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QUESTION: Why are the controls on VCRs so complicated that most people can't even set the clock much less record a program?

ANSWER: This is the just the leading edge of a broader crisis: Hypergadgetry. What is hypergadgetry? It's a word we made up about 5 seconds ago, and it will have to do until we can find a more elegant way to label a truly horrible development, namely, that there are too many buttons in our lives.Hypergadgetry began with push-button watches and car dashboards, then extended to photocopiers and fax machines and VCRs. We have heard estimates that 75 percent of VCR owners have never learned how to record a TV show. For most people VCRs are just holes into which they can pop a rented movie.

Now, our beloved telephones, which used to work just fine when they only had numbers on them, suddenly look like they could order up an entire nuclear war. The fancy new AT&T phones in the Why Things Are bunker have 53 buttons each. There is also a helpful digital screen that flashes such messages as "Clock needs to be reset." Some of the buttons have inscrutable labels: One says "Drop," with a smaller word underneath, "Test." No way are we going to press that button. (Like, if you hit "Test" the digital display flashes, "What is the central theme of `Finnegan's Wake'?")

There is a simple technical explanation for what has happened here: The microchip has made it possible to cram lots of functions into a small device. But still, why has the home electronics industry gotten the idea that we all want our household gadgets to become more, rather than less, complicated? Who are these fiends?

"On the design team there were engineers, marketing people, manufacturing people, component procurement people, business planners . . . and nobody who knows how to design the human interface of complex microprocessor products," explains Arnold Wasserman, dean of the school of art and design at the Pratt Institute in New York.

More simply put (ahem), near-sighted geeks who carry around very sharp pencils have designed our gadgets and written the instruction manuals without pausing to realize that actual humans must use them. For example, the Xerox Corp.'s 8200 office copier bombed when it hit the market in the early 1980s because using it required virtually a Ph.D. in button-pushing.

"It looked like the flight deck of a 747 jet, to get a single copy of a piece of paper," says Wasserman, who then worked for the company and helped produce a simpler design.

Many other companies are coming to the conclusion that simpler is better, according to a recent article in Business Week. One promising new development is speech recognition. Instead of fiddling with buttons and dials, you could just shout at your gadgets. That's right. You could say, "I wanna see the `The Simpsons,' and I wanna see 'em RIGHT NOW."

"You could just speak to the VCR. There would be speech recognition capabilities," says Daniel T. Ling, an IBM executive whose official title, Manager of Veridical User Environments, needs a bit of simplifying itself.

Another upcoming feature: All the devices in your house, ranging from the TV to the computer to the alarm clock to the burglar alarm to the coffee maker, will be interconnected electronically, and able, Ling said, "to speak to one another."

There's got to be a horror film in this.

The Mailbag: Virginia L. of Baltimore asks, "Why does newsprint tear in a straight line up and down but jaggedly across?"

Ginny, if you ever go on a tour of a newspaper plant you'll see that the newsprint has to be strong on the vertical axis to keep from being ripped apart as it travels at high speed through the presses. The fact that it tears cleanly up-and-down and tears jaggedly side-to-side is testimony to that tensile strength. They make the newsprint that way intentionally, down at the paper mill, utilizing some fancy trick with the pulp.

Washington Post Writers Group