Friday, August 05, 2005

How Does it Work? Uhhhh...Computer Monkeys

My internet connection in slow.

I don’t just mean slow. I mean SLOW. 26k as a matter of fact.

You can imagine how frustrating that is. If I want to look something up on the internet, I basically put in the web address, go make a cup of coffee, drink the coffee, and by the time I get back to the computer, it’s almost finished downloading.

I used to have broadband. A 2 meg file would take seconds. With this connection, we’re talking at least an hour.

During one L.O.N.G wait time today, it reminded me of something that happened about 8 years ago.

After much begging and pleading, and on the understanding I get my own phoneline and pay the bill, I finally convinced my parents to let me get online.

A short while later, my parents were introduced, through a bank circular, to the joys of internet banking. In other words, my mum asked me to show her how to bank over the internet.

Now this was when widespread use of the internet was still fairly in its infancy. As was common practice at the time, people who offered new services expected ten people to sign up, and got ten thousand. In other words, you had a few thousand people trying to use a service, designed to handle a few hundred.

So it was about 9pm on a Sunday evening. At the time, my mother was one of those people who would click a link, and if it didn’t respond instantly, she’d click it again, and again, and again…well, you get the picture. In other words, it was one of those times that she shouted down the stairs to get my help with it.

“Just click it once.” I said.
“But it’s not doing anything!” She replied.
“You’ve got to give it time.” I said. “You’re trying to get in during peak hours. It’ll take a minute or so.”
“This is SO SLOW!” She replied.

After waiting 5 minutes to sign in (you had to go through a couple of pages), she gave up. Internet banking was ‘useless’.

That was when the thought struck me. (and this isn’t just my mum, it’s pretty much everyone I’ve come across).

The alternative to waiting for a few minutes to do her banking online was to wait until Monday, drive the 25 miles into town, go to the bank, wait in line, pay bills and then head home.

It would take, at least, a couple of hours. Not to mention the expense of fuel for her car…and if she could actually get away from work to actually get to the bank.

However, 10 minutes in front of a computer, at a time when the bank isn’t even open, is unbearable.

Why is it that we take pretty miraculous technology for granted. Also, why do we expect it to work exactly as we want it to, and be easy enough for just about anyone to use?

The things we can do today would be considered science fiction less than twenty years ago. If we could go back in time 60 or 70 years (which is not as long ago as it sounds, chances are your grandparents where around then), and tell someone the things we can do today, we’d be an instant laughing stock.

Take email for instance. Today it’s taken for granted. EVERYONE has an email address. You type your message, put in a single line address and click send. Simple!

However, just think for a minute about just how complicated the actual process is.

Your words (including the formatting), are encoded into a medium that can be transmitted down a line, then it has to be routed through literally hundreds of computers, to the right recipient. It also has to be ‘secure’, so it doesn’t go to the wrong person, and only your computer can read it.

If you went back to the 70’s, and told someone in the street that one day there’ll be a machine that can send words and pictures to anywhere on the globe, at the speed of light…and that everyone will own one of those machines, and you can send messages for free…and what’s more, you’ll be able to order groceries, all kinds of goods, and actually talk to people, and be able to see them on a screen at the same time…not to mention the ability to access information on almost anything…

You’d be told you’d seen too much Buck Rogers.

Now your average internet user doesn’t care about any of the actual technology. It reminds me of the chapter in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent finds himself on a primitive planet. He thinks of the wonders he could teach them, TV, videos, you name it.

Then he realizes that he doesn’t have the slightest clue how any of them work.

Here are some statistics for you:

15% of casual computer users think the monitor is the actual computer
60% of people who own a computer don’t have a clue how they work
89% of regular internet users don’t know what TCP/IP is.

If you do a little ‘research’ on the internet, you’ll find literally millions of horror stories from tech support. People who try to use a printer without actually connecting it to their computer, people who call about a broken monitor, and say it’s ‘out of ink’. People who think Windows has a ‘recycle bin’, because it needs to recycle the blank sheets on your word processor or they will ‘run out’.

