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Sony's Metreon Futuristically High-Tech, Vaguely Familiar

The center's pulsating electronics at every turn suggest immediacy but deliver long lines.

November 13, 2000|CHARLES PILLER

A recent experience at the Metreon, Sony's high-tech entertainment center in San Francisco, brought to mind that aphorism, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

The 350,000-square-foot mall is crammed with the latest technology of fun: A Sony store features scores of PlayStation 2 gaming stations where customers sample video game titles; others try out the latest software at the nearby cavernous Microsoft store; or cruise a dark labyrinth lined with scores of buzzing, flashing electronic arcade games. For a break from the action, there's the Imax theater--featuring a massive 3-D screen. Stores bristle with flat-panel monitors that show tantalizing product images; sales are executed in a finger poke or two on the computerized cash registers.

The experience was eye-popping and futuristic, yet vaguely reminiscent of Disneyland and every other popular entertainment venue built in the last few decades: All waiting, all the time.

Indeed, the Metreon is a vivid reminder that the implied promise of nearly all digital technologies--that they embody greater efficiency, allow faster access to the things we want and value, and generally make life easier--is often a fantasy.

First, there was the 20-minute line to buy tickets for an Imax show (the line for the self-service ticket machines was equally long), then the 20-minute line for popcorn.

Characters in the stunning Imax movie seemed to jump right off the screen. But when my 3-D goggles went on the blink, the only way I could find an attendant to swap them for fresh ones was to intentionally set off the goggle-theft siren.

My son wanted to try out the latest PlayStation 2 football game, and we waited impatiently in line. Each player was supposed to quit after a five-minute turn, but the two dozen or so flat-panel monitors were policed by a single harassed attendant who vainly tried to keep track of cheaters.

The experience was not unlike a typical department store or supermarket--with the latest technology that rarely seems to ease the shopping process and can even be counterproductive. Product scanners instantly record how many cans of kidney beans or pairs of boxer shorts have been sold--although such inventory control can be more "efficient," ultimately the process encourages stores to hire fewer cashiers.

This misguided reliance on digital technology seems most obvious in the most technological environment of all--the Web. Online retail shopping becomes laughably bad if anything goes wrong that requires human intervention. Fewer than 30% of e-mail queries to Web retailers are answered promptly and correctly, according to the research firm Gomez Advisors. This is one reason Web shoppers abandon their virtual carts in mid-transaction 3 times out of 4, market researcher Datamonitor says.

To a degree, this is an age-old theme.

"People have been talking about a 'distribution problem' at least since the 1930s, maybe before," said Edward Tenner, author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" (Vintage Books, 1997).

"One thing that was very clear a century ago was that factories were much better at turning things out in large numbers than people were at moving things around and selling them," he said. "In a way, this is a bottleneck that has always come with improvements in doing anything."

Tenner cites the automobile, which was promoted as a solution to the congestion of horses and carts in inner cities; a way to reduce traffic and permit geographic dispersion. We know how that idea turned out. The problem is not so much technology itself but follies in implementation that seem to subvert many of technology's logical improvements, recreating problems of the past or generating new headaches.

Part of this is by design, Tenner points out.

"The way to build excitement for a product is to limit supply," he said, "and to present the products as part of a theatrical experience." The latter practice dates to the 1930s, when department stores first began to create elaborate window displays to boost customer traffic.

And we're social animals, of course. The Web, for all its personalized entertainment opportunities, has not supplanted the desire to go visit places such as the Metreon, a virtual Times Square. But just as the "convenience" of cars leads to gridlock and the "flexibility" of cell phones and pagers might deliver messaging overload, the Metreon's pulsating electronics at every turn suggest immediacy but deliver long lines.

I'm reminded that Silicon Valley's biggest problem--hyper-active growth--has overwhelmed the capacity of local highways and housing markets, turning the lives of all but the super-rich into a daily struggle with a regional-planning nightmare.

It may be the logical result of a technology culture so tightly focused on producing the next products that it forgets to consider the experience of the people who will use them.


Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached at

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