I bought my first computer in 1981, a Microtan 65, 6502-based personal computer by Tangerine and with 2K of memory and no monitor, having driven from Bradford to Ely, near Cambridge, to collect it. It came with a comprehensive manual, including the source code for the Tanram OS. It cost, from memory, around £100 (whatever that is in today’s money), and a further £50 or £60 later on to upgrade to 8K. From it, I learned 6502 code and wrote a little word processor of my own that then stored my deathless prose to a casette recorder. Ah, happy days.
Around 1982 or 1983, maybe 1984 – I’m not too sure about those days now – I bought an Osborne ‘luggable’ with two 512K floppy drives running under CP/M on an 8080 processor. It came with a shitload of bundled software – CBASIC, Supercalc, Wordstar – and, golden as it was, a really comprehensible manual. I wrote my first book Early Irish Ironworking (Ulster Museum 1991) on it, and learned CBASIC and 8080 machine code. I had it for quite a few years. In fact, looking back to its bulky frame and tiny screen, and the 64K memory!!, it’s not nostalgia that makes me think that it was probably the most enjoyable computer that I ever owned, it was. AND, the manual was written in plain, easily understood English by folk who (a) knew how to communicate, and (b) knew precisely how to explain complex technology so that it was comprehensible. As far as I can see, the Osborne manual was the last computer literature to be so written.
I also played around with an early Apple. It was fun, but since it belonged to my employer, perhaps I didn’t get from it what I might have had if I’d had it at home.
Since then, I’ve owned machines by Sony, Toshiba, Dell, HP and, most recently, Apple. And in addition to my writing, I’ve been involved in some software development – specifically with regard to music DRM and cryptography. All of this has brought me into contact with a wide range of machines and software. In addition, when finally ebooks started ot become a reality, I bought a Kindle 3, having decided that as an unpublished author without an agent and unable to connect anywhere in the industry, I’d do the self-publish online that I couldn’t afford to do in hard copy. Most recently, I bought an iPad 3 in order to take advantage of the superb iAuthor program for some projects, and also to use it to prepare an epub version of my writing.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I have come to the conclusion that the marketing and after-sales model – to which all of the main players in the IT field subscribe – has become the paradigm for the way in which our interconnected world is becoming increasingly segmented into the empowered producers and the unempowered consumers. Developed western societies – and the United States above all, although the UK is not far behind – are no longer democracies, but plutocracies. Ideals are irrelevant, $£¥€ is the four-letter word that signifies power and empowerment!
I don’t know if anyone else has viewed the last 30 years or so through the same optic that I have, but interconnectivity and globalisation seem to me to have sleepwalked the planet into the ultimate capitalist wet dream. Let me give you a simple example.
When I was a kid, my Mum bought me a new pair of trousers for school. And about two days later, the seam at the crotch split. Mum and Dad weren’t too well off in those days (must have been around 1955 or 1956), and I was taken back to the store to ‘see what could be done’. I will always remember the look of disappointment on the face of the shop assistant as he apologised over and over, while sorting out a new pair. You see in those days, you paid for goods from the High Street shop and you expected value for money. So the shop assistant – maybe he was the owner or the manager – took great pains to assure Mum that she had done absolutely the right thing in returning the trousers, and that if there were any more problems, she should come straight back.
The customer was always right!
Contrast that with the situation today. Software bug? Put a post on the user’s forum. Brakes on your new car defective? Well, if you don’t find out while it’s in warranty, then tough shit. (And of course we will tell our agents to make sure that such defects aren’t noted when the car is in for servicing during that period.). Need I go on?
In short, we have gone from the capitalist nightmare of ‘The Customer is ALWAYS right’ to the capitalist wet dream of ‘The customer doesn’t like what? (S)he can go fuck him/herself’. You want to complain? Our call centre in Mumbai will do its best to sort you out in the next few months or so.
These practices stretch right across our lives, from horizon to horizon, from sea to shining sea. Trying to get a mistake removed from your credit report? Want to find the right person in the bank to make a query about your account? Having problems with your mobile phone contract? Tired of listening to the automatic answering machines that never have the option for the problem that you are experiencing? Welcome to the Brave New World of the Berlin wall between the empowered and the unempowered. The wall that segregates the folk who sell things to you as essential for your lifestyle, your very survival, and you the consumer.
That’s what this series of essays is about – analysing and ranting on about just how fucked up our world has become and is becoming, and offering some sort of an angry old fart’s suggestions as how to unfuck it just a little.
The blame game has to start somewhere, and so I give you one of the primary instigators of the slide in standards. Please give it up loud and proud for your favourite Űbergeek, Mr. Bill Gates.