Gigabytes of Trouble

August 15, 2013


Computers are an easy commodity to learn to hate. The more that you know about them, the easier it is to loathe the computer age.

When I was a kid, we had something called a typewriter. There were shiny new marvels, like the Selectric my mother used at work, and there were old models like the manual Royal we had at home on its cast iron stand with wheels. They all worked more or less the same and if you got one, you could look forward to being able to use it more or less unchanged for the ensuing quarter century.

Then came fancy, self correcting, typewriters, complicated word processors, and then computers. First the build your own variety, then hideously expensive desktop models. But slowly, at first, they became better, with more memory, with better programs and with smaller price tags. All was good, right? Hardly.

It is now the case that almost every teenager in this country begins to agitate for a new computer every 20 months... and not for frivolous reasons either. They want and need a newer faster computer because the two year old dinosaur they currently have is hopelessly slow and incapable of doing what a computer should now be able to do. And they are not lying about this. It is true.

The same is true of Internet access. It used to be that you could sort-of surf the web, even if you had a dial-up connection. But today trying to do anything on the Internet via dial-up is an exercise in frustration and inefficiency. And if you have a faster connection, you're not home free either. You get your faster connection and you're happy for a while, but just wait a little bit, because as more and more consumers get faster and faster connections, the amount of data included in a single web page bloats bigger and bigger. Pretty soon, you're back to almost as inefficient as your old dial-up connection.

And all these problems are now compounded because more and more people are accessing more and more information at the same time. It's like everybody in the apartment building starts to take a shower at the same time and very soon nobody has hot water. And it keeps getting worse, not every year or two but every month or two.

Let's throw in a few wireless devices that use the Internet and you're about ready for a rubber room. "I'm going to have to reboot the router Dad, because your tablet is clobbering my laptop and I can't watch anything on Netflix." Sound familiar?

Now I am not arguing for a return to carbon paper and mimeographs. I am very, very glad that I can do all the things I can do so much easier on my computer than I could with a typewriter and a set of rapidiographs, but the computer age will bite you every time you turn around.

Ever get a virus on your computer? Did your Facebook account get hacked? How secure do you feel about your electronic banking and bill-payer conveniences? We have engineered a whole new reason for valid paranoia = stress. Every time I see some guy walking down the aisle at the supermarket yammering into his cellphone, I think, "Hey, there's a heart attack in the making." Will I be able to get a signal? What if my GPS is wrong? Where did I put that file I need desperately? OMG WTF

The Amish don't have these problems. I remember a few years ago when a cell service provider offered a range of phones that were only phones and did not do anything else. I thought this was inspired. Of course, I am an old fogey and remember dictaphones. But there is something appealing in having a device in your life that resembles a toaster. It does one thing. It does it well and it works reliably for years.

I think that computer manufacturers and software developers should look at this epidemic of stress and paranoia with alarm and they should do something about it, too. They should stop bloating their software so that it only runs on last week's model of computer. They should scale down the size of their web payloads so that ordinary common or garden variety net connections can reliably download and open them in under 15 seconds.

YouTube used to pre-load a video that you connected to, but you could pause the playback, and it would keep loading, so that even on a slow connection, if you waited until the next ice age, you could play the whole thing without buffering. It doesn't do this anymore. Why not? Forget that the ads all have to load first, I don't like it, but I'm not complaining about that here. Why do lists, picture series, articles, and almost anything else, all have to come on sixteen separate pages now. Ads, many of them, pay by the click. If you click sixteen pages, the ad pays sixteen times. I don't read the ads that load on each page, and slow down my viewing. Who has the time to waste? So why is anyone paying for ads by the click? If the clicks are bogus, and lead nowhere in particular, and don't make anyone pay attention to the ads?

The Internet is so bogged down with content no one wants, whether it is over-complicated Web 2.0 content, or a multitude of advertisements. When I go to Wikipedia, I don't mind them directing me to a begging page - it reminds me of PBS and I'm glad to subsidize a very useful thing I depend on. What I do mind is going to some web site because of a teaser link and it takes 12 minutes to finally load and there is no real content there. I feel like they owe me something for that part of my life they wasted. If I were the God of the Internet, I would require any web page that was on the Internet to have a feedback link - a real email address please, not some long form to waste even more of my time. I want to be able to commend good pages and lambast bad ones. Maybe that would be just like the door open and door close buttons on the elevator, but it would make me feel better.

So fill out the customer dissatisfaction surveys and tell all these clowns that you have had enough and you just want your computer and Internet to work well enough and stop trying to improve it every ten minutes. Write emails to the sites that make you wait forever and demand that they make their sites useable by mere humans. Refuse to patronize stores that keep changing how their site works so you can never use it the same way in any two months (are you listening Amazon?). This is something we can influence. We may be unable to make it all better but we certainly can make it less improved.

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