Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm the Operator with My Pocket Calculator

Last week, I finally took the bull by the horns and lugged my battered desktop PC along to Ratu Plaza for a major upgrade. It's been about five years since I last attempted such a foolhardy act and in the meantime my once proud machine has become technically obsolete, left in the dust as our accelerating world of high-tech gizmos streaks off into the sunset.

I selected a new fancy pants  Intel Core 2 Quad processor and a new motherboard plus 4Gb of RAM, a 1 Terrabyte hard drive and a sexy new casing. I kept my old monitor, soundcard, keyboard, mouse, DVD burner and Internet WiFi dongle. The nice man in the shop slotted all of these old and new bits together within about half an hour and I then popped a few shops along to buy an illegal version of the new Windows 7 operating system.

The government and police pay lip service to stamping out the pirated software industry here of course but they are not trying very hard if you ask me. It's not as if these discs are just being sold out of suitcases on street corners by guys ready to run away at the first sign of trouble. I mean there are entire shops in well-known plazas full of racks of thousands of discs which have all dedicated their efforts towards making Bill Gates' nerdy spectacles steam up with incandescent fury. Old Bill got his revenge on me later though, oh yes.

And so I picked up a Windows 7 disc and headed home to test drive the new machine. I spurned a friend’s advice to try Ubuntu, the free operating system based on Linux, as I don't possess an anorak and have actually kissed a girl before (a real one too, not just a guy in a dress or something). So I decided to stick with good old corporate, monopolistic Microsoft.

At home however, events took an all too predictable turn and served to remind me exactly why I had resisted upgrading my machine for so long. The various hardware and software driver issues sent my blood pressure soaring through the roof as I spent hours and hours and hours searching for new drivers that Windows 7 would actually support and dealing with various issues and conflicts and the pain of reinstalling so many bits of software. 'Plug and Play' they call it. Boy did they get that one wrong. 'Plug and Cry', or 'Plug and Unplug and Bloody Well Plug Again' would be more accurate names. I'd advise Microsoft to drop the, 'and Play' part and just call it "Plug..." with three optimistic dots after it.

And so, paradoxically, I had tried installing Windows 7 in order to make life easier and ended up having a three-day mental meltdown. What's going on here? Trendy German philosopher from the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, noted how our rational, enlightenment, science culture often ends up producing irrational outcomes such as this. People sit gridlocked in cars, going precisely nowhere fast in devices originally designed to make movement easier. Stock markets crash due to computers individually making decisions based on limited data and then clashing violently with each other when the bigger picture swims into focus. Mobile devices, far from freeing us, bind us ever more tightly into a shell of online existence from which there can be no escape.

For Marcuse, there is no historic, science driven path to enlightenment and rationality leading from slavery to freedom, only one that leads from the slingshot to the H-bomb.

Secondly, Marcuse also notes that science is now so complex and that we are so buried under oceans of data and bureaucracy that, paradoxically, people will believe any old rubbish about crystal healing or tofu in order to attempt to get a bit of clarity and order in their heads and so again, irrationality springs from rationality.

To these two formulations I think that I would add a third, namely that devices designed to make life less stressful and more pleasant and convenient end up irritating the bejesus out of me, not a very rational outcome. And it's not just Windows 7 that has made me contemplate an act of computer defenestration. Every time I enter a branch of Circle K or pull up to a car park barrier in town and trigger an automated, digitally disembodied voice which proceeds to regale me with chirpy, synthetic salutations, I want to cut somebody up with a chainsaw. Every time I phone up to complain about my Internet service and am confronted with an automated answering system, I go all sweaty and purple in the face after about four button push submenus. Every time my mobile phone cuts off in the middle of a conversation, I have to restrain myself from tossing the thing under the wheels of a passing bus.

Well folks, it's now a week later and I'm still having computer problems. I guess that I at least have the recourse to unplug the damn thing though. How long will it be before the computers decide to unplug us?