It and us
Living with technology
I recently wrote a column calling for a new approach to teaching people how to run software. The gist of this argument is that the makers of technology are doing their best on their side of the equation to make products easy to use; and users (most of them, anyway) are doing their best on their side of the equation to learn from the materials provided to them.
What each side needs to do, the column suggested, is try harder to understand and appreciate the position of the other side. Customers need to work to overcome their resistance to reading documentation, and to learn how to think more like a computer; computer and software makers need to create new-generation, custom documentation that addresses the needs of individual users.
In my mind the column was a paragon of balance, favoring neither side. But when I posted it to a Usenet newsgroup frequented by technology people, some of the denizens of that place erupted, flaming me with pure techie venom. They felt I was taking the side of "moronic" customers over decent, hard-working techies. Here's one reply, which is insulting in the way that only indignant Internet old-timers can be:
You are just the most recent example of clueless journalist, having discovered the Internet or being told to discover the Internet, who logs in and posts a truly stupid flamebait. You get deservedly flamed, so you go out and write EXACTLY the story you intended to write in the first place.
Having totally failed in grasping a clue, you pat yourself on the back and tell yourself and your readers that all those folks who have spent years and years learning computers are real mean SOBs simply because YOU and your readers are too damned lazy and stupid to crack a book.
In this, you are not at all different from the pitiful folks who refuse to learn to drive, operate a TV, use a telephone, etc. etc.
Technology has passed you by and made your education obsolete. The typical 12 year old is more technology savvy than you are and is more fit to survive in a technological society. Like any other endangered species, this leaves you frightened, bewildered, and very angry.
Since you don't have the intellectual honesty to direct your anger at the REAL target -- yourself and your lack of education -- you make the usual pathetic attempt to target the bearers of the ugly message in the usual human tradition.
Sorry, but I don't feel sorry for you. If your current employer expects computer literacy, before you make the obvious career move, you need to be aware that McDonald's is a very, very high-tech job workplace.
You had the opportunity to do your readers a service by pointing out that the state of today's technology is such that a bit of education IS REQUIRED -- further, that if they wish to prosper in that society, sooner or later they can expect to run into this problem.
If you had any real research credentials and reasoning ability, you would be aware that no matter how easy ANY technology is to use, there will always be newer technology constantly emerging. Those who stay abreast survive and prosper. Those who don't stay naked and huddle in caves and freeze to death because they refuse to learn how to make spearheads and arrowheads. Those societies who simply pull a "Mike Finley" and kill the arrowhead-maker sooner or later, deservedly, become extinct.
At least you can rest easy knowing that the phrase "Mike Finley" is very likely to gain the same level of recognition on the Internet as that of Ned Ludd and his ilk.
In a few years, rather than posting about "lusers", we will all be posting about "Mike-Finley-users" and their stupidity.
You, hopefully, will be sorting through trashcans or sitting on a branch with the spotted owl--which is more than you deserve.
Techies as a class have the reputation of sitting on their feelings, but not this fellow. And he's right. Ordinary people are expecting that the tools painstakingly developed over centuries by people of the caliber of Leibniz, Babbage and von Neumann -- who never in their wildest dreams imagined anything like the personal computers we use today -- should be as easy to use as a vacuum cleaner. It makes perfect sense that such a collision of purposes -- theirs and ours -- would result in grotesque pain for both sides.
Which leaves the vast middle of us right there, in the middle, and feeling stress because of the contradiction between the superficial simplicity of Windows 95 or the Mac interface or What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get word processing or Microsoft "Bob" and the dizzying 12-diskette depth of detail just below the surface.
Even when computer science tries to appear simple for our benefit, it masks a frightful complexity. What is simplicity, anyway? Could any two us ever agree on what that simplicity would be like? The best we could do is supply vague hints, unsystematic wish lists that could vary widely from user to user. To a teacher of Boolean algebra, it might be a keyboard with two keys, 0 and 1. All digital technology does, after all, is sort 0s from 1s. But to us that would be a very unyielding kind of simplicity, like the monolith that the ape race at the dawn of time in 2001: A Space Odyssey could only screech at and beat on. The design of simplicity is left to the masters of complexity, and rightly so.
This is the tension that makes us crazy. When systems go down, we hope our slender thread of knowledge will help us. It seldom does. Technology leads even the cleverest of our ape race around on a tether. We may flatter ourselves that we get it, because we know how to select bullets of different shapes or get the decimal points to line up in thye tables create. Then, when technology throws us for a loop, we feel betrayed -- the thread of knowledge we were so proud of unravels in our hands.
"A PC is like an Old Testament God.