Now there are some true idiots (like the guy who called tech support, kept them on the line for 3 hours, until he finally mentioned the power was out), but a lot of ‘stupid’ stories, I can’t bring myself to actually call these people stupid.

You see, back in the day, you needed some actual knowledge to use a computer. They were for hardcore users, people who could actually build a computer, and not in the way I can, but I mean make their own circuit boards from scratch.

Of course, the only way to make money on something is to make it accessible to the maximum number of people, so over time, computers have moved away from just the hardcore geeks, and have been made accessible to the casual user. What did IBM say in the late 60’s? “There is probably a world market for about 6 computers”. (At least I think it was IBM, I’m not sure, and too lazy to look it up).

Computers have become such a part of everyday life, that everyone has just gotten used to them. The fact of the matter is, you just don’t need to know how a computer, or pretty much any technology for that matter, works any more to use it. You go to the store, bring a computer home, plug in the wires (which I have to say is still beyond a lot of people), and just turn it on.

All the complicated stuff goes on behind the scenes, and to most people, the inside of that computer case is like looking into the human brain. To most people the idea of opening it up to fix something is like a brain surgeon handing you a scalpel, pointing at an open cranium and saying “There you go, have at it!”

People complain about computers and technology, but technology’s biggest problem is that it works too well. No one cares how anything works, as long as it does. Who cares how your TV or remote works? You just point one thing at the other and press a button, it does all the hard stuff for you behind the scenes.

If something is unreliable, you know how it works…because you have to fix it. You don’t get too worked up, because you expect it to break down once in a while. People don’t complain when their car needs an oil change, or a new spark plug.

Computers and technology, however, are those unassuming boxes that sit around the house. They work so well, that they become invisible, and we completely take them for granted.

Think for a moment. You’re sitting in front of your computer reading this. Think just how complicated that this is. I wrote this on Word 2000. I stored it on my hard-drive. Then I connected to the internet, copied all this information onto a web page, which then published it to a server somewhere. You connected to the internet, and with just a few clicks and keystrokes, you connected to that server, which downloaded this on to your computer. It did all that in a matter of seconds, and, chances are, we don’t have the same type of computer, operating system, or web browser version.

Yet you can read this from across the globe in a matter of seconds.

People get mad at computers, simply because they have no clue at just how complicated they are. No one expects to learn how to fly an F-16 in two easy lessons, but they expect a computer to be simple enough to use with no instruction whatsoever. Gone are the days of knowing where to put the resistor and the capacitor on the PCB, today, we have a talking paperclip that tells us what to do.

Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology will look like magic’.

That’s what we expect…magic. The little beige box on our desktop is supposed to send an email, simultaneously to 10 different people in 10 different countries when we click a button. Instead of simply being astonished that this is even possible, we bitch because the occasional mail doesn’t get there.

Computers have made it possible for me to write my parents a letter here in the USA, send it to the UK, and it will get there in seconds. Regular mail takes at least a week.
Just something to think about the next time your computer crashes


OzzyC said...

As a tech guy myself, I've been preaching a slight variation of this to my users for years. Without discussing to my users the ins and outs of computers, I simply use an analogy. "Mankind has existed, thrived and evolved for thousands of years without instant communication. How is it that we suddenly can't live without email for just an hour?"

Miz S said...

I could live without e-mail, but life would be sooooo much tougher. Paulius and I met on the net- and we managed to get to know each other about 10 times faster and probally better than we would have if we had "dated" in the conventional manner.
For long distance communications and for urgent matters- only the telephone beats the good ole internet!!

serendipity said...

I think i'd feel lost without my computer.
I'm never far away from a computer. I have one at work, one at home, and if I really need it, I have one at my Dads house.

I woke up one morning and my internet connection (broadband) had been lost and I spend a good 20 minutes in blind panic wondering how to get it back. A reboot of the modem did it, but for a while there I almost