Thursday, September 18, 2014

Technology: A Big Bother We Can’t Do Without

Technology: A Big Bother We Can’t Do Without
Melvyn D. Magree
Originally published in the
Northland Reader
now the
Reader Weekly
March 2, 2000
Life is so much easier with technology,
but it's care and feeding can be time consuming at the wrong time.

Harvey Mackay, author of Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive, recently wrote a paean to technology (Star Tribune, 3 Feb 2000).  In the main I agree with him that technology has given us lots of freedom: freedom to travel, freedom to communicate, freedom to enjoy art, and on and on.

Many of us have traveled far and wide thanks to technology.  Even in our local travels technology has given us more and more freedom.  I remember when tires lasted 10,000 miles and oil was changed every 1,000 miles.  Now many tires are guaranteed for 50,000 miles and oil can be changed every 6,000 miles.  And I’m glad “they don’t build them like they used to.”  My current vehicle has nearly 60,000 miles and has never broken down (not including a flat tire); it’s the first of over a dozen vehicles to give such reliable service.

Many of us no longer write letters and articles with pen.  I have moved from pen to mechanical typewriters whose keys stuck to electric typewriters and carbon paper for copies to computers from which I can send as many copies as I want anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, computer technology has not become as reliable as the modern automobile.  In fact, the reliability of computer technology seems to be inversely proportional to the complexity of the technology.

In a speech given in 1998 Gary Bachula, then Acting Undersecretary for Technology in the Department of Commerces, tells a good anecdote about the computer/auto comparison.  Bill Gates said that if autos were like computers they would weigh 30 pounds, get a 1,000 miles per gallon of gas, and cost less than $500.  Bachula responds that if autos were like computers they would crash twice a day, stop and fail to restart, and have to have the engine reinstalled periodically.

Bachula's speech contains several other items where computer technology fails to meet our needs.

Ten years ago, some software crashed but online connections seemed rather stable.  We could send email without problem though only to people on the same network.  We could download kilobytes of software but it seemed to take forever, or at least all evening.

Now email packages contain a great array of editing and formatting features, a number of user defined mailboxes to organize messages, and more features than most people can use.  We can send email to almost anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.  But the email software might crash when organizing the mailboxes and lose all the mail we just sent.

Now we can download megabytes of software and it still seems like forever, but it takes only an hour or so.  But, the browser may crash or decide that it has received everything even though it has a few megabytes to go.

Now we can print pages that look like they came out of a book and with multiple colors.  But then when we have a deadline, the system may say that it can’t find the printer or the cartridge starts smearing or the system crashes every time we try to print more than a few pages.

To make matters worse, we have to maintain our computers a lot more.  In the simpler days we only had to dust the computer once in a while, change the printer ribbon occasionally, and clean the disk reader head periodically.

Now there seems to be lots of care and feeding of the operating system and many programs.  We have to make sure all the programs are compatible with our settings of the system.  We may have to track down some weird setting that is not even mentioned in the manuals to make something work.  Every so often we have to do a “clean install” of the system or a program to get rid of an accretion of stuff whose purpose we know not.  We have to defragment our hard drives periodically to make our software run more efficiently.

It is ironic that as the computers become easier to use, they require more work to use.

This is but a part of a trend of a larger issue: pushing costs off to the end user.  Costs may be monetary or may be of time.  ATMs can be a great convenience but banks push the costs to the user with transaction fees.  Public Radio’s 75Music closed its 800 number and opened a web site.  It saved on personnel costs but it takes more customer time to gain information online than it did to talk to a live person.

This trend was brought up over 25 years ago in a computer publication that few even in computer professions read, which is too bad.  The article was “Guidelines for Humanizing Computerized Information Systems: A Report from Stanley House” by Theodor D. Sterling; it was published in Communications of the ACM, November 1974.  The portion that has stuck in my mind is “One of the most common methods of increasing the efficiency of a system is to employ the recipients of the service as unpaid components whose time, effort, and use of intelligence do not appear in the cost accounting.”

I missed my calling.  Instead of being a pseudo-retired programmer, I should have been a successful envelope salesman like Harvey Mackay.  Then instead of spending so much of my time in the care and feeding of my computer, I could have passed the problems on to my IT department and forgotten about it.

Addendum: 2014-09-18

Our use of technology has changed greatly in the ten years since I wrote the above.  And the change will probably be even greater in the next ten years.  In the ten years since the above, the number of problems has probably increased even more than the benefits.  I sometimes I think I spend more time searching for solutions to things that don’t work right than I do actually doing something with the technology.

For example, I have a more powerful computer with software that can do much more than ten years ago.  But it seems like it takes ten times as long for a program to load now than then.  Supposedly, I can take some steps to improve this.  However, I think it will take me two or more weeks of full time effort to back everything up, weed out unnecessary files, and do a “clean install”.  When do the two minute waits for a program to load accumulate to be more than the two weeks of new installation?  I think I might just hold out until the next time I upgrade, possibly two to four years from now.

©2000, 2004, 2007, 2014 Melvyn D. Magree

keywords: Harvey Mackay, technology, computers, software, problems, cost benefit, end user, crash, slow response, clean install, Theodore D. Stirling, Gary Bachula, ACM, Association for Computing Machinery