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There are workarounds in technology that are just as funny as any Goldberg cartoon 

Allan-BonnerWhat a Rube Goldberg! American cartoonist Rube Goldberg invented chain reaction – machines intended to perform a simple task in a complicated and nearly impossible way. You’ve seen a version on TV – hundreds of falling dominos pushing the next one over, releasing a marble, pulling a switch, and eventually turning on a light or something.

The TV show Peewee’s Big Adventure has imitated or reproduced Goldberg inventions.

Goldberg has been dead for more than 50 years, but everything from legislative reforms in the U.S. to scientific inventions are often termed “Rube Goldbergs.”

Goldberg made it into the dictionary as a device “deviously complex and impractical.” It seems we are fascinated by complexity. The average person can’t comprehend open heart surgery or a trip to the moon, so we must settle for the visually ridiculous complexity of Rube Goldberg.

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What’s different between Goldberg’s inventions and the idiocy of the insides of our smartphones, computers, cars, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices is that we can’t see them and laugh as we can with a Goldberg cartoon. Be assured there are workarounds, engineers’ spaghetti, splices, and kludges in technology that are just as funny.

A kludge or kluge is a workaround or quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, difficult to extend, and hard to maintain. It’s as funny as a Rube Goldberg cartoon, but no humourist is depicting them. But they’re there.

We are all victims of Rube-kludges (er, Goldbergs). “Press any key …” means only press the “Enter key” and has for 25 or so years. Press zero for an operator, two for customer service, and three for tech support is often just aspirational. Spend an hour on a U.S. website ordering items, be kicked off when you enter a Canadian postal code, and you must believe the kludges behind that incompetence would be funny if you could see them. Spend what seems like an hour at a checkout applying for the 10 percent discount if you register for credit and realize that your time is more valuable than the discount.

How about the U.S. retail giant which provided the incentive for obtaining a credit card and then put a collection agency on me before they could get their bill across the Canadian border? Ditto for the other U.S. retail giant which required payment by money order. I asked where I should obtain one – via the “way back machine” in the 1970s?

One of my favourite Goldberg events is buying gasoline in the U.S. I can buy gas in a dozen European countries or buy a $5,000 airline ticket on the phone with my credit card. But, in the U.S., I usually cannot use my Canadian postal code. My record? Going in and out of a gas station six times to buy $80 in gas. For this privilege I’m required to know how much gas my rental car will take.

What fun it was in the olden days – “Fill ‘er up … delivery ASAP … PDQ … COD ….”

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

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