If you’re chanting along with that, the volume and pitch should rise to a demented and enraged scream towards the end, accompanied by the sound of machine-gun clatter and mortar fire /
shattering glass as some device flies through a window / a rude thump as I pound on my desk and shatter the calm of my fellow cube-farm inhabitants.
OK, I admit it. I’m a secret Luddite. Well… on a bad day, maybe not so secret. I hate technology! In particular, all things electronic and programmable have a way of making me Always Grumpy. Computers, cell-phones, DVD players and cable converters, programmable graphing calculators and programmable thermostats, cordless telephones, car radios… you name it. When I’m on the commuter train and my important call drops, I hate it. When I try to turn off the TV system and only half of the devices shut down, requiring me to walk over and figure out how to manually turn off the rest (thereby guaranteeing that they won’t work properly together next time they’re turned on), I hate it. When I dial in to a conference call from my cell-phone and I can’t speak for the echo and cross-talk, I hate it. When I turn on the computer to send a quick e-mail and it takes 20 minutes to install emergency upgrades, restart and log back in, I hate it. When the house turns into a deep freeze and my lovely wife turns into a red-headed popsicle because the thermostat issues no warning when its battery is dying, I hate it. When these things happen I can’t decide if I want to grab a pillow and shake it in my teeth like a dog with a chicken, or just go outside and howl at the moon. Sometimes these gadgets work, and then I’m Very Surprised. If they worked more often it would make me even more Frequently Happy than I often am. But they don’t. They don’t, they don’t, they don’t! (There’s that incipient rising scream again. Excuse me while I bite my pillow.) It all brings to mind a poem I learned back when I first learned to program and compute, in the days of punch cards and batch job submission:
I really hate this dumb machine
I really want to sell it
It doesn’t do what I want it to
But only what I tell it.
And half the time the stupid things don’t even do that! Or so it seems until I realize that I left out a comma in line 17 of my job control language. (Oops, that’s another story. Sorry!) I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact I think I’m in the majority. How many people do you know who don’t tell stories about their frustrating technology? How many of you don’t tell such stories yourselves? Be honest now…
So how is it that all of these high-end electronic devices frustrate us so legendarily? Why is it that we, or at least our engineers (of whom I am one) can’t just build things that work? In a theme that repeats itself several times a day in my head and frequently out of my mouth, though not previously in this blog, I believe the culprit is human nature itself. We are never satisfied with fixing minor problems and using what works. Like our monkey cousins and forebears we are always looking for something more, something better, something faster, fancier or finer. If we have telephones that work, why not make them cordless? Programmable? Wireless? Now let’s add calendars. Oh wait, those have to synchronize. Now let’s add all sorts of games. And store our high scores in the cloud. And take pictures. And mark those automatically with the exact time, date and location using GPS. And shouldn’t we add full internet access so we can download our favourite videos? I think I need more storage, where’s that 64-Terabyte flash memory card? Damn! Why can’t they make the phone in this thing work?!?
Right. Like that. So we build a simple machine and sell lots of units. We start to think about slow, gradual improvements to increase reliability and durability, and maybe to add some incremental function… for about a week. Then some smart marketeer (pronounced just like Mouseketeer©, that is) gets the brilliant thought that people would throw away their old units and buy some new ones if only we added revolutionary new features! The sales people and their lords and masters applaud raucously: this will generate revenue and cash-flow for them as well as for the land-fill operators and the Third-World recycling dumps. So we add new features willy-nilly, usually taking them to market several months (or in some cases years – for example, see my rant on BLWTF) before they’re truly customer-ready. And then we go around the track again, because the next feature has to be fancier still.
Sometimes I think we were better off when the Guild of Lamplighters was a going concern. Oh wait, isn’t that my cell-phone playing the custom ring-tone that says my brother’s calling from his office number? Gotta go…
Jonathan Gladstone is alwaysgrumpy at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @jbglad59.