Didn't I know that I had to set a password before I left? Didn't they have doorway passwords back in the 'stone age'? Would I like them to arrange a babysitter for me?
The one slightly positive thing I got out of it was that I do have a food dispenser after all - it's the weird picture thing over the thing that looks like a washing machine but probably isn't. One of the cops made a doughnut and coffee while the other was fixing the door. Some things never change.
So this morning I'm going to get my breakfast at least... Now, how did he do it..? ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Okay, I'm getting somewhere. When I touched it the front went black and lit up a numeric pad. I guess I must enter the code for the food I want. Now all I need is a list of codes. There must be one around here somewhere... breakfast here I come! ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Okay, no codes. No ***Beep*** codes. But that''s okay, I can do this. I'll just keep typing numbers in till some food pops out. Right about now I don't care what comes out, I'll eat anything. ***Paused***
***Resumed*** I got it!!! It's lighting up inside, it's making something!!! It looks like, like.....
Of all the codes I could have hit, I hit cat food. I've got three bowls of it so far, different flavours but all cat food. Nothing else.
And you know, I'm starting to actually look at that food.... ***Paused***
***Resumed*** Come on, come on.... please!!! Give me something, anything but cat food!!!!
***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** ***Beep*** I HATE THIS WORLD!!!
Oh I've got to stop for a minute, my finger is killing me from poking random numbers into this thing. If I just have a cup of coffee, maybe I'll be a bit fresher, maybe I'll be able to ***Beep*** oh OW!!!!! ***Beep*** ***Beep*** you damn ***Beep*** machine I'm going to ***Beep*** your ***Beep*** right out the window! I forgot the buttons on the top again! That's it... you're going out the window you little piece of junk... where's the window catch.... Oh come on! Just open you - / ***Beep*** [Unintelligible]..."Violent motion will damage this device, please refrain from throwing it to the ground"
Addendum - London Local News
"...And on a lighter note, a man was found dead in South London today, after apparently throwing himself from the 69th story attached to his coffee machine! I guess some people just can't handle going without that first cup of coffee in the morning!"
"Well, that's it from us. Goodnight..."