Lots of rules, and absolutely no mercy."
This moment could go either way. My techie letter-writer wishes we would either commit to learning technology at the high level he has, or else (this is my opinion) we should just go away and let him and his techie buddies play with their toys.
Technology will always be too hard for some people. A few of us will never be willing to do the work necessary to become competent at our consoles. The guaranteed 100% no-brainer computer of the future may go on sale at Wal-Mart some day, but everyone reading this will be dead by then.
Despite an ocean of misgivings and caterwaulings, we are moving toward effortless, zero-training computing. Systems are ten times easier to use today than they were ten years ago, in some ways. That is good news. The bad new is, we ain't there yet. And we may never be truly happy with our tools. I doubt there will ever be a state of zero disparity between us and our machines, until we hardwire them into our cerebral cortices, an option I heartily recommend in Chapter 10.
"Men have become the tools of their tools."
Henry David Thoreau
So the logical course of action is to accept that there will always be some degree of difficulty. It will always make us a little crazy. Short of taking a 50-year nap and awakening in the idiot-proof future, we have no real alternative except to learn, each of us in our own way, to live with whatever conditions currently prevail.
I got interested in computers fifteen years ago. The Apple II was a sensation, Radio Shack was selling machines in shopping malls, the IBM PC was just around the corner, and writer friends were abuzz about the new "word processors" that were coming out. I was writing a book at the time, and each revision had to be laboriously retyped on a Hermes steel typewriter. I knew it didn't have to be this way -- a year earlier, I'd worked on a newspaper that had word processing terminals and I was in awe of their ability to save and edit files and to move around blocks of text.
That meant no more retyping, a godsend to all writers like me who on a good day type maybe ten words per minute. It spelled an end to the drudgery of writing. I promised myself I would use the proceeds from that first book to buy an Apple II or a TRS-80.
Fifteen years and about as many books later, I have exchanged the Hermes 3000 for a 486 PC clone -- my sixth computer, counting portables. Though I am no techie, and quickly get lost when talk takes a turn for the technical, I have a generally good feeling about machines and programs. But I know very well that many people don't feel that way.
My stepdad, Dick, was a great guy who owned a small trucking and excavating company near Cleveland. Dick ran his business on an informal, family, first-name basis. He often paid in vash and was paid in cash. His whole enterprise ran on a handshake basis. And he loathed computers. When he heard I had one, he bawled me out. "Those sons of bitching computers are no good, I tell ya. One of these days everyone's going to wake up to that." His logic escaped me -- his often did. He drove a truck; why couldn't I run a PC? How was his complicated machinery all that different from my complicated machinery?
Dick was just plain scared. His modest shell games with cash and barter couldn't hope to fool the auditing mainframes of the government. And he saw the new generation of lab-coated technicians as an alien race that were subtly displacing him and the other guys from the neighborhood. Me becoming one of this bland new race was a kind of treason.
Dick passed on a few years ago, and I hope he has found peace in a computerless heaven, with flirty waitresses and lots of ethnic jokes. But the world is still populated with people troubled by the things that troubled him:
Right now is an important moment in computer history. Extraordinarily talented computer scientists have created a world in which almost anything is possible. At the same time, ordinary people are demanding to be part of the action. The two ends of the spectrum are rushing to meet one another: gigaflop geniuses versus the PC peasantry. The geniuses properly belong out on the cusp, coming up with new things, which, being new, are always hard. We peasants benefit from this quest for the new, but mainly in the long term, i.e., when the new has become old.
Short-term, we wish the geniuses would focus on our needs today for simple, easy-to-use machines and programs. While the geniuses push the envelope pursuing things the rest of us can't even hold in our minds, we wish they would focus on incremental improvements to existing tools. They create new worlds; we just want to avoid assigning function keys.
What keeps this unique moment from being a happy one is that we are all of us at war. Technology has embroiled producers and users in a war of nerves. It is not true to say that most technology people are indifferent to the needs of ordinary customers. But some are, and I have an example.
GILLETTE RESIDENT IS ARRESTED AFTER SHOOTING HIS COMPUTER
A Gillette man was arrested at his home last Thursday night after he fired eight bullets at his home computer, according to police.
The man, Michael A. Case, 35, of 64 Summit Avenue, was arrested shortly after 11 PM at his house, when police said they received a report that shots were fired. They arrived at the home to find a .44 Magnum automatic handgun and a shot-up IBM personal computer with a Princeton Graphics System monitor.
The monitor screen was blown out by the blasts and its inner workings were visible, Lt. Donald Van Tassel said on Monday. The computer, which had bullet holes in its hardware, was hit four times while four more bullet holes were found in various areas next to the computer, Van Tassel said.
"The only thing he (Case) said was that he was mad at his computer so he shot it," Van Tassel said.
Case was surprised when police arrested him because he didn't think he was breaking the law, Van Tassel said. "He couldn't understand why he couldn't shoot his own computer in his own home," Van Tassel said.
I once knew a man who could not work in an office because he said the noise of the machines -- the whir of fans, pulse of the computers, faint hum of fluorescent lights -- discombobulated him. He truly believed the machines were malicious spirits, demonic entities conspiring to shatter his serenity. Of course, his smoking an ounce of pot a week probably didn't help matters.
Can machines make us crazy? I'm assured that they can. We can all conjure images of technology fraying our nerves to the breaking point. Smoke and sparks billowing from our hard drive slots. A modem that refuses to dial a number. A 900-page manual that tells everything you want to know about a product except how to make it work.
Techies call anyone who can't hop onto their level of thinking technophobes -- a word too often used to mean too many things. Technophobia is what techies call those people who cannot figure out how to use stuff, who neither invest in technology, try to learn it, or, if forced to learn it, rely exclusively on technical support people instead of reading the documentation or attending conventional training sessions. It sounds like an out for the techno averse -- technophobia being a condition we can't help, thus relieving us of responsibility for our actions (and our inaction).
"I saw the best minds of my generation
- a world of technology run by experts, often to the detriment of average people who never get with the program;
- a world in which Big Brother is a computer, and no one keeps any secrets from him;
- a world of absolute, indisputable measurements, where a handshake or a wink or a roaring laugh carry no weight at all.
destroyed by madness."
Technophobia, used this way, is a blaming diagnosis, a caricature depicting someone who acts like a deliberate moron around computers. To be honest, some of us are deliberate morons around computers. On a bad day, we all are. But it's still a pretty mean thing to say about someone.
Every year we read in the paper about some poor soul like Michael Case, who tried for years to do right by the things around him, but who, in a berserk moment of passion, took out his frustrations on his television, or his PC, or a pay phone, with a revolver. The story will elicit our amused sympathy, as we imagine the smoke and static rising out of the stricken machine. We all have felt that way from time to time, but had only half the hardware on hand.
"Guns don't kill computers.
People kill computers."
Eric F. Johnson
Psychologists speak clinically of technophobia as a genuine and sometimes crippling condition, in which the individual is simply unable to deal with machines. Anxiety prevents certain people from performing tasks as simple as dialing the telephone. The condition is treated as other irrational phobias are: victims are asked to describe the worst thing that could happen in an engagement with a computer or telephone or VCR or database. Of course, there really is nothing life-threatening about these things (setting aside the ergonomic problems discussed in a later chapter). The fear is unapologetically irrational.
The question the rest of us must ask ourselves is, if technology makes us a little crazy, and we don't want to be crazy, exactly how crazy don't we want to be? Because there is a continuum of noncrazy, and each of us needs to select our proper bandwidth within it. First, there's absolutely not crazy. Your brain pulses in a pure alpha state, unencumbered by DOS manuals or call waiting. You sleep on the beach, and dine on cracked coconuts and conch. Warm breezes caress your toe-hairs. It's doable, if you own the island, and your taxes are prepaid.
Then there's acceptably crazy. A little bit of tension is said to aid digestion. Without some tension, we lose our sense of ourselves. Maybe we can pick and choose which hassles we can put up with, and which ones we can put behind us.
And there's unacceptably crazy, which is how many of us feel now. Confused: We don't know how to make this stuff work, beyond a few basic tricks. Fearful: What if something goes awry when you really need it? Angry: Why didn't they tell us that "100% compatible" meant "99.99% compatible"? That warranties expire when the company expires? That Hit any key does not mean finding a key that says ANY?
Technology provokes bipolar human responses, compulsion and avoidance. Compulsion is Wow! It begins as giddy delight and mutates gradually into the behaviors of addiction. Avoidance is Ack! It begins as mild resistance to an idea and mutates quickly into mindless denial.
We tend to view the world as divided into these two camps. Those who can and those who cannot. In my view, it would be more accurate to describe each of us this way -- as divided into a part that is genuinely curious about technology, and another part that runs like a rabbit from it. Each of us has a different mix but each part can get us into trouble.
Neither side is safe ground. We can easily underdo or overdo our attachment to technology. Going whole hog over one thing necessarily means you cannot go even partial hog over something else. On the other hand, to withdraw entirely from a useful technology like networking or multimedia is to hide one's head in the sand. It translates to lost productivity, lost opportunity, lost "currency."
