Increasingly, we’re running our lives - living our lives - through computers.
This is certainly true for someone like me. I make my living writing software, working online with colleagues scattered across different countries. I need computers to make what I make, and to test what I make, and to communicate with the people that I make it with. The people who buy what I make need a computer to do it, and then a computer to use it.
I also happen to live in a relatively remote part of the UK, far away from many of my friends and family, and from most useful shops, sources of entertainment, etc. So computers are a big part of my non-working life too. I shop online, I communicate online, I get my music, my reading, my news, my entertainment online.
The fact that I can use computers to do so much ought to be a positive thing, and in many ways of course it is. They can do amazing things, and I can’t even count the number of aspects of day to day living that are quicker, easier, more efficient, or just downright saner when done electronically.
And yet… I find that the more that my life (particularly my non-working life) is mediated through technology, the more frustration I experience.
Partly it’s because I know enough about the technology to know what’s possible - at least what should be possible - and get frustrated when it turns out that reality hasn’t quite caught up yet.
Perhaps instead it’s just that I’m entering that phase of my life where I truly get to be a grumpy old man, whether I like it or not. Possibly I’d be experiencing the same frustration even if I spent no time with technology at all.
Leaving that cheerful possibility to one side for a moment, I think it’s actually because so much of the software that I use (that I’m sort-of forced to used, unless I want to completely reject the way of life I’ve chosen, and re-invent myself as some sort of Luddite hermit), is so horribly broken.
It’s not broken in the obvious “this doesn’t work, I’d like my money back please” sort of way. Well, some of it is, but whilst those cases are annoying, they are simple to deal with, as long as they are acknowledged.
Instead, much of the software that I use is broken in a pebble-in-the-shoe, splinter-under-your-nail sort of way. It mostly works, except when it doesn’t. Or it always works, but it’s irritatingly quirky, badly designed, just plain ugly. Or perhaps worst of all, it blatantly doesn’t work, but everyone is caught up in some kind of mass-hypnosis, Emperor’s new clothes scenario, and you find yourself thinking “what am I missing here?”*.
In practical terms what this means for me is that I do an awful lot of fixing things that shouldn’t be broken, tweaking things that shouldn’t need tweaking. I have to re-install software that wasn’t touched, re-enter passwords that haven’t changed, work around things that shouldn’t need working around.
I could go on (ad nauseam), but you get the point I’m sure. By the way, I’m not talking about hand-crafted Linux systems with custom kernels. Although I’m a sophisticated user, I’m mostly talking about out-of-the-box, “it should just work” things. I live almost exclusively on the Apple side of the tracks, so perhaps this is just a problem within that particular ecosystem. It does feel to me as though an appreciation for quality (that much-vaunted attention to detail), has badly fallen away recently, and that’s something which has been discussed to some extent in the Apple developer community.
I hesitate to blame it all on Apple though - almost every encounter I have with non-Apple technology leads me to think that things are as bad if not worse on the other side of the fence. Either way, most of the discussion seems to be quite narrowly focussed on software, and not on the wider effect it might be having on us all as people.
For me, personally, it feels like it results in loss of a lot of time - time that I can’t really afford to lose. Worse than that, though, it feels like it has a subtle, invidious, and distinctly negative mental impact.
It’s dissonance, constant dissonance, like a kind of mental tinnitus that never drowns everything out, but never goes away. It makes the simplest tasks difficult, just when you don’t need them to be. It’s deeply unnerving to anyone who finds satisfaction in small local victories over entropy. Not in an unrealistic way, just in an everyday, trying-to-move-forward and make my life better kind of way.
I think that this dissonance has the potential to be a really seriously problem. The more people’s lives are tied to computers, the more that this is going to have a measurable impact on society’s health, particularly its mental health.
Like most problems, talking about it has got to be the first step.
Am I alone out here? Am I just projecting a general theory onto my own experiences? Should I just take a long holiday?
Or is this a real syndrome?
*anything Wi-Fi related that Apple has done for the last, well, forever?