Victor Margolin

Not long ago I received a letter from a friend inviting me to review an article for a journal he edits. However, it was a form letter that was sent automatically through the complex reviewing system the journal publisher has set up. In order to access the article, I had to punch in a long and eminently forgettable access code, which led me to an inordinately complicated interface that was not designed to help me achieve my goal. After attempting several times to find the article amidst the thicket of options, I threw up my hands (they literally left the keyboard), heaved a sigh of frustration, and then fired off a note to my friend, requesting that he personally send me a pdf of the article, which he was easily able to do. I read the article and then tried to enter my response in the automated system without having any luck. As a consequence I sent my review to the editor and he had someone who was more familiar with the system enter it on my behalf. I then received another form e-letter from the editor thanking me for reviewing the article. To manage all this was far more cumbersome than simply receiving a personal request from the editor with the article attached. Besides the complexities of the process, the human contact had been eliminated from the exchange, which would have otherwise been genial and chatty. Instead, it was reduced to an impersonal invitation and an unconvincing expression of appreciation.

Around the same time, I received a request from a colleague to write a letter of recommendation for a grant she had applied for. Again, I had to send the letter through an automated system, this time one with an electronic address that was longer than a fisherman’s arm. In short, the system was full of flaws and again I was unable to send the letter. This resulted in a flurry of phone calls to my colleague and to several different people at the system’s help desk. Finally, one of them had to enter the letter herself. And now again, I have encountered a similar problem in my attempt to write a recommendation letter for someone who is applying to graduate school.

Formerly, I simply wrote a letter, printed it out and mailed it to the institution. When I was quite young, I had learned how to open and seal an envelope and the operation had simply become part of my repertoire of tacit knowledge. I was also able to unload one of the myriad address stickers I receive almost daily from organizations that are asking for contributions. At present I can choose among stickers that feature Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, a beautiful fall landscape, or the emblem for Human Rights Watch. I also know where to put the stamp and how to lick it so it sticks to the envelope. All these actions reinforce my feelings of competence and my sense that I am a capable citizen.

Not so with the new automated systems. They are for the most part badly designed, too complicated, and lack the gracious protocols that should be part of any satisfying exchange. I expect that they will get better in the future but presently they are in the same state of development that automobiles were around 1910. Sadly, one is left with no options but to use them. By contrast, the systems designed to separate me from my money such as those used by Amazon, e-Bay, and other on-line shopping services are mostly flawless and as easy to use as a toothbrush.

While sending a recommendation letter to a university has never been a process from which I expected a satisfying human exchange – unless an occasional thank you letter was forthcoming – communicating with a journal editor, especially if asked to do something without recompense, should carry with it some modicum of personal satisfaction. I must confess that I am a sexagenarian (meaning that I am between 60 and 69 years old) so my complaints might easily be read or dismissed as generational; but nonetheless I have fond memories of exchanges with human beings in the course of exercising professional duties. Efficiency has always been a foundational presumption of economic strategy and is now central to the transition from human-centered to system-centered exchanges. Ironically, the electronic exchanges have thus far been less efficient than the human ones. Should they eventually become seamless I would certainly have less to complain about but the absence of human contact where it was once central is not something that I can or would like to become comfortable with.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a founding editor of DesignIssues.