About 10 years ago, I moved into a fancy flat. I was looking forward to my dad coming to stay for the first time. He arrived at lunchtime, before I went off to present The One Show. He is really into music, so I enjoyed showing him the audio system, which could play more or less every radio station in the world and just about every piece of music ever made. I could even summon up a specialist jazz station in Los Angeles. Then there was the lighting, which could be selected to come on in different places at selected levels. Finally, there was the television and associated apparatus which, for convenience, could be operated by a single remote control sporting a little touchscreen. With a cheery wave, I bade him farewell, encouraging him to relax and enjoy himself.
It was eight o’clock and night had fallen by the time I returned. The place was quiet and in darkness. I was terrified, frankly, that he had expired. Then I heard a tiny, tinny sound emanating from the big, open-plan living room. “Dad?” I switched on the light, selecting the brightest of the five available options, and there he was, sitting alone in the middle of the too-big sofa that could comfortably have seated 20 of him. On the coffee table in front of him was the small, battery-operated wireless he carried with him everywhere. On the television, an error message flitted around the screen. In his hand was a glass of wine. He looked resigned, but not unhappy. “I tried,” he said, “but got nowhere with anything, so just gave up.”
At the time, I was annoyed with him but, to be honest, 10 years on I am still grappling with the stupid lights, TV and sound system myself. In this and all things, my parents’ difficulties are becoming my own and I am furious with more or less everyone involved in the design of anything. Everything has become too complicated: cars, phones, computers, ovens, hobs, you name it. In the interest of greater functionality, everything is being overengineered to the point – for many people – of non-functionality.
This week, I was in my normal state of exasperation with my dad for not reading his gas and electricity meters, as asked to do by his supplier. I got on my hands and knees, only to find devices I didn’t recognise. On them were tiny blank screens with a couple of buttons. I proceeded to do what I constantly berate my parents for doing: I pressed the buttons angrily and indiscriminately. Mysterious groups of numbers, letters and words appeared. I could just about read the tiny legend of the model number, so I looked up the instructions online and, I think, finally got a reading. I was later told by someone that the whole point of smart meters is that they send the data automatically. So why the request for readings? I emailed the company about this, but have had no reply.
The list goes on: Apple was very pleased with itself when it made the iPhone screen more touch sensitive, so you got one thing if you pressed lightly, and another if you pressed harder. For older people, whose drier digits don’t work well with touchscreens, this exacerbates the problem. Getting nowhere with a light touch, my dad stabs harder, which then brings up something else, which, in turn, deepens his desperation. Voice activation and Siri are supposed to help him. To be fair, they might, but I may never know because, unable to understand them myself, I cannot be of any assistance.
Does the “smart” in smartphone and smart TV refer to the brilliance required of their users? “Smart” televisions are definitely the worst of all. My parents have a Virgin box, the remote for which has 45 buttons. The remote for the Samsung TV has 44. Eighty-nine buttons to worry about, when they need, at most, about five of them. To make matters worse, in order to squeeze so many buttons on to the thing, the writing on them has to be squintingly small. “Press ‘Guide’,” I holler.
“Can’t see it,” they yell back.
It turns out that I can barely see it either. On the Virgin controller, the word measures 1.5mm by 5mm. “Guide” on Samsung comes in at a comparatively generous 2mm by 8mm. Even worse are the symbols they otherwise resort to. Of the 89 buttons I am looking at now, I am completely clueless as to the function of at least 20 of them.
And symbols for words are a problem everywhere. To access the start menu on Windows 10, you no longer click “Start”; you click on a symbol of a window. Why? To forward an email on Gmail, you now have to click on three vertical dots and find the option down there somewhere. These may seem obvious, and I appreciate the need to make things accessible to those who don’t speak English. I also know many elderly people will be comfortable with all this, but many seniors – as I am sure they call them in Silicon Valley – find it all contributes to the confusion.
This is not merely another case of ‘twas ever thus. Yes, we are always going to be somewhat confused by the world as old age comes around. But this tech trouble goes beyond that and seems to get forgotten among the many other challenges to be confronted – welfare payments, pensions, social care and so on. All that stuff is vital, of course, but these endless, daily tests and trials set by the march of technology are real breakers of spirit and unwitting tools of exclusion. The biggest tragedy is that so much of it could be so helpful for many more older people if only they were able to use it easily. The hard of hearing are so much better off communicating by text. And television on demand is a gold mine of entertainment, if a barrage of buttons does not discourage you. Computers are an amazing window on the world, something that must be of greatest benefit to those less able to get out in that world.
Those who design this stuff are plainly doing so for people close in age to themselves. But surely no harm would come from them considering whether their parents or grandparents would have any chance of fathoming out whatever new consumer electronics they are working on. As with all things concerning the troubles of the twilight years, it will be well worth them remembering that, one day, their time will come. I hope, uncharitably, that the thousand-buttoned remote controls for their celestial screens will leave them as baffled as my parents are.
• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist