When he was a boy, Father de Carli had the same dream that most kids have: jump off the ground and reach for the sky. But when he grew up, instead of taking flight lessons, he literally did that. He jumped and flew with the help of a thousand party balloons. His first try was a success, travelling 110 km for 4 hours and 15 minutes. His second, however, has probably ended in disaster—after he took off with a GPS that he didn't know how to use.
The first flight took him from the Brazilian town of Ampére to San Antonio, in Argentina, complete with tin foil pants and a DIY seat. He landed without any incident, getting rid of the balloons to lose altitude until he reached the ground.
The second flight isn't finished yet. Or at least, not officially. This time he had with him a GPS unit, which he planned to use to relay his coordinates to the ground.
There was only one problem: he didn't know how to use it correctly. Padre Adelir de Carli took off after a special mass last Sunday, at 1PM. The weather was bad, but he didn't care. He wanted to fly again, this time to beat the record of flight distance with party balloons. And besides, he was sure his new GPS was going to provide him with some safety, a way to ask for help with his precise location in the case anything went wrong.
The plan didn't work out. The strong winds took him 50 km into the sea, and a little bit later, frustrated, he requested help from people on the ground:
I need to contact someone who can teach me how to operate this GPS, so I can give the latitude and longitude coordinates, which is the only way that people on the ground can know where I am.
Sadly, nobody was able to explain to him how to do it correctly and, around 9PM—the time of his last contact—he disappeared. After a two-day search using military police helicopters, and the cooperation of local fishing boats, it seems Father de Carli's flying dreams are not going to have a happy ending. The last thing that people found were fragments of balloons, next to the beaches of Santa Catarina.
I'm sure some people will call him an idiot for not learning how to use the GPS first, but what is more interesting in this story is asking how technology could still be so difficult to use. Is it really necessary to read an instruction manual or get directions to operate a gadget? The answer is simple: It doesn't have to be.
I'm supposed to be a "technology expert," dealing all day long with gadgets, but I still find plenty of devices that are a complete user interface nightmare. Things that require instruction manuals when there are no excuses anymore to design clear, straightforward interfaces that can be accessed by people with zero experience in technology.
I see this sad event, which has ended in the tragedy of a missing person—obviously he's a bit crazy and this is all his fault—as an example of all that is wrong with the design of machines today. Not because technology itself was the cause of him getting lost—it wasn't. It was more bad luck and bad planning than anything else. After all, his first flight was a success without GPS, and men have been wandering through Earth without any help for thousands of years.
The problem here is that I can imagine his frustration, trying to make sense of an infernal device so he could tell people his exact location, all the while knowing that he was going to get lost forever in the immensity of the sea.
And while we don't put ourselves in these crazy life or death situations every day, it wouldn't be bad if manufacturers actually invested some money and intelligence in making technology truly accessible. Not just a bunch of circuits and software tied together with extremely badly-designed UIs that merely alienate the user, but devices that can actually help people and make their experiences enjoyable.