Hello again. In the last two items in this mini-series I looked at how the paucity of knowledge concerning our ‘every-day’ technology has been largely kept secret from us through a smokescreen of ‘service levels.’ I discussed how actually, in real life (and in faraway castles), nobody actually knows how the digital age actually works.
This week I’m going to address the ‘so what?’ argument. We’re all so busy embracing the latest techno-gadget or fawning over the latest announcements of Google or Microsoft – envisaging how these apps, streams and clouds will forever make our lives so simple and yet so interesting – that we elide over the many gaps in the technology.
I want you to imagine a man. A fairly young man – old enough to remember the days when computers took up a whole desk but young enough to be a willing participant in the ‘Digital Revolution.’
This man is a writer. He is very excited today because he wants to send his first novel to a publisher. This is surely a milestone day in this young man’s life. Today, in writer’s terms, he has come of age. He has a finished novel ready to be shared with the world.
Now, the gatekeepers of the publishing world have set a few small hurdles. They only want 3 chapters of his novel. And a covering letter. No problem. The work is all on his computer. But what’s this? The computer is not connected to the home printer? ‘Oh yes it is,’ the writer mutters to himself, ‘at least, it was yesterday.’ He re-checks the settings on the Wi-Fi. ‘No connection available.’ Oh dear. ‘Never mind, I have the cable somewhere, I’ll plug it in manually.’
Two hours later our protagonist is heading out of the house. He is frustrated and slightly tense. The computer and the printer are refusing to ‘talk’ to each other, no matter what he does. Resourceful, as all good protagonists should be, he has loaded his novel onto a memory stick and is walking up to town to have it printed at a local shop. A little more costly but today is a big day. He’s not going to allow a little technical glitch get in the way.
“Hello there, can you copy from a memory stick?” he asks the young man stood by the space age photocopier.
“Yes of course sir, what would you like printed?” The novelist explains his problem and waves the memory stick. The young man puts the stick into the USB port and the novelist smiles when he sees the file that is his novel appear.
“Great! Could you set it to print up to page 102, please?”
“Ah, no, sorry sir, it has to print the whole document or nothing.”
“Um…no, sorry sir we can’t. It’s the whole file or nothing.”
“Ok, fine, I suppose it won’t hurt to have the rest of the novel printed, just in case.”
“Is it colour or black and white?”
“Just black and white please.” There is a pause. The young man frowns.
“Does your document contain photographs?”
“Yes, a few illustrations but you can just print those in black and white, it’ll be fine.”
“Um, well, I’m afraid that I can’t do that. Once the printer detects that there are photographs it is set to print in colour automatically.”
Our protagonist tries, without success, to keep the frustration from his voice. “But even my little printer at home can be set to print just black and white!”
“Yes sir,” the young man comments with a touch of sarcasm, “But you did say that your home printer wasn’t working, I think?”
(We shall gloss over the following conversation in case it could be seen as demeaning to the protagonist’s character. Suffice it to say that this being his first novel, he is still an un-discovered entity in the book reading universe – consequently the price of colour photocopying seems an unreasonable draw on his non-existent writerly income. A deal is offered, accepted and the printer whirrs into action.)
Our protagonist is smiling as he waits.
The smile drops less than a minute later when the photocopier stops.
“That was quick,” he asks, doubtfully.
“Ah, yes, no worries, it’s run out of paper. Just a minute.” Paper is retrieved and loaded into the tray. What the novelist assumes is the ‘re-start’ button is pressed, (he is no Luddite after all), but nothing happens.
A flurry of button-pressing, door-opening, door-closing, re-setting noises and several sad sighs from the young man and the diagnosis is given:
“I’m really sorry sir but the printer seems to have lost contact with the USB stick. I’ll have to print the whole thing again.”
“But you can … oh no, you can’t tell the printer to just do the remainder, right?”
“Right. Sorry. I can do you a discount?” Fear not, gentle reader, there is no need to gloss over the financial skeleton of the novelist’s affairs again. Ever hopeful, the protagonist considers the pile that has been successfully printed.
“Oh, what a shame. I literally only need 3 more pages. Maybe I could do those at home…or at someone’s house?” He muses aloud. Now the shop assistant is not without dignity or compassion. Perhaps it is some new sense of shared responsibility with the writer or just the common milk of human kindness that prompts his next remark.
“I tell you what, as it’s only 3 pages, maybe I can print it off from the store computer.”
“Really? Oh, that would be great!”
“No problem sir. Just a minute.” It is actually a little over 5 minutes before the young man appears again, looking decidedly sheepish. “I’m really sorry sir but it seems that my…our computer…”
“…Has lost contact with the printer?”
“Yes, I’m really sorry about that. I don’t know what else to suggest.” Now being a literary being, our protagonist has a whole ranch of possible scenarios; all to do with printers, most involving some measure of destruction and a few sadly, engaging the shop assistant in some measure of impossible contortion. But he resists. It is not the poor fellows fault. Indeed, the shop assistant is equally at the mercy of the faulty technology along with, it seems, the rest of the world.
The weary writer trudges home to begin the slightly embarrassing task of ‘phoning everyone he knows who may have a printer that is capable of printing 3 pieces of paper reliably.
‘So what?’ You may ask. So one aspirant writer wasted a whole morning trying to do something that should have taken two minutes, maximum. So the shop assistant is left with a malfunctioning machine. And now knows that he cannot print anything from the shop-based system. So what?
If we could briefly re-join the mind of the writer as he walks home we would find him pondering a number of issues:
- He has just wasted at least two hours of his time. How many working hours are lost to this town, this country – the world! All through so-called ‘basic’ technology that doesn’t actually, frequently work.
- How many parts of his life would actually be simpler if they didn’t rely on this imperfect technology?
- Printing technology has been around since the first computers. How can the manufacturers, analysts and programmers not get this right?
- And, most frighteningly of all, if this level of technology is temperamental; malfunctioning, imperfect and, essentially faulty – who is looking our for the big stuff? Do the programmers of air traffic control computers know any more than the ones who build the printers?
I imagine a world in which Mary Shelley did not exist. Yet, on returning to his home, our young protagonist sets himself down to write the next day and begins with the title for his next novel – “Frankenstein.”
Just as Mary Shelley wrestled with the nature of technological progress, we, too, should be wrestling with the so-called progress of the digital revolution.
Some would claim we now live in a world made better, stronger, faster, ‘more-connected’; but have we really brought a monster to our midst? One hiding amongst our business and our urgency but one who will, increasingly, claim lives, steal well-being and sabotage any real hope of progress?
In our desire to have the latest technology order our world, will we be forced to echo the words of the good professor one day…?
“For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
Chapter 5, pg. 42
- Six of the Most Common Printer Problems (and a fix for each) (epicagear.com)