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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:11pm

Gadgets that hate: why it seems your toaster is conspiring to ruin your life

By Ian Leslie

I need to tell you about something odd that’s been happening to me. Those of you who use the London Underground will know that life has been greatly improved by the advent of a contactless payment system. Instead of fumbling for a ticket at the barriers into or out of a Tube station, all it takes is the wave of a card for the gates to open. It’s very smooth.

Except that recently, for me, it hasn’t been. Regardless of station or time of day, the first time I wave my card over the yellow disc, nothing happens. No beep, no opening. I try again, but I get nothing, except tutting from the busy commuters behind me. So I give up and move to the next gate, and guess what, that one works fine. Every time.

I think we can confidently dismiss the possibility this is coincidence. To me, it seems obvious that the gates are trying to mess with my head. I don’t know why, you’d have to ask them. Maybe they want to teach me a lesson about not taking things for granted, or maybe they are just bored and teasing a human for kicks. Either way, they have clearly decided to put a little snag in my day.

When we talk about machines conspiring against humans it’s usually in the context of the threat posed by super-intelligent robots. But pre-digital machines have been fighting a low-level psychological war against us for decades. The toaster that incinerates your toast. The hairdryer that ruins your hair day. The headphone wires that instantly arrange themselves into a series of Gordian knots. You really think those little bastards don’t know what they’re doing?

In his stand-up days, the young Woody Allen used to tell a story about his tortured relationship with mechanical objects, which were always letting him down. Finally, one night, he ran out of patience: “I called a meeting with my possessions. I got everything I owned into the living room. My toaster, my clock, my blender.” He tells them to cut it out. The meeting seems to go well, but two days later his TV set goes on the jump, so he hits it. Then, on a visit to his chiropodist’s building in New York, an elevator berates him for assaulting the TV, and throws him off in the basement.

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It isn’t just technological objects that behave suspiciously, of course. You will be familiar with the laws of Murphy and Sod. The world of things often seems to have it in for us, for reasons unknown. In Martin Amis’s novel The Information, the narrator wonders at “the dumb insolence of inanimate objects! He could never understand what was in it for inanimate objects, behaving as they did. What was in it for the doorknob that hooked your jacket pocket as you passed? What was in it for the jacket pocket?”

Good question. We cannot rule out petty malice. In a 1948 piece for the Spectator, the humourist Paul Jennings coined the term “resistentialism”, which Paul Hellwig later defined in his Insomniac’s Dictionary as “seemingly spiteful behaviour manifested by inanimate objects”. The word is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “a mock philosophy maintaining that inanimate objects are hostile to humans or seek to thwart human endeavours”. Jennings cited phenomena such as the determination of keys to hide from their owner and the elusiveness of bouncy balls. The theory of resistentialism was cited in a 2005 paper, published in the British Medical Journal, which investigated the loss of workplace teaspoons (the authors established that the half-life of a teaspoon is 81 days).

Jennings was spoofing the then-fashionable theory of existentialism. The motto of resistentialism is les choses sont contre nous: “Things are against us.”

If we feel that things that don’t behave in the way we want or expect them to are against us, that’s partly because we can’t help attributing agency and personality to objects. In a landmark 1944 study, the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel played a short animated film to female undergraduates in which a few simple geometric shapes – two triangles, a rectangle and a circle – move in various directions.

When the respondents were instructed to say what happened in the film, they invested the shapes with desires and purposes, constructing elaborate stories of love, jealousy and anger. We have an inner Pixar: an instinct for animating the inanimate, for spinning human narratives out of whatever material comes to hand. If children tell toy stories, adults do the same – except for some reason we’re more likely to do so in what you might call the paranoid style.

Now that technology is omnipresent in our lives, you might have thought resistentialism would be rampant – that we would be forever struggling with perfidious machines. Yet, oddly, I’m not sure it is. Smartphones can annoy and confound us, but they rarely go on the blink unless first dropped in water. Amazon, WhatsApp and Netflix are nothing if not easy to use. They are, as technology designers like to say, “frictionless”experiences – and there’s the rub.

When the world puts up no resistance to our desires, we tend to follow them thoughtlessly. Hence the relentless drive of the Silicon Valley attention-industrial complex to eliminate all obstacles between our lizard brains and their apps. Without friction, we are more likely to surrender our agency and mindlessly splurge time and money; laying waste to our powers, we get and spend.

Perhaps we should be grateful when things go wrong with machines, however annoying it is. A snag in a routine can be a heads-up, a time out, a little reminder that a world that is too much with us may actually be, well, the opposite.

Come to think of it, this is probably what the Tube barriers are trying to tell me. 

This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance