Fruits of the tech revolution: the good, the bad, and the absurd

The advances of the past few decades in the technology of communications and computing are wonderous and striking. Many formerly onerous tasks are much facilitated, and lots of novel capabilities have appeared and are being widely enjoyed. Canadians especially take huge delight in this revolution, because we have an ancestral memory of Canada as a nation of hewers of wood and drawers of water (except during the coldest season, when we became hewers of water and drawers of wood). Fiddling with a keyboard or touchscreen is much easier.

But not everything is better, and the road to better is not always obvious. There have been a few tricky wrong turns and cul-de-sacs.

Reflecting upon this has unleashed my inner curmudgeon, so perhaps a curmudgeon’s tour of the less felicitous features of the new landscape would be in order.

Those of my age will remember that not so long ago, if you met someone in your town or city who you later wanted to contact, you could look up their phone number in something called a phone book. This task was made even more accurate if you knew their address, which was also listed, and would be confirmatory. Today however, even with online “phonebooks” this is a hopeless task, as they only list landlines, which are a sort of endangered species. The cell phone is dominant, and no directory exists for them (except the ones maintained by the intelligence services). So your friends can’t call you, unless you have made a point of giving them your contact information, but every scammer on earth will eventually reach out to you.

And, especially amongst the young, even cell phones are primarily for other things, and actual speech is much less favoured. Perhaps you recall a time when, if you needed to settle a small matter with someone, a phone call of less than a minute or two, with a few to-and-fro remarks from both parties, to reach an interpolated decision, would entirely suffice. That exchange today is a half-hour of texting.

In some circles there is such a bias against actually speaking that I sometimes get texts or emails from folk that I know, seeking permission to phone me.

And then there’s parking. Years ago, when you sought to park, you would choose a spot equipped with a parking meter, you would get out, put a few coins in the meter, and go about whatever business you had stopped there to transact. Today, you get out of the car, figure out which solar powered ticket printer is within a half a block or so, trundle down to it, wait behind two other folk, get to the unit (all the while worrying about whether it will actually give you back your credit card), only to find that it isn’t working, so you climb over a snow bank, cross the street, climb another snow bank, go another half-block to find another ticket issuer, get the little paper slip, and, by the time you get back to your car to put the ticket on your dashboard, you have largely forgotten why on earth you wanted to park there anyhow. (Yes, I know that some cities have phone apps that cover some but not all of these spaces, but in some cases they are cumbersome. In one city I know, they only cover handicap parking spots. Furthermore, they compel the driver to own and carry a smart phone.)

And if your car is relatively new, it has quite a bit of computing power on board. That electronic package gradually drains the battery when the vehicle is not in use. Before these tech refinements, the battery decline was very slow, as it was due just to internal self-discharge of the battery, plus a tiny bit of power used by the electric clock. But today, the at-rest power drain is rather greater, and some car makers actually supply cute little smart 4-stage mini-chargers with new vehicles, to avoid a dead battery. But you need a place to plug it in. The electrician will need to put an electrical outlet where you park. (Hold on, aren’t we Canadian? Don’t we still have one of those from when we needed block heaters to get the damned car started in the winter?)

My next target is the ubiquitous personal computer. It is useful indeed, but it sure isn’t perfect. It feels like an experimental technology that made its way into popular use before the experiment was complete. It’s absolutely not a mature technology. You wouldn’t tolerate similar behaviour from your dishwasher. If you washed your dishes exactly the same way every time, but once every two months your dishwasher ground your dishes up into subatomic particles, distributed them somewhere between Neptune and Pluto, and then locked the door on you until you disconnected all its hoses, and on reconnection, acted perfectly normal, you’d think it wasn’t a mature technology. You might even think unworthy thoughts about the con artist that sold it to you.

I don’t pretend to any great expertise in computing. I was near the leading edge of it in the 1970’s, but got distracted for a few months, and haven’t been able to catch up since. So now I’m a typical older, fearful computer user. Fearful, because, unlike younger folk, people like me remember when you could do real harm by pushing the wrong key.

Along with all the benefits of the computer revolution (and they are real) have come some negatives we should reflect on.

First, there is the waiting. A non-trivial part of total working time is lost by Canadians as they watch Bill Gates think, as exemplified by hourglass symbols, turning wheels, slowly advancing bar symbols, and a host of other devices all of which tell you to sit there and wait. And no system actually tells you how long you will have to wait, though many pretend to do so. These antics make me hope that my computer isn’t just guessing at the answer to whatever question I asked it to solve, the same way it’s guessing at how long it needs to complete its current manœuvre.

We’re subjected to this because, in the race between the hardware folks building capacity and the programmers using it up, the programmers always win. They always want to do more than is reasonable with the machine capacity, and we stupidly let them. So we are all held hostage to the entertainment of a few thousand young geeks. Why not institute an industry standard that sets normal wait time for a single manœuvre at no more than five seconds? Specialty software that doesn’t adhere to the standard could be so labelled, and not bundled with the standard stuff. Millions upon millions of ordinary users who never explore most of the fancy features would be delighted.

