Are Computers Turning Us Into Slaves?
In 1996, Clifford Stoll, already a long-time computer user, wrote a book entitled Silicon Snake Oil, which was critical of the internet. I loved it and recommended it to all of my friends. It was a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere which was polluted with the breathing of people sure that computers and the internet would solve all problems and generally lead to nirvana. Many of the latter are still around.
One observation I remember from the book, was that in the early days of the computer, he claimed he spent half of his computer time simply trying to get his equipment to do what he wanted it to do, which was reasonable, but in 1996 it seemed like he was still doing this, and it hardly seemed reasonable at all.
Now it is ten years later. It has been raining for the last two days in California, and although I probably should have gone outside and played in the rain, it being miraculous in our drought ridden state, I decided to stay inside and work on my computer, happily typing on books, getting my photographs out of Apple’s new and disastrous Photos software, doing small things such as this post, and so on. I did none of that. Instead I worked on our relatively simple home computer system, which consists merely of two computers, two printers, and related equipment.
At the beginning, my wife was having problems with scanning material to Word, and downloading Christmas photos from her camera, and my printer was doing an awful job printing pictures – streaky and too dark. The streaky was clearly from a printer needing cleaning. But the too-dark seemed like maybe something more profound. The result was a struggle with color balance, where was it being controlled, etc, and the usual downloading of new software. Still too dark. So I ran it through the cleaning sequence three times. No difference. At that point I had already spent far more time than the printer was worth, so I went and bought a new printer, and you know how much time that takes, especially since it is sales season, people are still returning Christmas gifts, and the traffic is a nightmare in this area anyway. And of course, there was then the time spent learning to use all of its features, most of which I didn't need.
After selfishly solving my own problems first, I attacked those of my wife, and made a slight bit of progress. Like most people we work with lots of peripherals and are hampered by finite desk space and large screened maschines with not enough USB ports (which are in the back of the machine, and therefore sweep everything on the desk to the floor when the computer is rotated to reach the damn things). She was powering one USB hub off of another one, and since the light on her card reader was not going on, maybe not enough power to download the photos? So I did the usual shuffling of USB cords, including trying to trace them through the snarl that accompanies most computers, hoping that some combination would let everything work, but no luck. I then re-entered the post holiday traffic and got a new and better brand of hub, but still no luck. I finally tried her card on my computer and it also didn’t load – woops, something wrong with the card. It turns out she bought it overseas, so I set that one aside for later.
On to the scanning. Somewhere in the recent “upgrading” we have been doing due to changes in operating systems (required on mine by the encryption now demanded by Stanford servers and hers demanded by peripherals and consistency with mine), and resulting obsolescence of applications, she couldn’t find her favorite method of simply scanning to RTF and then saving the document as a Word document. We worked on that for a while before succeeding, also trying to translate the marketing language concerning available new optical character recognition software that maybe we should download (impossible to learn such things over the phone, all advertised as the best on the internet, and I wasn’t about to go driving again). But by then, my two days were over.
So, Mr. Stoll, in those two days days, I far exceeded spending half of my time trying to get my “system” to do what I want it to. I spent ALL OF IT. And was not done! And to make matters worse, quite a bit of my time was spent accommodating to having to “upgrade” software which, I didn’t want to do, because it will require me to modify useful habits I have acquired over time, and the changes will not improve my life—so far, quite the contrary. In my present mood, typewriters were pretty cool.
Following day note: My wife’s computer had lost its connection to the internet the day before in all the excitement. We initially thought it was because we had pulled something loose in the afore mentioned swarm of wiring which not only interconnects our computers, printers, and so on, but also allows us to participate in a beta test of Google Fiber and TV, all controllable from a pad and working through many black boxes. My credentials would seem to indicate that I should be better than average at screwing around with this kind of stuff, since I have been an engineer for 60 years, have used computers since they became available, and I guess was once a “rocket scientist”, since I worked on spacecraft at J.P.L. If true, I have great sympathy for those who are only average and are in the same boat as I seem to be in.
Turned out it was a faulty power strip, now replaced and all systems are go, except that one of the external back-up drives seems to be balking. I will now post this thing, call for help from a friend, Tim Keely, the world’s best IT person, who will know what is up with the external drive (no clue from its manual on the web), get back to the imported photo card, and then begin my periodic unsnarling of wires that seem to love to intertwine beneath desks and tables and behind sofas, bookcases, heavy chests of drawers, and other heavy objects. My world is not yet wireless.
And aren't computers supposed to serve us, rather than the opposite?