Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Heart My Computer

This is an old column from 2004. I offer it as a chance to look back fondly at how much computer technology has advanced in the interim.

(June, 2004) This week I’m writing on my back-up computer because my main computer is in the shop. Of course, I only have a back-up computer in the first place because a couple of years ago, its spectacular failure showed that I needed a new computer.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the computer era; I do. Years ago in my first computer class at Allegheny College, I learned to program in Basic on punch cards. After tedious hours of painstaking troubleshooting, I was able to create a program that could alphabetize names. This is better.

And despite all the time and irritation involved, I still thought it was cool when the program finally worked. Useless in any practical sense, but cool.

Computers were going to usher in an age of coolness; we were going to live like the Jetsons. We would pull out our keyboards and touch buttons and stuff would instantly happen. Cool stuff. Well, stuff does happen. Just not always the stuff we want. And it happens no so much instantly as somewhere between Instantly or After A While or even Never.

For folks who grew up in the Machine Age, computers are baffling and frustrating because they are so mysteriously fickle. If your tractor doesn’t run properly, you find the part that isn’t working and you repair or replace it. Then the tractor works. If it develops a little mechanical quirk, you learn where to rap it with a hammer, and you and the tractor get along fine.

But if a computer program doesn’t work properly, your best “repair” tactic is to turn the computer off and then on again, after which it may run. If that doesn’t work, you can play phone tag with technicians or call a helpful service rep in New Delhi and maybe they’ll have an idea, or maybe they won’t. Once it runs again, have you fixed anything? Who knows?

The biggest impediment to the arrival of the computer age is product reliability. Research buying a laptop, and you quickly learn that a critical feature is warranty and service, because the only thing that the manufacturer can guarantee about your laptop is that sooner or later, something’s going to stop working correctly. For ANY computer, only the most na├»ve would expect it to work the way it’s supposed to every single day.

That’s just one computer. Computer techs love the idea of networking many units together because it should make so many cool things possible. But computer techs are a lot like engineers—given the choice between an awkward solution that works and an elegant solution that should work, but doesn’t, they are invariably attracted to the elegant failure. Is there anybody in the working world whose heart doesn’t sink when they hear those magic words, “We’ll be upgrading the system. Wait till you see how much better it works!”

Networking computers is like interconnecting all the patients in a critical care ward—sooner or later, someone is going to bring the whole thing to a gasping halt.

Computers can do many cool things; they just don’t do them all the time. The internet is a great example of technopromise linked to technogarbage. The problem is even greater here in Venangoland, where instead of superfast cable or broadband, we’re still mostly internetting with packets strapped to the backs of little geriatric gerbils. Sometimes the gerbils are fine, sometimes they’re tired, and sometimes they’re off on a little gerbil coffee break. Thank heavens that even our pokey internet can still carry us offers for viagra, porn, and financial opportunities in Nigeria.

Movies like the Terminator films have created a mythic vision of all-knowing computers, so powerfully linked that they can rule the world. I don’t buy it. Here’s the scene I imagine from the real Terminator.

Terminator: Sarah Conner, I have returned from the future to—

Sarah: What? To do what?

Terminator: (Freezes in place and turns blue) Error 404. Site not available. Press any key to continue. Hit ctr-alt-del to restart.

Sarah: Oh, no you don’t. (Slugs Terminator in face with gun butt. Audience cheers wildly)

Terminator: Congratulations. You’ve been pre-approved for new low-rate home refinancing. And there’s a millionaire in Nigeria who wants to talk to you.

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