The two great work technologies -- computers and the telephone, and all that has sprung from each -- have made us more productive, made us "work smarter," allowed us to make more money, and doggone it, they've made our lives more interesting.
Having said all that, technology has not come into our lives without cost, to us as persons, or to us as a society. In what ways has the information age moved us off our better base? We know what we have gained. But what have we lost in the gaining?
The core tenet of this book is that the machines and programs we use to interact with the world of information cause us much unhappiness, frustration, and tension even as they increase our productivity. Those of us who don't "get" technology feel shut out. Those who love it too much feel their lives slipping out of kilter, as they mutate into techno droids. And those of us in the middle are just depressed at the high price our technological wonders exact from us -- in money, in learning, in re-learning, in time, in waste, in our very health and peace of mind. This book is mostly for this middle group -- the "walking wounded" of the working world.
Technology foists a series of miserable paradoxes upon us. Behind every promise it holds out to make our lives easier and happier, it hides a knife it intends to stick in us sooner or later. This book is organized around these paradoxes:
Technology races. Chip speeds, storage requirements, product upgrades constantly demand more from users. Speed creates megastress within the technology industry, which is then passed on to us. The result is a footrace nearly everyone loses -- users against the industry, people against their machines, nations against nations, all of us against one another.
- The speed of Technological Progress makes it impossible to catch up.
Technology generalizes. Industry treats users as if we are all the same, like clone computers. But we are all different, and our differences explain why some of us intuitively "get" technology better than others.
- Technology is a common language no two people speak in common.
Technology confuses. Sure, we have computer networks and e-mail. But those of us who remember the old days remember when a team worked all in one room together. You had lunch together, you gossiped, you blew smoke in one another's faces. It was terrible, but it was intimate. We always knew computers turned us into numbers. But until the wall partitions went up, and the passwords were handed out, and the account numbers were assigned, we didn't realize that we were units, as interchangeable as tires. The irony of connectivity -- whether through radio, TV, phone, fax, or modem -- is that we only connect metaphorically. We never really meet. Because none of us are quite sure what we're talking about when we talk about computers, we tend to talk over our own heads. We nod as if we understand, and maybe we think we do. But we don't.
- Technology inevitably isolates its users.
Technology breaks. We used to think car repair was bad. Finding a reliable repair party for your PC or phone system is tougher. Few repair centers give customers a clear idea when a repair will be finished, or what the cost parameters are. Meanwhile, unless you have a backup system and backed-up, ready-to-use data, you are marooned. You yourself are inoperative. You are broken. You are "down."
- The More Open the Architecture, The More You Need a Third Party Repair Team.
Technology disappoints. While computers promise productivity advances, the actual experience often comes up short of expectations. You change the way you work from top to bottom -- and in the end you aren't making any more money. Worse, if you are an employee, and you do succeed in increasing productivity, you may be rewarded by losing your job. If every worker is doing the work of two workers, the organization should require only half as many workers.
- The technology-Rich Get Richer, and the Rest Get Buried.
Technology costs. All this stuff, analog or digital, is as expensive. You save up $2,000 for a good laser printer, but the $2,000 is just the beginning. Every couple of months will cost you another $200 in cartridges and other supplies. You tell yourself that the productivity increase justifies the expense. But if it does, where are the numbers? Where are the dollars?
- You Can't Afford It; You can't afford to be without It.
Technology maims. Magazine articles list a dozen ways working on a computer can hurt you. You can get carpal tunnel syndrome from a poor keyboard. Eyestrain from a quivering monitor images and glare. Backache from bending all day over your machine. Hernias and tendinitis from lugging the ultra-lite notebook plus printer plus case plus overhead projector through Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Miscarriages from monitor radiation during pregnancy. Brain tumors from all those happy conversations on the car phone. Maybe none of those things happens to you, but you worry about them anyway. How come they are never mentioned in the ads?
- That Which Does Not Destroy You Can Still Cause Major Problems.
Technology despoils. It may seem clean and a friend to the earth. The more we examine technology, however, the more we see it is creating significant toxic waste and solid waste problems.
- Systems designed to make the world a better place instead place the world in jeopardy.
Technology corrupts. In showing us an easier way, it seduces us into doing everything that way. It tempts us to pretend we are things we are not. It creates veils and masks to hide behind, and be different than we are.
- Technology doesn't Lie, But It Can Easily Make a Liar out of You.
Technology scares. The idyllic future promised by computers threatens to isolate us even more from one another, creating a class of technology haves and have-nots, and foisting new concepts upon us that very few will be able to grasp.
