The Tyranny of the Techies

Earlier this year, I published my novel, Caught!, the central theme of which was the increasing tendency of Man to defer to Machine.

In Caught!, cricket test matches are being rigged by a gang which has hacked the system used for reviewing umpires’ decisions. The “Man v Machine” issue with this is that, much of the time, the computer hasn’t enough data to produce a sensible decision and is just an electronic guessing machine. Still, the tendency is to assume that if the computer disagrees with the umpire, the umpire is always wrong. That’s how the scam works.

Meanwhile, Yahoo! has recently started making changes to its web-mail system. These changes are bug-ridden and slow and, if you look at the feedback pages, you find that large numbers of users want the old system back. You can also read an answer from Yahoo! in the same place. It thanks the user for the feedback and waffles about how the feedback helps Yahoo! to upgrade the system. If the Yahoo! guy read the 4,600 feedback posts, he might learn that the users want the old system left alone. But he wouldn’t do that.

The problem is encapsulated in the use of the word “upgrade”. “Upgrade” is one of those words that has lost its meaning, like “reform”. Politicians these days are always talking about reform, although then never seem to be talking about improving the system or removing abuses; they just mean messing about with the law to suit their own petty prejudices. “Upgrade” means a piece of computer software that does the same thing better or does something new — and useful! This is not how the computer industry uses it, though. Every new version of software is called an “upgrade”, even if it isn’t an improvement — even if it plain doesn’t work.

This problem is afflicting every aspect of computing. For my books, I currently use a version of OpenOffice that is three versions back because Oracle opted to make a completely pointless change to the print dialogue box that makes the new version more difficult to use; they call this an “upgrade”. I use an old version of Opera because, with version 12, Opera removed a number of basic features and made them add-ons; every time I start the thing it prompts me to “upgrade” to an inferior version. The list goes on, although Microsoft did back down, miracle of miracles, over removing the “start” menu from Windows. But why did they remove it in the first place? When they originally launched Windows 95, they made the “start” menu out to be one of the big selling points; if it was useful then, didn’t it occur to them that it might be useful now?

A few months ago, I had to pension off my old tower because of a shortage of working USB ports and decided to use it as a file server only. The problem I came up against was that without a monitor neither KDE nor Gnome — the graphical front-ends — will start properly and wi-fi is a cow to use from the command line. I searched the web for the answer and found another soul with the same problem crying out for help on a message-board and being told that there wasn’t an answer. You may wonder why these packages don’t work without a monitor — even Windows can do that! What struck me most was one answer from some know-it-all who opined that, since KDE was a graphic front-end, the man with the problem had no business expecting it to work without a monitor. Now, leaving aside the multifarious stupidity of this comment, this individual was putting forward the opinion that if the computer doesn’t do what the user wants it to do, it’s the user’s fault for wanting to do that.

Let’s put this into perspective. If Ford brought out a new car that wouldn’t turn left, would they expect buyers to accept the argument that it was the buyers’ fault for wanting to turn left? I don’t think so.

Therein hangs the problem. Ford and Toyota et cetera, whatever their faults, grasp that a motor car is fundamentally a tool that people buy to serve a purpose. IT professionals grasp this point about computers. However, there are very few professionals left in the IT industry. Most of us were the old geezers who did some other job and found our way into IT more or less by accident. We understood the place of computers. Increasingly, though, IT is being run by people who studied IT at school and went straight into IT from school. These people are not professionals in any but the narrowest sense that they get paid. They’ve never done a real job and they have no understanding of the place of IT in the world at large. Put very simply, they lack the elementary understanding that the computer is simply a tool to do work with and that they are being paid to make it do that.

Over the last century or so, many writers have visualized technocracy — rule by scientists, engineers and technicians. Some have imagined benignancy, others malignancy; Wells seemed undecided. No one I know of, though, imagined a technocratic dictatorship of thundering incompetents.

As it is, we are now confronted with a tyranny of incompetence. We are confronted with a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on computers and the internet for communication, for trade, for finance. Yet the people running the computers have no idea what they are doing and refuse to learn. The stock reply to bug reports is that it’s not a bug; most of the time, there is no reply. Changes are made, almost always detrimentally, and criticisms of design are ignored. As a breed, IT people are suffering from ever-worsening egomania and megalomania. And we depend on their grasp of reality more with every day. It is as though we have loaded our loved ones, our valuables, everything, aboard a giant jetliner when we know that the crew was recruited from a kamikaze squadron.

What can we do about it? What indeed? Any one who knows his Bob Hope knew that the financial crisis was going to happen but until the bank bosses crashed the aeroplane, no one could prise their hands from the controls. The stock exchanges of the world soar and crash with relentless monotony while trading remains in the hands of gamblers who do not know the distinction between the price and the value of a share. In a world where Man is required to submit to the Machine and the Machine is programmed by fools, Man’s supposed intelligence is unlikely to save him.

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