Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Progress that takes us backwards

It begins as a blessing
And ends as a curse;
Making life easy,
By making it worse. *

Technology advances but it doesn’t always take us forward.

Here, for example, are some minor clever advances that make life worse:

  • Electronic volume controls on my laptop, that take a dozen clicks and ten seconds to do what the little wheel on my old laptop used to do in an instant with one thumb twirl
  • Energy saving light bulbs that take half a day to give half the light that the old one used to give instantly. This matters when you’re hunting for an ice-scraper in a dark garage at minus 6 degrees at 6 in the morning
  • Digital TVs that stop, pause and think for several seconds when they start up or change channel. This advance has arrived just at the time when the old analogue devices had finally evolved after sixty years of R&D to the point of doing these tasks instaneously.

OK. So none of those amount to a very big deal in the grand scheme of things. 

But there are some feted feats of current progress that have set us charging like lemmings towards an abyss of stupidity. Here are a couple.

Number 1 – Crowdsourcing

It’s a great idea, isn’t it, to pool knowledge from a whole bunch of people so as to ratchet up collective wisdom or to source the best ideas from beyond our own gene pool?

Well, in controlled situations, possibly so. But generally, it’s turning into a nightmare of inefficiency, misinformation and needle-in-a-haystackery.

Consider this situation. In company A, there used to be a team of people who were the experts in subject Z.  Everyone knew who they were, and called them to resolve issues. Just like that. Then a few years back these Guys And Gals Who Know Things were restructured to the four corners of the universe.  Instead there’s a company forum for posting questions and a wiki for crowdsourcing knowledge.  That’s so cool. We can all share our knowledge and help ourselves to knowledge on the fly.

And that all works until you really need to find something out.  Now instead of ringing Joe who knew the answer, you spend hours wading through postings, FAQs, Q+As, following links, trying new search terms (heaven help you if your search terms include a common word!) and trying every ruse to find what you are looking for. Eventually you adjourn for lunch, and a stiff drink, where you try to remember the names of people you know who have left to work in this field in other companies, and spend the afternoon chasing up their numbers so you can give them a call.

For customers outside the company, the problem is the same amplified at least tenfold. It’s a simple problem, it seems, so hopefully there’s a simple solution.  You go to the company website where you find there is no number to call. OK, let’s email someone.

Not that simple.  Before you can get near an email form, there is a maze of web hoops to jump through. This involves specifying generically what kind of issue it is, and then being bumped onto forums with a billion answers to a million questions loosely connected in terms of topic and vocabulary with the words in your generic question. How can I find an answer in all this noise?
Maybe the wider Internet will help.  There’s a lot of specialist forums out there, so there’ll be an expert somewhere with the answer. Surely.


What to do?

Ah well, just check my emails and wait until it’s time to go home.

Maybe the answer will come to me in a dream tonight.  I feel a random thought from my unconscious has a higher probability of solving the issue than all this malarkey.

Number 2 – Feeding and sharing

Having feeds into websites from interesting sources is quite a good idea.  Where there are communities of interest, keeping abreast of new updates adds value.

But it seems we’ve gone beyond the point of sensible feeding and sharing. I’ve been on websites where there’s a box for feeds that tick up and out within seconds. Wow, that news changed my life. And if I read one story, where have the others gone by the time I get back?

Assuming you don’t have the time or the inclination to keep your eyes glued all day to this stuff churning and chuntering past, it’s actually getting harder and harder to sift out useful information. That can include something you saw yesterday that seemed worth going back to. Where is it now? Gone in a puff of smoke!

Finding the original source of a story doesn’t always help.  So many blogs and websites now forego a logical menu structure in favour of tags that launch you into the same kind of guessing game to find things, as per item 1 above. Could be buried anywhere in a chaotic cloud of tags if it is no longer in today’s ‘Top 5’ list. And it seems the only things that qualify a story to be in a top 5 is a) novelty or b) number of times read. I suspect that most of the people who read it and thereby put it in the Top 5 were actually looking for something else.

The information being streamed, fed and shared hither and thither across the web and mobile devices is a mix of useful stuff, reposted stuff, all shades of comment, more reposted stuff, inane and self-glorifying comment and every variety of crap you can think of.

Once upon a time it was posited that in time everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame. Let me tell you, that time span is coming down and down. 

Before long everyone will have their 15 micro-seconds of fleeting visibility on everyone else’s website, and none of us is going to notice. It will be guaranteed insignificance through virtual ubiquity.

Welcome to the future of knowledge.

* Kevin Ayers / Soft Machine, Why Are We Sleeping? (more or less)