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Technology

Blinking lights (for me)

According to a new survey, half of Britons wouldn’t be able to carry on without email – which suggests that as a society, we’re in thrall to the blinking red LED. I used to be, but despite carrying a Blackberry around with me I’m pretty sure I could exist without it. The secret is the Turn Wireless Off button.

It’s difficult to overstate how wonderful Turn Wireless Off really is. With one click, the phone’s radio features shut down. That means no incoming calls. No text messages. No emails. It’s particularly good at the moment because I’m working really weird hours thanks to back pain: I’m waking up stupidly early, working like a dog while the rest of the world is quite rightly in bed, and by mid-afternoon I’m dead on my feet. Turn Wireless Off, 20 minute power nap, back to work again. Brilliant, and the only thing I don’t like about it is that it doesn’t Turn Real Life Off too (sod’s law says that just as you’re getting into that warm, woozy, drifting off zone, someone will call the landline or knock on the door).

Always-on email, like SMS, instant messaging and other things that go “bong” and interrupt what you’re doing, is fine in theory but shite in practice. That’s because you have them so you don’t miss anything important, but the majority of what you get is unimportant – and you have no way of knowing whether it’s an essential notification or a load of crap until you shift your attention and read it.

The rule’s straightforward enough. If the notification ruins something – so a chat invite gets you killed at a crucial point in an Xbox game, or if an MSN invite interrupts a really amazing train of thought you were about to put in an article, or an SMS bongs just as you’re drifting off for a nap, it’s going to be something that doesn’t matter. Which explains why, when I’m working, I don’t have instant messaging software or Skype running; when I’m reading a hotly anticipated new novel the phone’s off, and so on.

You can try to filter it, of course, although that takes time. My Blackberry internet service enables me to set filters so only messages that meet particular criteria get sent through to the phone. Which is great, until you miss a really urgent mail because it didn’t meet the criteria. So you widen them, and widen them, and widen them until your entire inbox goes to the phone – so you can chuckle at blog comments when you’re on the bus, or answer work queries while you’re sitting in a building before a meeting, or anything else useful.

But the notification bong that tells you about these things also tells you about every bloody WordPress “I think this is a spam, so I’ve quarantined it” notification, and every special offer from Tesco, and every incomprehensible press release sent to you because, hey, you’re a journalist and you’re bound to be interested in the latest management reshuffle in a company you haven’t heard of, in an industry you don’t cover, in jargon you don’t understand. Which is sent to you sixty-three times because you haven’t replied and the person sending it is worried you didn’t get it the first sixty-two times.

Sorry, went off on one there. Back to the point.

Always on sucks, and it’s going to suck more as it becomes integrated into more of the things we do each day. Take Xbox Live, for example. Game updates? Yes please. Notifications that people I know are online? No thank you. Messages telling me new downloadable content that I won’t buy is now available for me not to buy? Oh, please. But that’s the future. Soon, it won’t just be your phone or your IM software going bong. It’ll be your car, your TV, your iPod (or who knows? Might be your Zune!), your bloody cooker for all I know.

Ultimately the tech we buy to make our lives more pleasant ends up turning on us. Which is why everybody responsible for Sky+ should be killed.

Bear with me on this.

Sky+ is, of course, brilliant (excepting its inability to understand the concept of double bills. Sky+! I want to record the double bill of Scrubs on Paramount each week! Sky+ does not understand!) but of late, it’s showing signs of rebellion. I don’t record much – The Apprentice, Scrubs when it’s on, Penn & Teller and that’s about it – but of late, it’s started to make grumbling noises during the day. So I’m sitting there, taking a bit of time to have some peace and quiet thanks to Turn Wireless Off, and suddenly: whooooooEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Because everything is calm and quiet, before long that WhooooEEEEEE becomes as annoying as someone test-firing a Jumbo jet engine in your living room.

It seems the culprit is AnyTime TV, a new addition to the Sky+ menu that records programmes I might be interested in. And by “might be interested in”, I mean “not interested in at all”. You know the stuff: Extreme Cake Makeover and crap like that. It’s all rubbish, and it’s having a noticeable effect on the hard disk space. You’ve recorded three episodes of The Apprentice! Your hard disk is 99% full!  So it’s annoying me with its noise, it’s annoying me with its presence – it’s got a red button, so I can’t help myself; I have to look to make sure it hasn’t recorded something really important that I might otherwise have missed – and now, it’s annoying me in a whole new way. The other night it actually recorded something I would be interested in seeing: a longer cut of the film The Abyss. Wahey! Technology works! Or at least, it would but AnyTime TV tells me that the programme is on a channel I don’t subscribe to, so I can’t watch it.

How brilliant is that? My Sky+ box has evolved, so instead of recording programmes I don’t *want* to watch, it’s recording programmes I *can’t* watch. I am being taunted by consumer electronics!

I know what’s next: it’s going to get social networking features. Mark my words, it’s just a matter of time before the ending of House gets a brand new soundtrack: bong! Bong! Bongily bongily bong bong bong!

PS: To be fair, you can opt out of AnyTime TV if it’s bugging you. The option’s in the Services menu of your Sky box.