I’m a Techy, You’re a Techy
About a year ago I bought a gadget that uses wireless technology to play electronic files and Internet radio through my stereo. Not a mind-bending idea. Receivers and transmitters have been around for over a century—telephones, radios, televisions, etc. And these earlier manifestations of our rut toward technological utopia, when finally mass marketed, were fully operational. They were plug-it-in-and-turn-it-on retail products. They required only a limited degree of end-user manipulation—volume, channel, band, tuning—and fulfilled the promise of actually working when you purchased them. Remember?
My new toy, however, was state of the art. It had more in common with products that rely on computer technology: it had to be set up, programmed, updated—that is, fucked with for days on end in conjunction with my computer, router and internet connection before it worked at all. And, when it did work, it didn’t simply work; it crashed, seized up, and went blank whenever the gods pleased. After troubleshooting and reading product forums, I’d usually find out that it was my fault: I hadn’t downloaded the weekly firmware rebuild, reprogrammed the settings, downloaded the latest version of the server software, etc… And when the crashes and freezes and blackouts continued, the cause was beyond the technical grasp of the manufacturer (still my fault). It reminded me of those toys you see advertised to children at Christmastime, the ones that turn out to be nothing but trays of molded-plastic parts—the ones that promise completion, yet arrive broken and stay broken.
During one of my troubleshooting marathons, standing there holding a remote about as useful as my dick, a certain scene from “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” popped into mind. That sketch where the Army General says, “You told us that windows 98 would be faster and more efficient, with better access to the internet!” And Bill Gates, nodding with placating hand gestures, replies in his signature complacent tone (his actual voice), “It is faster. Over five million—” Whereupon the General pulls out his gun and puts a bullet through Bill’s head. It was an almost orgasmic collision of worlds—the world that expects you not only to accept its dysfunctional products but to interest yourself in their technical fine points, and the world that just wants them to work. It was a moment where art imitated reality up to a point, then improved on it. The reality is you paying for shit that’s supposed to work and is unequivocally fucked up, then being made to feel incapable by some ether-toned circuit nerd; the improvement is you, the customer, holding this Spock idolater accountable not only for his wormy product but the false assumption that you ought to give a steaming yam about how it works.
Is it because our society is so dependent on technology to conduct business, interact and jack off that the tech industry so readily kicks its incompetency down to its customers? You’d think that where machines are necessary and in high demand their functionality would be as well. But the tech market is like no other in its exceptional exemption from functional accountability. Take the Windows operating system, for example. It’s been in an incomplete, broken-out-of-the-box condition for what, a few decades? By far the most robust version of this mortal-man-hours vampire was the 3.x, which didn’t allow two applications to run at once and sat on top of DOS. Since that time, Windows has been unsafe, unstable and inconceivably demanding. Yet it hath prevailed. Why?
Part of it is due to Microsoft’s “business practices,” which have characterized the company since the day it got its name. Another part is that tech culture has become a part of consumer culture, resulting in an expectation that the people working with computers should be working on them. By culture I don’t simply mean wire-rimmed glasses and combed-forward hair parted as far to the left as humanly possible—that yachty and slightly sebacious dishevelment. I mean the vapid enthusiasm for things computer-related: the awe of being in the presence of gibberish that passes for higher cognition (acronyms out of the Popular Electronics lexis); the fetishizing of equipment; the unquestioned acceptance of extensive end-user labor, as if having to work hours a day fixing a machine were not only required but the ideal state of things. Ask yourself, if it takes a week to get Windows running and a day to repair the washing machine, what compels you to fix Windows and call a repairman for the washer? Why do we consider the washer something to be fixed and Windows something we fix? Becasue, if it has to do with computers, problems belong to the user, not to the manufacturer. Here’s another way to look at it: if we were to spend as much time on our plumbing as we do our computers, we’d be certified master plumbers earning $200 an hour—so why are we office workers earning $20 an hour?
Because plumbing is trade labor and computer work transcends labor. It has white-collar clout. As if a series of positive and negative magnetic charges were not a mechanical phenomenon. I mean, sure, computers have changed the work process, but not the work product: writing still has to entertain and inform. Imagine the same degree of mechanical hassle being kicked down to the purchaser of a car: “Your Ford Explorer is ready, Mr. Denzert. Don’t forget to adjust the points before installing the spark plugs. I think you can find a distributor cap at the parts store down the street. The break pads will need to be upgraded if you plan on doing much city driving. As for the fuses that run the dashboard circuitry, we’re in the process of upgrading them. The ones in there now might last a few hundred miles. And don’t forget to come back in a month for the improved tires. The ones on there now might disintegrate if you push it over seventy. We’ll also be shipping you a new gear for the transmission in several months. Be sure to download instructions on how to install it.”
Part of the reason computer users are expected to become their own mechanics is that information technology is not considered mechanical. Another reason is that the do-it-yourself, garage entrepreneurialism for which this young industry is famous is considered a virtue. For the last half a century, America has been one big geek fest of model rockets, chemistry sets, Erector Sets and RadioShacks. It’s just one of those vestigial preoccupations of the pioneering spirit, deriving from a sense that a man ought to be his own engineer, mechanic, dentist, and barber. Being your own inventor, builder and businessman is as American as Ben Franklin’s crooked bangs and Thomas Jefferson’s wall clock. In short, computer culture is both a product and a symbol of two admired national traits: autonomy and ingenuity. The Bill Gates story is the Andrew Carnegie is the Henry Ford is the Philo Farnsworth story. It’s the story that compels us to sit at workstations re-enacting the American nativity scene for hours a day. And as long as the every-man-his-own-mechanic ethos prevails, we’ll continue to spend a tenth of our lives in servitude to these dysfunctional gadgets.
© Copyright 2007, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.