Whenever any product or service is advertised as “New and Improved,” the truth is almost invariably the exact opposite. There’s even a name for this in England: Hutber’s Law, which states succinctly that improvement equals deterioration. Even the geekiest geek quails at the prospect of a new and improved computer operating system. He knows it will take months to get back to where he was before with the old, unimproved software, at which time another improvement will already be on the horizon.
The most common improvements we see these days involve the replacement of human beings by computers. The humorously named “customer service lines,” where at least you could yell at somebody, are replaced by incomprehensible and labyrinthine websites where the FAQs never include your question, and the “contact us” feature should be called “contact them,” because they never contact us. Human beings, in general, are being improved out of existence, or at least out of work. We swipe our own cards and pump our own gas, check out our own groceries using machines with annoyingly unctuous mechanical voices. A few years ago, this was a nightmare future conjured up by science fiction writers: now it’s here.
This process of backward improvement has been going on for a long time. When my family first had a telephone at home we just picked up the receiver and asked for the number. If we didn’t know it the operator would find it for us. Now a simple phone call involves an expensive and fragile gadget the size of a matchbox with about a hundred tiny buttons and an instruction book the size of a club sandwich. If you ever do get through to anybody, it is like a buzzing, echoing conversation from outer space. And anyone who thinks that the experience of long-distance travel has improved lately has obviously not gone beyond the end of the street for twenty or thirty years.
It’s not just in the high-tech world that we find this kind of backward progress. Simple kitchen implements like corkscrews and can openers have been dis-improved regularly for years so that a really state-of-the-art gadget can be almost impossible to figure out without a degree in engineering. We have an ultra-modern, elegant kitchen towel dispenser. It takes two hands to operate it, and the paper often rips, or the whole thing comes unstuck from the counter. So, I usually leave the paper roll just standing there. It’s not elegant, but it works.
Nothing is immune from Hutber’s Law. Things that were marvelous just because they were mysterious are “improved” until they become dull and ordinary: The King James Bible and the Latin Mass are two obvious examples. High definition TV has allowed us to see in excruciating detail just how bad television is. Musicians can’t resist improving on transcendent composers like Beethoven by adapting his symphonies for the didgeridoo or the steel drums. No filmmaker or operatic director can resist re-making and ruining a classic.
The Luddites never got the credit they deserved. We have swallowed the idiotic trope that newer equals better, and it serves us right.