How I Learned to Have Low Expectations for Parisian High-Tech
- Published on Monday, 09 April 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Dotting the “I” and
Crossing the “T” in TMI
This bus shelter can tell you everything about Paris except how to stay thin surrounded by so much pastry.
Back in the 1980s, when I had just moved to Paris, I occasionally had occasion to go to the Forum des Halles, the huge shopping-cultural-leisure center that had just been built on the site of the old central food market. At that time, the Forum was considered to be an architectural exemplar, at the excavating edge of ultramodern urban planning. The multibillion-franc complex was conceived to revitalize the center of town and destined to serve as a dynamic crossroads that would be the pride and social-commercial heart of the city well into the 21st century and beyond.
Which is why they’re tearing it up now in order to replace it with an all-new structure that the city fathers hope won’t degenerate into a rundown, ill-frequented, graffiti-splattered, crime-ridden eyesore like its predecessor.
Nonetheless, back then the Forum was Paris’s biggest “mall,” housing more stores under one roof than any other place in town. At the entrances there were huge 2-meter-square panels showing a map of the various levels next to an index of all the shops, offices, etc., listed alphabetically and by genre to make it easy, even for a franco-illiterate bumpkin like me, to find a given brand or type of product.
But that changed. One day I went to Les Halles to get a dehumidifier for my bathroom. I was hoping to make it a quick errand because I had a full day of appointments ahead of me. So when I arrived, I was a bit disconcerted to find that the map panels were gone. At each entrance there stood a single small touchscreen terminal. Technology! Progress! The future had arrived!
And it sucked! Essentially, what the Forum fathers had done was remove an efficient orientation system that anyone could understand intuitively and that five or more people could use at once, replacing it with an unfamiliar technology that could serve only one user at a time.
And, not insignificantly, that user had to learn how to use it. This was in the days before home computers were common, let alone all the touchscreen toys we have now, so every shopper who wanted to locate something in Les Halles instantly became, in effect, an involuntary IT self-trainee.
Remember the early ATMs? Before people became accustomed to them, it took about nine times longer to complete any transaction, because instead of flashing successive screens saying, “Insert card / Enter code / Select amount / Take cash / Get lost,” they said something like:
“Hello! I am an automatic bank teller machine! / What does that mean? That means that you can use me to withdraw cash from your account. / Yes, really! How is it possible? Follow my instructions carefully and you’ll see! / Let’s get started! First, please insert your bank card into the slot on the right, with the magnetic strip facing down and the logo towards the front. / Very good! Now, on the keyboard, enter your pin code. That’s the four-digit number that blah blah blah / Now enter the amount of money you’d like to blah blah / Blah press the green button blah blah confirm blah red button to file for bankruptcy...”
The overload of meticulous step-by-step detail continued until you wished the red button would open a trapdoor and put you out of your misery. Solvent drug addicts commonly died of withdrawal before they could complete a withdrawal.
The touchscreen guides at Les Halles were like that. As I recall, you had to choose a language, read an introductory text, followed by a page of instructions, select the kind of search you wanted to do, enter the name of the desired product, service, brand or retailer on an alphabetical-order keyboard that didn’t work very well, and then scan laboriously through multiple pages of results.
Not surprisingly, for a big mall in the big middle of a large city, there was someone ahead of me using the screen, a boy about 12 years old. I waited patiently for minute after minute while he poked away, apparently looking for something that was very difficult to find.
What could a preteen boy possibly need, or at least want, so badly? X-ray vision goggles? An inflatable love doll? A flamethrower? I was still wondering when his mother came out of a nearby yarn shop and said, “Okay, let’s go.” Turned out he had just been fooling around with the machine to pass the time.
So finally I had my turn at the high-tech gateway to tomorrow. It took me several minutes to get to the “product search by category” function and several more to find out that dehumidifiers weren’t listed in any outlet in the Forum. With the amount of time I had spent waiting for and wading through this user-callous system I could have looked up the info on the old maps about 80 times. It would not have taken much longer to walk (or even crab-walk) through the entire place asking at every store.
Thus I learned that more technology does not always mean more progress, a lesson that was reinforced this week by a new-generation bus shelter that the city is testing at Bastille. Part of a project called Mobilier Urbain Intelligent (“Intelligent Street Furniture”) that will introduce 40 different prototypes of interactive urban equipment all over town, it is indisputably the sleekest, slickest, most sophisticated bus shelter in Paris, presumably in France, most likely in Europe and possibly on the planet. Pending news from Alpha Centauri, I feel safe in declaring it one bejeezus of a bus stop.
In addition to full information on each bus that stops there (route, schedule, wait time, seating capacity, driver’s nickname for his genitals, etc.), it has a news crawl display, USB plugs for recharging phones and tablets, a smallish Paris map screen, a gimongous screen showing upcoming cultural and sports events and a mid-sized screen offering a “Paris Quiz.” (Sample question: What color is the Orangerie?)
But the bus stop’s showstopper is the neighborhood information system, a separate touchscreen about 18 inches square that offers exhaustive, comprehensive, unabridged information about what you can find in the surrounding 25 blocks or so.
Punching one of the icons on the main page ushers you into a labyrinth of menus and sub-menus and sub-sub-menus that seems to have been conceived to encompass the whole of human knowledge. To mention only a few of the possibilities, you can access:
• The history of the area, including something called “Mysteries of Paris” (which I assume explains why so many cafés still have squat toilets);
• News flashes from Agence France Presse;
• Every Yellow Pages entry for the nearby stores and offices;
• Complete information on the neighborhood’s hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars and nightclubs from the popular travel guide series Le Guide du Routard;
• A special app that lists only shops, eateries, pharmacies, etc. that are open after midnight;
• Another app for upcoming cultural events;
• Yet more apps giving info on every public transport system, including buses, the Métro, trains, trams, Vélib bike share bikes and, for when they’re all on strike, shoe-repair shops.
You can even peruse want ads for job offerings in the Bastille district, organized by sector: construction, security, public administration, public relations, social services, cake distribution services, motivational speaking services, prison demolition services, regime-change consulting services, blade-sharpening services, etc.
That’s where I think this project reaches the point of TMI. I see little use for the employment search function: “Hey, the 84 won’t be here for another six minutes – let’s get jobs!” It would be more practical to offer personal ads, which I’m sure would generate a lot of users for the “After Midnight” app.
Tellingly, I learned all of this by looking at the city’s Web page about the project, but when I went to Bastille to see the real thing, I was unable to try it. Why? Because the map screen was showing an error message, the quiz screen was being rebooted, the big current events screen was out of order, and the neighborhood info screen was being monopolized (no kidding) by a twelve-year-old boy.
In fairness, maybe he wasn’t just fooling around to pass the time. Maybe he was trying to figure out how to use it. Or maybe, since today’s kids tend to be tech-savvy, he had already figured out how to use it and was looking for a job. As PR director at an all-night flamethrower store.
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© 2012 Paris Update