Tales of Technology
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, July 13, 2003
Agnes Dodds Kenard is an author, a poet, and a serious computer user. I recently met her at a party and—holding me responsible for the state of the computing world—she told me her tale of woe.
She was happy using her Macintosh to write, calculate, and do odd tasks; but a component broke. Having lived through most of the automobile age—she once rode in an electric car steered by a tiller—she expected she could call a service station, get a replacement part, and continue her work. Ha! Like all of us, she is on the upgrade gauntlet. Saddled with a wonderful new iMac, she has to relearn how to use all the software which has been improved beyond recognition. Since there is no used computer market for her old computer, she’ll be forced to pollute a landfill with it.
Gazing at me like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, Agnes asked me, “Why can’t a PC be more like a car?” So I sent her the following:
Why can't a PC be more like a car?
Why do PCs follow all the latest fads?
Cars are so simple, so easy to fix.
One car in a million may conk out a bit.
Why can't a PC behave like a car?
Why can’t a PC be more like a car?
Why is printing something PCs cannot do?
If man made a PC that was meant to delight,
Agnes was not amused; she replied:
Thanks for the ditty
But technical expertise alone will not solve the problem; we need an attitude change. In the 1950s we were in the golden age of automobiles, and the General Motors CEO declaimed “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country and vice-versa.” The gold in question was all going to the manufacturers because the post-World War II consumers were so entranced by cars that they never thought to demand that cars perform reliably. They didn’t mind that pieces fell off cars and that many of the features didn’t quite work. Consumers put up with all this because simply having and automobile was a new, empowering experience. Who would quibble about the push-button windows not working when you could take a girl to the drive-in movie?
In the 1970s, things changed. Ralph Nader, writing Unsafe at Any Speed, uncovered serious safety problems and became a thorn in the side of auto companies. A slow down in the oil supply caused a crisis: higher gas prices and long lines at service stations. Then the Japanese automobile companies offered the US market more dependable, fuel-efficient cars than Detroit could produce. It was very painful for the US manufacturers. Eventually, they raised their quality; but the golden age was over.
We are at the end of the golden age of computing. Bill Gates typified
the times when he said “The first version of the .NET technology
will be rolled out next year with a more robust version following
in 2002.” Entrepreneurs cheered when an industry pundit put
the idea more succinctly: “Don’t worry, be crappy.”
The consumers of computing had been so besotted that they would
buy things that only barely worked. Now, however, PC sales are stagnating
despite the fact that they run ever faster.
© James H. Morris, 2003