McAdams On: Our Clunky Tech

RIGHT, HERE— It’s probably a form of sacrilege to refer to technology as “clunky” under the banner of a technology publication, but I refer primarily to what I use on a daily basis and how I’ve watched it evolve.

Twenty or so years ago, I produced a small-town newspaper on a PowerBook 1400. I still have one somewhere, waiting for me to extract the files, because such things are no simple matter, and I accepted to some degree the inevitability of losing some files between upgrades because the act of transfer can involve a nest of cables, devices, drivers and virtually hours of entertainment if you enjoy that kind of thing, which I do not. And there was a point in my life, I had enough cables to right the Costa Concordia.

Now I know there are those who read our fine publication with rooms; basements, garages and even second homes filled with wires, monitors, amplifiers, batteries, base stations and solder flux, but I am not one of you. I am your friendly interpreter for others like me who do not have open accounts at Radio Shack and collections of vintage vacuum tubes.

Back to the issue of file transfers between upgrades. I know that media facility folks can tell me a thing or two about file transfers, but I’m just talking the regular stuff you want to move from one computer to another. We have the cloud now, and a lot of cloud acolytes, but cloud services can be picky and squirrely. Is anyone else using Apple’s iCloud? It’s like, “Oh, no, we can’t handle those free music files from KCRW. We’re not loading those on your phone.”

Now let me be clear here when I say that I realize this is a ridiculous problem of affluence that has no bearing on the human race whatsoever, but that said, is this or is this not the “Digital Age?” How is it that so much of the technology upon which this era is based is incompatible with so much of the technology upon which this era was based? And please do not refer me to some abstruse thread on a presumed “help” site. This stuff should work without me having to re-engineer it. I think I speak for just about everyone who is not a ham radio operator when I say that I’m not interested in forever configuring stuff I just paid money for. I want it to work the way I want it to work. Like a car. I get in it. I drive it. Sometimes too fast, according to a selection of Western states, but that is neither here nor there.

I have a colleague who suggests I read user manuals, but my brain seldom picks up what it needs from user manuals. I’m an observational learner, and I’m guessing there’s more than just the one of us. I should also add here that there are many, many people in my life who consider me tech savvy. After having just read the 400-some odd words with which I’ve just violated the power grid, do the both of you consider me “tech savvy,” or closer to the lady with the dial phone? (I’d have a dial phone for sure if I could, but then I’d have to recruit people to call me and then talk to them! Working from this bunker in an undisclosed location using various forms of email and instant messaging, I’m no longer certain if I can speak on a daily basis.)

I’m making a point here, but not with any due urgency, that the technology I am using now, which may seem lightish-years ahead of what I used two decades ago, will seem both frightfully ancient and possibly more elegant in some ways than what’s coming down the pike 20 years hence. I used to reload the operating system on my Power Mac G5 on a regular basis to make the thing work the way I wanted, and sometimes just because I could.

I would not dare reload an operating system today. I also notice that laptops are designed fundamentally the same as they were 20 years ago, with the same torturous ergonomics as a bloody typewriter, except the typewriter did not destroy ones wrists and render the upper back muscles unnaturally long. Imagine that.

It’s not just the hardware, as I’ve mentioned in reference to the cloud. The software platforms I use are full of idiosyncrasies. The Word program on this Mac is hinky with random jumps and inexplicable duplicated text that appears and disappears because, well, it just does. So I work around it. I do so many work-arounds with software, I soon fail to notice them. My go-to IT person would strenuously disagree, but she does not know the extent to which I do not enlist her help. (And yes, I emptied the infernal cache!)

I will not even start in on the various content management systems to which my fragile being has been subjected, which at times have made water torture seem like a considerable alternative. I save my help ticket points for such times.

And another thing… Whoever broke the digital display on a Nokia brick? I don’t think so. You could drive over those things with a Ford F150. The iPhone 5C? Please. Or how about the new bendy iPhone? And why do these things drown so easily? And why don’t they come with a case, since it’s imperative to have one to bring the display breakage quotient down to remote hopefulness?

I know I sound like my own grandmother harping about that music you kids listen to, but seriously. Over the next two decades of development, can we solve interoperability and at least some of the software hijinks we deal with now? I understand that what we use now is wildly more complex and featurey than the old stuff, but much of it’s also unnecessarily buggy and clunky at times. E.g., I can attest that publishing in plain old HTML was miles easier and faster than using a CMS. I acknowledge the added features and functions of a CMS, but using them can be glaring examples of why developers should listen to their prospective users. Don’t tell me what I need to do work that I’ve done for 40,000 hours. I’m not an egghead by any measure, but after about 40,000 hours, I begin to catch on.

So that’s my rant for the day. Pretty harmless, really. I’ve got a pie to bake. Ta ta for now, and have a very lovely holiday. ~ D.