One of Louis C.K.’s best bits is a rant about how easily people come to take technology for granted. Airline travel is a horror because the price you pay for being able to cross the globe is that you occasionally have to cool your heels in an airport bar for a few hours at a time. People pull a smart phone from their pocket to fetch some piece of trivia from the æther then get testy when the response time is not instantaneous. “Give it a minute,” Louis C.K. says, “it’s going into space!”
He’s exactly right about air travel, but the frustration over the reaction time of electronic devices is actually sometimes justified. Certainly I’m willing to be patient for two seconds if the signal really is traveling to space, but there’s another possibility: my phone has stopped working.
The proliferation of ubiquitous computing in the past decade has come at a subtle price: many things are faster and more convenient, but they’re also more likely not to work. If your smart phone hangs while accessing a website you probably have only another half second to wait before things right themselves, but there’s a slight chance that the phone has frozen up and will need to be power-cycled, and an even smaller but non-vanishing chance that your phone is busted and your quest for instant gratification has just morphed into an afternoon waiting in line for technical support at the Apple store, which come to think of it bears a suspicious resemblance to an airport.
If computer failure was an all-or-nothing affair it would be easier to be philosophical about it. You’d use a particular gadget until it didn’t work anymore and then you’d buy a new one. This is our attitude towards a lot of technology these days, but it doesn’t work for information electronics because their failure profile is to produce a steady stream of minor malfunctions, each of which can be remedied with a bit of futzing. You kill the browser, reboot the computer, hit the magic sequence of buttons to restore the default configuration which though simple I only know by muscle memory so here just hand me the damn thing. These troubleshooting sessions are not taxing for the time they take–it’s usually only a matter of a few extra seconds–but the amount of mental engagement they require.
In software development, this marriage of specific technical knowledge and generalized deductive reasoning goes by the name debugging and is what professional programmers spend the bulk of their time doing. What astounds me is how many non-professional programmers now do it as well. People who don’t get paid to know this stuff dutifully type in DNS name server addresses, administrate the wireless RAID brick that stores their family photos, and have informed opinions on Flash vs. the HTML 5 standard. I occasionally eat bacon while having no opinion as to what’s the best knife with which to kill a pig, but the art of debugging has moved into the consumer realm. Civilians know how to break a problem into its technical components, to sense the gaps in the underlying information chain that give rise to discontinuous bits of UI, to know which vaguely-worded error messages mean what–all so they can watch The Walking Dead on streaming.
Because there is no magic, technology is ultimately constrained by tradeoffs. If you’d rather have water come directly into your house via a faucet instead of schlepping down to the river with a bucket, know that every once in a while a pipe is going to burst and present you with a problem that would never occur in a log cabin. If you want cellphones and video on demand you can have it, but in exchange you move beyond the rock solid technical certainty of my own youth where dial tones were as constant as the sun and an interruption in the broadcast of the three television networks probably meant that nuclear war had broken out. Computers are mental prostheses which usually take on the burden of memory and reasoning but every so often demand it back in tricky ways. So when the smartphone user in Louis C.K.’s sketch balks at his frozen display he may not merely be demonstrating churlishness but rather be legitimately fearful that a complexity bill is coming due.