Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Complaining About Technology

I don't complain much, but when I do, it's usually about technology. I have an unfortunate combination of bad luck and high standards when it comes to gadgets. Literally, whenever I buy anything with greater complexity than lettuce, it has some flaw, either minor and only noticeable to my hyper-critical eye1 or a major defect2. At least nothing has outright exploded, though not everyone is so lucky (see: iPhone spontaneously combusts aboard flight). It's tempting to become a cynical old ass, shaking my wooden stick (not a microchip in it!) and grumbling about how quality control has gone down the stinker and nothing works like it should. I've certainly given into that temptation a few times.

But think of it this way:

We are a bunch of animals. We were crafted by nature to root around in the dirt, find food, then go home and fuck. Yet we've taken some of that dirt and, with nothing more than our grubby hands and abnormally large brains, we've made tubes of steel that can fly us through the air. We've burned sand until we have a slab of glass that allows us to have nudity and food delivered to us by poking at it. "Technology" isn't some mysterious black toaster that pops out perfect gleaming gadgets. We're literally grabbing whatever imperfect raw materials we find lying around the planet, and sticking them into arrangements that accomplish things no other animal can fathom.

Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But the people crafting our gadgets (and crafting the machines that craft our gadgets) are not magicians. They are humans, animals, maybe a bit smarter than you or I, but only by a little bit. They're working with limited time and limited resources. They get tired. Sometimes the best they can do is try pretty hard, and hope it's good enough.

Thinking of it this way, it's odd to complain.

Maybe a dead pixel on my phone's screen "shouldn't" be there, but a bunch of strangers managed to get me 614,399 working pixels that beam all of humanity's accomplishments directly into my eyes. I can probably live with it. I can probably manage to enjoy everything that works despite the small parts that don't.

There are exceptions; technologies that are defective by design (e.g., DRM, planned obsolescence) are inexcusable. The average gadget works pretty well though, and although it's not terrible to strive for perfection, I also need a moment to shut up and revel in the the awesomeness of the imperfect magic people have managed to weave.

1 E.g., backlight bleed on my iPad 2, suboptimal battery life on my Kindle, phosphor trails on my TV.

2 E.g., cutting out audio on my iPhone 4S, a computer with a display that occasionally turns to grey fuzz, six dead Xbox 360s.

P.S. Watch:

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Both Halves of the Occu-pie Taste Like Crap

I have mixed feelings about the occupy movement.

On one hand:

London's leadership is now officially the the douchiest in Canada. Last night, after a warning Tuesday morning, police descended on Victoria Park to steal the tents of the people who had been living there for the last two weeks. They were within their rights to do this, since there is a bylaw asking people not to put up tents in city parks. However, let's look at the actual warning that cited this bylaw:

Notice all those "unless authorized" exceptions. Hey, here's an idea to prevent people from breaking the law: authorize them to be there so it's no longer illegal. Apparently "we demand people giving us money for sunglasses, gangsta blankets, and overpriced meat" is good enough to skirt the bylaw (see: Sunfest, Ribfest, every other fest there in the summer). But "we demand a better future for our children"? GTFO!

The bottom line is that there were a bunch of tents sitting in one corner of a park, occupied by people who didn't hurt anyone (I walk through there every day, and it was more fun and felt more safe than it did before). Someone—maybe the mayor, maybe the police, maybe a combo—made the conscious decision to evict them from the park based on an optional bylaw. That decision was probably motivated by personal beliefs more than following any guidelines. That's not being a firm decision maker, being tough on crime, or being a good leader. No, failing to tolerate people you personally disagree with, that's simply being a giant asshole.

On the other hand:

The occupy movement is failing. It's clear from the general public's reaction to London's assholery that most people don't know, nor care, what the protestors are protesting. When the point is to raise awareness, to have not done so after months of occupying, that's a failure.

Signs, well-meaning people, and infographics attempt to explain the purpose of the protests. But they either contradict each other (or reality), are too vague to be meaningful, or complain about a problem without offering a solution.

Be mad.
The main focus has been the disparity between the wealthiest 1% of the population, who control a lot of the country's wealth, and the other 99% of the population, who don't. Ok. That's bad I guess. But how should things be different? The financial crisis in the United States is another focus. Banks fucked up and ruined the economy. That's bad. Yep. But it already happened, in another country with crappier laws, so how should things be different here, now?

It'd be nice to see a list of problems, with potential solutions offered by experts in the field.

E.g., to me it seems the problem isn't the 1% / 99% disparity itself, but how it got there. There are some giant assholes who make conscious decisions to scam or screw over other people to gain massive amounts of money. Many of the 1% have gotten their wealth through immoral or illegal means. The banking crisis is one result of this.

The solution, then, isn't some vague call to "close the gap". Rather, the solution is to stop people from gaining money at the expense of others. Find the people—not a vague type of person, but the exact, specific people—who are rich because they are assholes. Arrest them if possible. If not, bring in an expert to study them. Find out what laws and loopholes allow them to thrive, then change them.

Or something. The key is that the rich/poor disparity is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. "We are the 99%" isn't even pointing out a problem, let alone offering a solution. "Raise minimum sentences on white-collar crimes so that we 99% stop getting screwed by the criminals among the 1% and rewarding the worst side of human nature" is a less catchy slogan, but now you've got me listening, and a direction for taking action.

To sum up: I don't necessarily agree with the occupiers' muddled messages, but as long as they're expressing them peacefully, I fully support them being free to do so.