Manuals are my next howl. Indeed, what manuals? You want to sell me something worth hundreds or thousands of dollars and you’re too cheap to print a manual? I’m supposed to go online and print it with my own paper and ink? Wow, that’s great customer relations. And, while no writer of a user’s manual is ever a naive user, the custom used to be to at least try to imagine what a naive user would want or need to know. Today’s authors of computer manuals don’t try to do that at all; they write for other experienced users, pointing out only the differences between what they’ve created and other similar systems.

As for the internet, it’s a hugely useful research tool, but it has also had a negative impact on what students and the public think is research. Rubbish and high-quality material are hard to separate, and often get presented with equal weight. Furthermore, the dross drives out the gold, as it’s easier to produce. And e-mail, though handy, is the thief of literacy, the goad of the ill-considered reply, and the creator of flash points.

As for web-site builders, please take note of the three questions your firm is most frequently asked on the phone, and make sure they’re answered on the website! It’s not rocket science!

And then there’s the economics of information technology, and the circular quest for an illusory holy grail. Our IT managers are comical indeed when they chant, “Our IT system could save us lots of time and money, if only there were enough time and money to get it running right.” Well, there isn’t, and will never be. I am, however, prepared to concede that it’s much better than quill pens, and easier on the geese.

In addition, the tech revolution has profoundly influenced privacy. Privacy is now more fragile, and having any requires a certain low cunning to stay ahead of the forces fraying it at the edges. We need passwords, the more complex the better. But then we can’t remember them. Some people store their passwords on their devices, a practice rather akin to leaving your wallet on the table in the restaurant when you go to the washroom. Others have somewhat better techniques, and there is doubtless a rather charming boom in pet ownership so that folk can use their pet names as easy-to-remember passwords. The glitch there, however, is that we are exhorted by the experts to change our passwords often, and renaming a pet every few weeks or months might compromise your attempts to train it. In the end, most of us resort to a closely guarded hard copy of our list of passwords. It’s time to buy and install a wall safe!

It is a delight, though, to have such a wide window to the world at large, via our devices. But the price we pay is that we can be importuned or conned from anywhere on earth. In days of yore the bad cats had to knock on our doors or stop us in the street. Now they come roaring into our homes and workplaces on a tsunami of electrons. I call this the flood of PPE. No, not personal protective equipment, but pickpockets, pirates, and embezzlers.

The ability of some systems to spoof a panoply of local phone numbers obviates much of the advantage of trying to block calls from specific numbers. We are fortunate, however, that most of the illicit importuning is done in such a completely incompetent fashion that it’s hard to believe that it ever works. It’s mostly just the annoyance. There was one recent period when it seemed that every few days I would get a call about “duct cleaning in my area”, and would I like a deal on “duct cleaning”. My house doesn’t have ducts, so just responding that we had no ducts ended any such call. But one day, something in my head must have snapped, so instead of that usual answer, I replied, “Oh, the ducks are fine; do you do geese?” My interlocutor, who had a melodious accent of the Indian sub-continent, paused for a moment or two, before asking me, “Oh, and how many geese do you have”. He then burst out laughing. In a way, it was charming to find that the intrusions were being made by folk who could find joy in a joke.

Receiving importuning by email is less fun. No matter how I tune to reject spam, some gets through. Years ago I would even sometimes get spam purporting to be marketing a better spam filter. I can safely say that if one key on my computer wears out before the others, it will be the delete key.

To be fair, while the pace of electronic solicitation and deception has skyrocketed with the coming of the internet, its beginnings do go back to the era of the rotary dial telephone. The first mass solicitations to residential land line phones in Canada seemed to appear in the early 1950’s. It was more genteel than today, and the canvassers felt obliged to use the phone books to try to target their interlocutor by name. My earliest recollection of these was an incessant campaign by Arthur Murray Dance Studios to get additional custom by telling those that they called that they had won a few free dance lessons.

My father had a terrifyingly imaginative sense of humour. I have a vivid recollection of his response to one of these phone solicitations. When he answered the phone, he heard his caller say, “Mr. Cowan, this is the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, and you’ve just won three free dance lessons”. He answered, “No, this is not Mr. Cowan, I’m Mr. Stratavobarobalinski.” This prompted the caller to try to pronounce the fictitious name. My father coached him patiently, first pronouncing it slowly, and finally spelling it. After a few minutes of training, the salesman finally got the name right, and got right back on track, making the original offer to “Mr. Stratavobarobalinski”. My father’s counter to this was to feign weeping softly into the phone. The puzzled salesman then asked, solicitously, why he was weeping. His reply: “Don’t you think it is cruel to offer free dance lessons to a man with one leg?”  The caller fled the scene. My father most assuredly had two legs, and was a fine tennis player and a pretty decent dancer. And clearly, he had figured out how to get himself on the 1950’s equivalent of a do-not-call list, long before such things were invented.

Today, stopping the plague of begging and scamming is not so easy. It is unfortunate that the automation of the importuning enabled by modern technology largely precludes the use of the power of embarrassment to check it. But sometimes I give it a shot.

Photo: iStock