It is quite possible that the greater part of the planet has fallen victim to the largest and most expensive confidence trick in all of history. Infinitely worse than any Ponzi scheme or the Enron scandal, the cost to all of us makes the liability of the banking crash of 2008 pale into insignificance; it affects virtually everyone in the so-called civilized word, and certainly every person reading this blog.
I refer of course to the scandal of Personal Computers. Consider the following: you purchase a new car in which to drive to work every day. Most of the time, the car works well and you are pleased with its performance. Now and then, it will not start and the AA have to be called out to get it going. Every few weeks or so, while driving the route you follow every day, the car just stops, or the brakes fail, or the windscreen wipers don’t work, or the radio becomes impossible to tune. How quickly I wonder, would you return the car to the dealer who sold it to you and demand a replacement or your money back? Clearly such a vehicle would not be fit for purpose.
And yet all of us who use PCs – here I refer to what used to be known as IBM PCs, not Apple Macs of which I have no experience – are apparently content to use a product which behaves exactly like the car described above, not once or twice, but over and over again. Before listing my grievances, I should say that computers confer an enormous benefit when they work. The internet and Google have virtually become the Encyclopaedia Galactica of science fiction. A greater part of human knowledge is available to anyone with a functioning PC and an internet connection; questions typed in simple English will nearly always provide the answer needed. The research for my three books and many articles would have been impossible – not difficult or time-consuming – but impossible, without the resources available on the internet. My actual writing would have been very much more difficult without word processing packages like Word. If I had had Excel when I was doing the number-crunching for my thesis, I could have finished it all in an afternoon – and displayed the results beautifully. Instead I spent weeks and weeks either crouched over a teletype connected to a primitive PDP11 computer somewhere in the bowels of the university. For the simpler stuff, I used my brand-new HP pocket calculator (cost, the equivalent of a week’s wages), complete with red LED display and Reverse Polish Logic (remember that?) My wife recalls the relentless thump, thump, thump, thump, as I inputted data hour after hour, day after day, to process the results. With my printer I can produce beautifully printed full-colour documents (when it works), and PowerPoint has revolutionized the quality of the slide-shows I present for talks or my WEA teaching.
But it all comes at a price, and I am seriously wondering whether it is a price worth continuing to pay. I estimate that I have spent many months of my life trying to make PCs and their peripherals – printers, scanners and routers – do just what it says on the tin. Here are some examples from my own experience:
Item: This appears elsewhere on the blog, but I repeat it here for completeness. Some months ago I enabled the free upgrade on my desktop PC – the one I use for all of my work – to Windows 10. Initially all seemed well although there were no obvious benefits other than a few ‘nice to have’ tweaks. Then, the start menu just stopped working; this meant that many of the programmes and tools on the computer were unavailable. I Googled the problem to discover that it was endemic. A number of fixed were suggested; none worked. Eventually via another user account created on the computer by a helpful man from Microsoft, I was able to enable an update and this cured the problem. For a time. Within that time, I decided to upgrade my laptop to Windows 10. Then the start menu on the desktop failed again, and remains failed as I write this. Then the start menu on the laptop failed. Fortunately, the laptop was within the 30 days’ grace period, and I was able to revert to Windows 7.
And it is not just the start menu that does not work. When I connect my iPad to download pictures, it is not recognized. Then the ultimate insult: I upgraded my Microsoft Office 365 to the new version, and the process deleted the links pinned to the task bar. Now I can only open Word by double clicking an existing Word file; ditto Excel and PowerPoint, and I can only load Outlook by right-clicking the start button – which function fortunately does still work – and typing ‘run outlook’. (‘Run’ word does not work...) Naturally all of these programmes, Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, refuse to allow themselves to be pinned to the task bar.
Item: A few years ago I purchased an HP colour laser printer which also copies and scans. Connection is via WiFi, Ethernet or USB cable. About six months ago, the scanner facility stopped working. Reinstalling the printer made the scanner work for about 24 – 48 hours, and then it failed again. I have tried connecting the printer up all three ways, and have reinstalled it probably a dozen times. The HP forum made some helpful suggestions but none of them work. It will not scan although it prints and copies normally.
Item: I just purchased a NAS unit (Network Access Server) to separate the storage of my precious data from any particular computer – stimulated by the on-going Windows 10 problem. Within two days it stopped working – possibly finger trouble on my part – but despite several suggestions from the manufacturer, it continues not to work.
Item: We are now on our fourth router in eight or so years. They run ok and then just stop working for no apparent reason. When I pressed our ISP about this – I use Technicolor routers, the type they recommend – the engineer said “Yes they do that; they use cheap components and fail within one or two years.”
Item: I used Google Chrome on my desktop computer for several years. It seemed to work well and I liked the functionality. Then, some months ago, it just stopped working. It works fine on my laptop and my wife’s PC – virtually the same model as mine – but after several reinstalls it just would not work. I installed Mozilla Firefox, and so far it seems to be ok. (And the only programme that has ever crashed on my iPad - several times now - is Google Chrome...)
Item: Three or four years ago I decided to invest in a new desktop computer. I went to PC World and chose a well-known make, it was ACER or something similar. I got it home, plugged it in and it failed to boot. I took it back; they replaced it with an identical model and the same thing happened. I took it back and selected an HP. All was well for a few days, and then it failed to boot… I returned it and got my money back.
I could add to all of this the countless hours I have spent trying to get printers to print, and of course, the good old days when a PC would just freeze or crash for no apparent reason. Also, the hours, days and weeks I have spent reinstalling programmes because something has become corrupted.
The problem, the real problem, is best illustrated by two anecdotes. First from banking: If you owe your bank manager a million pounds, he has you by the balls; if you owe him a hundred million, then you have him by the balls…
And Richard Nixon, sometime President of the USA, in the context of some policy observed: “When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”
So there you have it. We in the developed world, and I suspect in much of the developing world also, have invested so much money, time and effort into the various so-called ‘benefits’ that PCs confer on us, that we have no alternative. We can’t go back, and just to stay operational, we have to put up with whatever the whizz-kids at Microsoft, Google and all the others throw at us. More and more though, I find myself sympathising with the Luddites and the Swing Rioters. How much more, I wonder, will it take to push all of us over the edge?
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs