January 14, 2017

Technology Is Terrible

     Today my alarm didn't go off and I woke up an hour late.  Fortunately, today is Saturday, and I don't have to be anywhere, but the fact that I missed my alarm was pretty concerning to me because on other days that would be a huge problem.

     I'm a fairly light sleeper, and this was actually the first time I have ever slept through the noise of my alarm.  At least, i *thought* that I slept through the noise of my alarm until I actually made a test alarm to see what I slept through.  It turns out that a recent update on my phone (that I didn't consent to which just happened automatically) updated the way the alarm and notification levels work so that my alarm is now by default in a state where it doesn't make any noise at all.  No noises, no vibrations.  Just a notification that comes up on the screen saying that there is currently an alarm going off.

     That brings me to the point of this little essay:  More technology doesn't always make things better.  In fact, it often makes them worse.  Alarms with unexpectedly changing update behaviour is, to me, a pretty intolerable aspect of an alarm.  If you can't rely on an alarm, it's kind of useless isn't it?

     The narrative for the last 50 years or so is that if you make a highly digital version of something, it will be better unconditionally.  This has been true in nearly every case (for example in things like accounting systems), but we're reaching a point of diminishing returns.  Many of the big wins have been won, and people have been trained to expect them everywhere.  Many of the problems that are left have questionable, if not negative returns to be reaped by technology (at least the current incarnation of technology).  Everyone keeps trying to push the square peg of technology into the round of peg of our lives because it worked before, so why not now?  Consumers are in many ways to blame since a lot of people still believe that more technological things are always better.  This is why Apple was able to still make a few sales of their fancy new watch.  You can pay $350-$10,000 to be trendy for a couple years, but what happens when your gold-plated, diamond-encrusted watch has it's loading page servers turned off?  I'm sure they'll have a nice message like "We're sorry, your watch is too old to display this page.  Try upgrading to the new version."

     I see the same thing in a lot of places:  People replace real relationships with quantified ones that can be counted in virtual connection lists.  If you go into a bank for in-person customer support, they'll often tell you to go home and do it on their web page (which is filled with Javascript errors and doesn't work in anything but old versions of IE).  The latest craze is to replace the analog versions of many household features (thermostat, blinds, lights, smoke detector etc.) with highly technological versions (that are also insecurely connected to the internet).  I'm sure that'll work just fantastically.

     One of the most appalling examples[1] of this lust for the newest and greatest is the instinctive reaction common people have to mock the use of military or industrial applications that use technology that was perfected 30 or more years ago.  Unfortunately, most people don't understand that these systems usually don't need to be fast so the slow processors of the past are good enough.  The fact that they have been working for 30 years without error is a great reason to leave them alone and not touch them so they can work for another 30 years!  There are a few valid cases for wanting to upgrade (for example if a vendor stops producing replacements), but for the most part, older technology is often more reliable than the newer alternatives.

     So I suppose if there is any solution to this, it's to think twice before you upgrade to the "newer and better version" of something.  The other aspect of this is that a lot of the problem is caused by introducing networked aspects into technology that don't need to be there.  Companies like having  a permanent hook into every aspect of your life, but once they decide to turn off support for their services or change them in a way you don't like there is not much you can do.

     Well, I'm off to the store now to buy an analog alarm.

[1]  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/01/floppy-disk-nuclear-missile-minuteman_n_5243367.html