Tech envy

“…What Apple and Google and others have learned and are busy getting insanely rich from is that millions of people couldn’t possibly care less how a computer works or what it can do, as long as it can do what they want easily and without fuss.” – Anthony Hecht, SLOG

I can’t stand most technology reporting, because more often than not, it isn’t just bad, it’s flat-out wrong. I’ve been hearing arguments like the one above for thirty years or more, and I know from hard-earned experience that it bears no relationship to reality. It’s not about the superiority of a particular kind of OS or the notion that disaster lurks around every corner for the unwary, it’s that nobody actually WANTS easy.

They WANT cool.

This is why people blow $50 on a couple of ring-tones and a wallpaper from 1-900-SUK-ME-DRY that they could have set up for free with a few minutes’ reading and a USB cable. Shedding the plain-vanilla look and feel of a new cell phone, well… Makes you seem hip. I guess.

But I take a mechanic’s view of the subject; at a glance, I look at the description of the tech in question (chrome on a tablet of some kind, I guess) and what I’m actually hearing is “you can’t fix this if it breaks”. But shouldn’t it be possible to create and market something that doesn’t?

After all, console video games, for example… No, those break, too. But quite a few have been produced that did precisely what they were supposed to. And the reason is because they were written for hardware that never changed. Even on that level, the notion of ‘unchanging hardware’ is completely abstract; thirty years ago I was disassembling electronics of identical make and model that shared at most one or two chips in common with each other.

But nowadays, the software environment changes constantly. Devices update themselves; they have to in order to continue to work properly and keep pace with the rest of the environment. People make their own changes, to adapt the devices to suit their needs and apparently, fashion sensibilities. And the result is tens of thousands of files that can be as short as a single character or large enough to fill warehouses with printed paper.

At one time, in order to do anything with a computer, you effectively used commands in whatever programming language it had been set up for — and the notion of typing in commands to make computers do something and becoming ‘operating systems’ followed after that. Then they got mice. Now they have backlit multitouch surfaces with accelerometers and GPS.

Nor is it that no one can ever own such a thing and not get by on minimal functionality. Or that there aren’t instances where things work solidly and without interruption.

But the underlying issue isn’t about reliability or functionality, but literacy. Case in point, there’s been a lot of breathless tech journalism in the last forty-eight hours about “World Cyber War One”, involving attacks against Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and Amazon. Not that there is anything new about it, but what’s made it especially interesting is that so much of what’s been reported is either entirely imaginary or worse, how someone imagines things must be based on a limited understanding of how some of it works.

From a security standpoint, it was a serious black eye to the companies effected (though only Visa and Mastercard were affected; PayPal I’m less certain of and Amazon failed). But the reason for this is not a product of the scale of attack but the fact that there was really so little to it. A bunch of people downloaded a program and… That’s all they had to do. By most estimates, there really weren’t even that many of them.

Meanwhile, the issue of security is by far more sophisticated than anyone might imagine. There are layers and layers of software involved written in different languages and running on multiple platforms just so you can view this page.

And we definitely live in a world where there is a relationship between technological literacy and the exercise of real power. This is nothing new. The incident might be anecdotally noteworthy for it’s asymmetry, to invoke a recently shop-worn term.

But the real significance is that it represents almost a kind of internet nationalism, if such a thing weren’t an oxymoron. Wikileaks enjoys its present notoriety because it is an internet thing. Anonymous’ toothpicks and rubber bands DDOS attack was, effectively, a shot across the bow of what used to be (mistakenly) referred to as “RL”, or what remains of it. Surely no one should generalize it’s occurrence to indicate approval by the internet itself, although neither was it without some measure of popular support.

It’s worth noting that it originated within the same circle as lolcats and pedobear.

And the fact that payment processing in any capacity can be halted by such crude methods should be taken seriously. But in this instance? Probably not THAT seriously.

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  • Comments (4)
  1. I think it’s divided along the XY/XX lines. Boys want buttons to press, and girls want it to look nice but they don’t care about the ten ways you can turn on the damn computer.

    • Laroquod
    • December 12th, 2010

    So it’s the internet versus reality, eh? Very true, and I know which side I’m on! The internet, baby. Reality sucks and everybody knows it. If it can be changed by the internet then full speed ahead!

      • Max Bell
      • December 12th, 2010

      It’s just curious to note that in this instance, loyalty to the internet has trumped loyalty to anything like a ‘state’.

      Imagine if it started to organize into a political structure.

      Think it wouldn’t be more powerful than anybody?


        • Laroquod
        • December 13th, 2010

        If people continue to make news with it, I think it can break through political conventions and whatnot because it looks like these days nobody follows those anymore, anyway. If they can be twisted away from freedom — they can be twisted back. 8)

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