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It’s time for your update – fasten your seat belt and hope for the best!

March 7, 2018

My laptop screen has an elegant crack radiating in three directions from just right of centre. It’s there courtesy of Ryanair, who very kindly insisted that they put my bag in the hold on a return flight from France last year. When they made the bag grab, I foolishly assumed that if I buried the laptop under six inches of clothing, nothing untoward would happen. My wife suspected otherwise. She wanted me to bring it into the cabin under my arm.

I’m not sure which was more painful – discovering the crack, or my wife telling me she told me so.

Which serves to remind me that laptops are fragile things, and if, like me, you rely on one to do your work, watch the world and communicate with people out of the immediate vicinity, you’d better handle it with care. The only comfort is the knowledge that unlike the tiny devices that the youth rely upon to remind everyone else that they exist, a laptop is difficult to drop down the loo.

That said, it’s also difficult to do much when Microsoft decides to update your operating system if, equally foolishly, you allow it to do so at a time of its choosing rather than yours.

A few days ago I turned on my laptop to find that the cursor had acquired a life of its own. Not only that, but the ghost in the machine had decided that I’m too old to see the icons on the start-up screen in their normal size, and had blown them up to at least four times the normal size.

As I struggled to gain control, rather like a desperate pilot in one of those Air Crash Investigation reconstructions, the cursor went its merry way around the screen, opening apps at random. After thirty alarming minutes of trying to zap rogue apps I concluded that I was under the control of Russian hackers. I shut the machine down by pressing the off button, which is the equivalent of knocking it unconscious. The same thing happened again on start-up. And again.

By this time I thought that my Russian hacker was driving me into a mountain. Finally, I managed to pull the laptop out of its deep dive by starting System Restore. This is supposed to reset everything to the state it was in at some earlier point in time. In my case, two weeks ago. I’ve done this twice before with this laptop, and on both occasions it worked.

Not this time. After two hours of showing me the stupid little wheel going round and round, it finally admitted that it couldn’t do it, but would I like to do a System Reset? Under this procedure, you don’t lose your files, but all the apps you’ve loaded yourself get wiped. How it differs from System Restore, I have no idea.

By this stage I reckoned I had two choices. Proceed with the reset, and treat the loss of all my apps as a form of virtual colonic irrigation, or take the machine to the local computer repair shop, who would charge me a non-refundable fee of £80 just for opening the damned thing.

I’m the kind of guy who, before the age of satnav, when he got lost would drive around for miles without stopping to ask for directions. I therefore chose the colonic irrigation. It worked. It took several hours to reload apps that I still needed, such as Microsoft Office. You would have thought Microsoft would have figured how to avoid slaughtering its own in its bonfire of apps, but no.

A few hours later, after digging around for passwords that other software providers required but that I hadn’t needed for centuries, I was up and running again.

Some things were mysteriously different from before. My beloved wallpaper no longer appeared on start-up, though it did occasionally reveal itself to me during the start procedure. All my unrecovered documents, which I occasionally delve into, were gone. But at least the thing worked, and the Russians appear to have been sent packing back to St Petersburg.

At this stage I thought that all this hassle might have been my fault. Perhaps I’d accidentally done something that unleashed this Pandora’s Box of mayhem. Then I happened upon a Facebook post by a friend who was complaining about his experience of the latest Windows 10 update. And below his post were a number of comments from fellow sufferers. It seemed too much of a coincidence that my laptop appeared to have dropped into a software washing machine at the same time as these other people were enduring their own little hells.

But each hell was different. And then it occurred to me that it must be fiendishly difficult for any software maker to avoid screwing up any of the zillions of computers out there, each with a unique collection of apps, data and history. In other words, your laptop and mine might share 90% of their DNA. So would you expect the same medicine to work on both human and chimpanzee? Probably not. Likewise with computers.

This is rather a worrying thought, since in most societies there is barely a single aspect of our lives that doesn’t depend on a computer to keep things on track.

It’s fine when the systems we rely on are like dairy cattle herds, living to a routine and producing their milk under tightly managed conditions. One cow might get sick, but the herd still produces with little noticeable impact.

Our own computers, on the other hand, are like wild beasts. They bear the scars and injuries of a lifetime in the jungle. They go where they will. They mutate randomly, and they’re vulnerable to forces outside their control.

If that’s the case, would it not be sensible for those who provide us with our software, when they upload updates, to give us the kind of warnings you get with medication, to the effect that this update works for most people, but there’s a small risk that you will be invaded by mad Russian hackers who will rampage around your laptop opening, closing and doing God knows what else with your apps? Or worse still, rogue algorithms that don’t answer to Putin or any other human turning your machine into porridge?

Whether these periodic agonies that send us howling like wolves at the new moon are the result of rank incompetence, or a sinister wheeze of the part of the computer industry to get us to buy more hardware or replace what we have after ludicrously short periods of use, I wouldn’t care to guess. My laptop is three years old, and is beginning to resemble our dog, who, at the age of fourteen, is getting somewhat wobbly.

Apple’s recently-revealed decision to deliberately slow down their phones though a software update in order to preserve battery life certainly suggests that some companies believe that it’s OK to sell us products that have the lifecycle of a gnat. Perhaps we should be used to this by now, as we buy washing machines that become irreparable after a year or three, or boilers that have only ten years of useful life, whereas older models used to last for thirty. The less you pay, the less use you get, it seems.

But it would be nice to know how much life we are likely to get from our computers before they collapse under the weight of increasingly memory-hungry updates and all the stuff we install at our own initiative. And it would be nice if the software vendors managed to provide us with updates that improve our experience of their products without putting our machines into intensive care.

Much of the time, in common with the vast majority of fellow technical illiterates, I shrug my shoulders and accept the occasional meltdown. After all, when they work, most modern products work fine. But just occasionally I get pissed off, hence this post.

Here’s a thought, though. If “planned obsolescence” is now the norm, wouldn’t it be good if the same principle applied to some of our politicians, who seem to hang around forever for no useful purpose?

From → Business, Social

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