Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Trouble with Computers

Against my better judgment, I recently agreed to "help out" at a local non-profit which was having trouble with computers. It was pretty clear that there was some sort of infestation. I explained that I wasn't really looking to do this sort of work anymore, but agreed to help, setting a price that we could both feel good about - something like a quarter of the going rate - about what a gardener might charge.

The recommendations were easy enough, and the emergency patch up was smooth except for that one computer. There's always one, maybe the Executive Director's, maybe the volunteer workstation (in this case), but the general rule is that 90% of the issues/machines/whatever take 10% of the time, and then there is that 10%.  This isn't a precise rule, but you get the idea. It gets called the Pareto Principle generally, and I find that I'm no longer the only person who seems to have heard of this rule.

The temptation is always to just get rid of the 10%, but the way it works is that it's the rule, not the machine, and so you pretty much have no choice about this. There will always be the 10%, just like work will always expand to fill the time available for it. It's why computer techs after the briefest trial by fire become really arbitrary and dictatorial about standards. Without them you spend 90% of your time getting nothing productive done. And when you're "helping out" with an unmanaged network for a not-for-profit, you know that going in, which is why I agreed to such a low rate.

Well, then the Executive Director, without so much as a nevermind, went ahead and ordered a Mac into the mix. Now if I had the dough, I'd definitely have a Mac for home use, but you can see what happens to the whole idea of standards. It just doesn't make sense in a network which needs to be managed.

Which got me thinking about how the trouble with computers is that they are both tools and desirable objects in and of themselves. That is to say that people want these things still, if you can imagine that, pretty much the way they want all libidinously invested objects, which is what capitalism is all about after all. If there weren't any of that sort of desire, we'd all drive Ladas or identical Beetles, and our computers would still be black and white and look like little file cabinets the way my first one did. Way back when the excitement was in the magic that this new tool could do, and not how it looked or felt.

Steve Jobs, of course, understands this about machines. You'd be nuts not to want a Mac more than a PC. It's just cooler, which is pretty much what cool means. Libidinous investment.

And even in the work place, people can't avoid playing with these attractive machines. Hell, a Windows machine is pretty libidinously invested these days too, especially after Windows 7. It's fluid, slick and cool, but still manages to do that within the "confines" of being more straightforward to deploy as a tool. But in an unmanaged state, it really still is an attractive nuisance for workers' free time, or for volunteers to play with, especially before broadband was ubiquitous in the home. This is why techs are so arbitrary and dictatorial about management and locking things down against being toyed with.

This volunteer computer today just plain defeated me. The more infestation I ripped out by the roots, the more that was revealed, lurking, being contained by the thing I'd ripped out. The thing is that many of the bits of what we in the business call "spyware" are themselves pandered as configuration assistants, spyware destroyers, and system tweakers. Everyone with a home computer has a favorite that they swear by. And sometimes the more the merrier.

I pretty much decided that this particular computer had a "root kit" by which is meant something so intertwined, as it were, "beneath" the actual OS that you can't even tell in principle that it's there and the only real remedy is a system rebuild. Which, in the absence of standardized setups and cataloged software licenses and media becomes a necessarily destructive process. You can see why I consider this gig to be against my better judgement.

But here's the thing. I can't go so far as to bemoan the capitalist system and what it does to trick us into relationships with our tools instead of what those tools can do for our actual work. I'm not a big fan of Amish furniture, for instance. I think it's ugly and represents the work of people who are doing it for God, or something extrinsic to the beauty of what they produce.

I think you can convince yourself that it's somehow beautiful, and perhaps sometimes it is, in the manner of naive untutored "vernacular"  art. But frankly, I prefer the self-consciously beautiful stuff, even when it will obviously go out of style shortly. Anyhow, the Amish stuff confuses something about either the tool or the one who's meant to be pleased or both. You use basic tools to create objects which are themselves only meant to be purposeful. Yuch.

But there is no craftsperson on the planet, or artist I imagine, who doesn't form a kind of relationship with his particular tools. Tools are, not incidentally, those things which according to Marx, the capitalist system expropriates from the worker. Not only can't you form a relationship with your tools in the manner of a journeyman craftsperson once you work for the system, you can't select them or care for them, or become attached to them in any way.

I hope you see where I'm going with this.

Hell, maybe someday real soon, when all the work is in "the cloud" it really won't matter what tool you bring to bear on your work. Maybe you'll bring your own, the way I once did when I worked as a bicycle mechanic. The young turks I worked alongside made fun of me because my tools were all Craftsman/Sears which is all I could afford. But I have them still, and they served me well enough.

Anyhow the "knowledge workers" who use computers to get their work done are generally of the managerial class. They directly serve the capitalists, maybe like chambermaids or something. The "administrative assistants" who serve the managers have a much greater tendency to form something approaching an emotional relationship with their machines, calling them things like "'puters" or maybe even naming them. It must be part of what they look forward to each day.

And, of course, at the very top you get to use whatever tool you feel like using and the techs had better make it OK.

I have no real point here, except that it should be obvious to anyone that the PC (here I use the term to encompass Macs, probably smartphones, and certainly the iPad) exists at an interesting intersection in our history of labor. It is, in fact now, the universal tool and as such crosses boundaries between work and play, home and office, right along with its making those boundaries more porous and much less meaningful.

Anyhow, it's why I can't do tech work anymore; at least not on the level of PC support. I could easily enjoy guiding the work of others. I'd be arbitrary and dictatorial and insist that if workers were to use company machines, then they will have little to no choice about their configuration. At the same time, I'd be working to move all the applications into the cloud, for access from strictly sandboxed (insulated from whatever workers do with these things in their play-time) secure and company deployed browsers.

Then the workers could take their own machines home, like a company car say. Or maybe they'd just be responsible to bring their own tools to work. Well, it's a thought.

Meanwhile, I think we should disinvest the objectified female form a bit. Now that should be an interesting project. But seriously, this is where capitalism really does go too far. Because human value should not be determined by relative anything; wealth, beauty, intelligence. These things can be allowed to spread as much as is comfortable, but wouldn't it be cool if we could disentangle actual love from economic relations?? I mean, good luck with that and everything, but stranger things have happened.

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