Knobs are our fundamental interface with the world of gadgets, aren’t they? When the very first gadget was invented — let’s say it was some sort of a knife or a club — it was surely given a handle as a means to make it available to a human user.

Now we have more sophisticated gadgets; washing machines, televisions, computers of course, cars; you name it — it’s probably a gadget. And they each have knobs that make them available to use, that give us access to their functions. Simplest case these days might be a machine with two knobs; an ‘on’ and an ‘off’.

Then someone came along and said, hey why don’t we take one of those knobs away, and have one knob that’s ‘on/off’. And that began the drive toward gadgets with as few knobs as possible, an inconvenience that plagues us today and looks set to do so for the foreseeable future.

Digital gadgets lend themselves to the two-knob nightmare of ‘select’ and ‘set’ that’s responsible for more user-frustration than just about anything the software guys can throw at us. The blinking ’12:00′ on video recorders is the prototypical problem we have with these reduced-knob gadgets. You’d have thought that when designers considered the number of blinking 12:00 displays out there they might have got an inkling of how unusable their products were becoming. But no; they add multilevel menus, even though the ‘hunt and peck’ mentality those interfaces require seems counter to the way any apart from the most geekly human brain is wired.

Until gadgets are manageable by sheer force of will, the removal of useful things such as knobs — including sockets, wires, lamps, plugs and the like — will always be a source of deep frustration.

The geek answer, of course, is to provide ‘virtual’ knobs, knobs modeled in software, images of knobs to remind user of what they’re being deprived of. These sorts of knob introduce another problem that their real, plastic and metal counterparts aren’t prey to; that is to say, they’re inconsistent. Sometimes they do what they did last time you used them, and sometimes they don’t.

And these images of knobs, switches, buttons, sliders, remotes, screens, scroll bars and clickable wotsits of every sort exhibit digital lag. We are conditioned to expect to get everything we want these days when we want it. But now we have to wait a fraction of a second while the interface catches up. Experience is inescapably inauthentic since everything is mediated by electronic lag. It’s a far cry from the old days when switches, knobs, and handles were connected to what they switched, knobbed, and handled directly and without digital electronic mediation.

A click meant a click, and you could be reassured something you expected would result immediately. But now knobs are multifunction, clicks are user-definable, and whatever you expect may happen now, in a moment, or not at all. Knobs — or the lack of them — have become emblematic of the increase in functionality and the decrease of usability that we’re faced with at every turn.

Imagine what would happen if the original designer of the piano had decided that two keys were all that was necessary; one to pick a note, and the other to play it. The keyboard equivalent of a one-string banjo.

One string banjo? There’s a thought…