Beyond these paradoxes, computer technology causes other distress, which we will discuss in passing:
- That Which Was Supposed to Comfort Us Instead Gives Us the Willies.
"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was technology
- It discriminates. It tends to invalidates ages-old skills and traditions, while rewarding those with the affinity -- and the cash -- to embrace the new. It downgrades right-brain (artistic, nuanced) talents and sets the left hemisphere (analytical, binary) high on a pedestal. The infobahn will have several classes for its passengers: first class, coach, and stranded on the shoulder.
- It riles. In yesterday's correspondence, it was rare to write angry letters attacking one another. In cyberspace, however, where we never see our counterpart's eyes, it is commonplace. We lose track of how we come across to people. We are like bombardiers, dropping explosives from a great, safe height. The average newcomer to the Internet (newbie) is welcomed with the same warmth as the first mallard in duck season.
that brought down communism."
Put 'em all together, they spell pain, a condition we are going to call techno crazed -- a destabilization of the human psyche brought on by little things made of silicon and wires. We know the problem starts in the computer brain. But the cure must come where the pain is greatest -- in ours.
We are all a little myopic when it comes to technology. The wisdom of the technophobe is to urge us to repent, and forget we ever invented chips, pixels, and interfaces. The wisdom of the techno natural is that technology is power, and the few who master it will also gain mastery over those who can't. The wisdom of the rest of us is that computer technology will have its way with us no matter what, so we may as well brace for the onslaught.
Somewhere between demonization, deification, and despair, there must be a sane approach to computing. Perhaps it goes something like:
Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
For us to make peace with the machines, we have to figure out our proper relationship with them. This relationship is different for every individual. Some of us will genuinely thrive on a high technology diet. Other of us will do fine without even a minimum daily allowance of it. The important thing is not to sell ourselves short, to extract from technology the most good that our personalities and attitudes will allow.
"Everything is in a state of metamorphosis.
- It threatens. Information is the essence of power. Whoever has information about you has power over you. Whoever has information that you need and don't have has power over you. Despite a great deal of talk about how technology democratizes -- e.g., the fax brigades at Tienanmen Square, consumer information sharing on the Internet, Ross Perot's electronic town hall forums -- in the meantime it creates a two-tiered society of those who have some technology and and those who don't have any.
Thou thyself art in everlasting change
and in corruption to correspond
so is the whole universe."
Marcus Aurelius, 1st C. AD
Two forces can alleviate techno craziness. The first is the technology industry -- the people who develop, make and sell machines and programs. Generally speaking, they are dedicated to making technology more "people-literate" -- able to anticipate and relate to our lifeform. But it is hard for them. First, technology is not easy; making it easy is one of the most complex technological challenges there is. Second, companies naturally seek advantage over one another, and this prevents them from always doing the user-friendly thing, such as making computers that all work alike.
The second and more powerful force is you, the user. Only you know what you want and need. Only you know what you can afford, and what your special hang-ups and handicaps are. It's your job to get a good grasp on your personal limitations, so you are not sucked into the misery/poverty/desolation that otherwise lie in store for you.
"Imagine if every Thursday your shoes exploded
if you tied them the usual way.
This happens to us all the time with computers, and nobody thinks of complaining."
Technology in its happiest moments makes people into gods of the Greco-Roman sort -- superhuman in capabilities but retaining our very human nature. The problem is, it has also brought upon us profound frustrations, anxieties, and pain. Instead of making us gods, it has turned us into dogs -- our good will abused, our loyalties taken for granted.
Technology is a houseguest that has taken up residence in our lives unbidden. We have the options of welcoming the guest warmly or giving him the cold shoulder. It doesn't matter, because the guest is here to stay no matter what you do, like some crazy, invasive uncle who butts into every conversation. You can shush him all you like, but Uncle Iggy will not go away.
The attainment of techno wisdom requires that each of us walk a personal tightrope between what the market offers and what is best for us. Industry can bend over backwards until it falls over, trying to meet people's needs. But at some point we have to master ourselves and make peace with our machines.
I hope this book equips 98-pound techno weaklings with weapons to help them resist the predations of techno bullies, and illuminates a pathway to serenity for the techno obsessed, who have let machines get the better of them. I want it to help you negotiate the tightrope of technology. It explains when it's defensible to be a nut about technology, and when it's OK to turn your back on it. Perhaps most important, I want it to help you find your appropriate level of involvement.
One more thing. If you manage to attain wisdom, or a semblance of wisdom, or if all you succeed in doing is becoming a little less techno crazed, just wait a bit. Something new and wonderful is headed your way, and it will make you crazy all over again. :