Worship the Glitch

It’s a feature, not a bug

If you’ve watched an ad for fibre optic broadband or the latest iPhone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that by parting with a (fairly substantial) splodge of wonga, you’ll soon be immersed in a brave new techno-utopia.

In reality, the experience is rarely as seamless as it is meant to be.  Technology is characterised by glitches and frustrations at the same time as it empowers us with limitless information, and probably all of us have moments when we’re tempted to toss the blasted thing out the window and go back to subsistence farming and warming ourselves by the fire. It’s enough to put some people off using IT altogether – at least till they get it sorted.

Apart from a sometimes disturbing signal to noise ratio, there are three main categories of glitches:  compatibility, connectivity and built in redundancy.

Compatability

ICTs are still very much in development, and still characterised by format wars. There are few standard formats, and there is an ideological battle between proprietary formats, produced by corporations for profit, and free and open formats. MP3 is a proprietary format; the patent is owned by Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. This has implications, as the company could theoretically charge you rent for listening to music using the format (though they are more likely to sue the makers of MP3 players). There are free and open music formats that are just as good or better,  such as OGG and FLAC, but the software on many audio players won’t play them. You have the same problem with Microsoft’s DOC format, and the open alternative, ODT. Proprietary software has crippleware, DRM and other restrictions that limit your experience in order to keep you penned in and spending money – Apple is particularly guilty of the corporate lock-in.

The Open Source software movement attempts to create universal, copyright free standards, but because software developers and hardware manufacturers often won’t share their knowledge, these have to be reverse engineered and often don’t work – as anyone who has tried using Flash on Linux will confirm.

Personally, I think unions should be arguing for free and public formats, but that’s a discussion for another day. The result, however, is that you’ll often find that your software won’t work with your hardware, because you don’t have the correct drivers, because the companies behind the products fell out with each other. Or you’ll produce a document that a colleague can’t open, and spend ages trying to convert it into a format you can both use.

Connectivity

We are sold hardware that does not yet have an adequate infrastructure to support it. Cloud computing, netbooks, smart phones and iPads all require high speed Internet connections to be available at all times, to be able to transmit high levels of data. Data is expensive, and rare. The 3G signal that is available across much of the UK is inadequate for providing a seamless experience. Where I live in Scotland, the 3G network covers the central belt, and small areas around the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness. In the Highlands, where a connection is needed most, there is no signal, and even in the city centres I often can’t connect. Lots of cafes have free wifi, but in my experience this rarely works very well.

The situation in South Africa is similar: while a 3G signal is fairly ubiquitous, data is expensive and ‘capped’. The practical outcome of this is that trade union activists, despite spending a lot of money on mobile tools, will frequently be frustrated by an inability to connect to the Internet.

Even at home, using a broadband connection, you are unlikely get what you are promised: before I signed up, BT estimated I would get a 7MB broadband speed – in reality, I get 3.1MB. Technical support – whether it’s BT, Vodafone or any other provider – is rarely very good, and is likely to leave you feeling frustrated.

Built in redundancy

New hardware is generally not meant to last very long, largely because its physical limitations will soon be superseded by software developments. This is fine if you’re a large corporation with an IT budget, but less fine if you’re an ordinary punter desperately trying to stay abreast: just over two years ago, I spent £670 on an HP laptop. Recently, the motherboard failed, and the laptop has to be replaced – I simply can’t afford it. Buy a top of the range smart phone today, and in a year’s time it won’t be working as well, because the battery life will be down to a few hours a day, the software will be outdated, and the apps will require more processing power that your device has.

It’s like being on a treadmill. So what do you do?

Making the most of IT

If you have an unlimited budget, go ahead and buy all the latest techno toys: you’ll have a great time networking your house, recording television with your phone and updating your status when you check in to the pub on Foursquare.

If your resources are somewhat more limited, it is possible to opt out of the treadmill to some extent. The important thing is to decide what you want, and find the simplest way to do it. I am writing this article on a 6 year old PC running Ubuntu, which works well on older hardware while still giving you most of the functionality of a new operating system. With really ancient hardware, you can create a working system using Xubuntu or AntiX, which need considerably less resources than other operating systems.

You can also back up your files, and gain additional hard drive space, by getting an external hard drive. This is especially useful if your computer ever packs in, as all your files will still be safe and sound.

Older smart phones are relatively inexpensive, and even if they aren’t as exciting as the latest iPhone, at least you won’t be shelling out a fortune for it.

In the end, sometimes it does all work seamlessly, and the ease of communication opens new doors for us. Maybe we just have to grit our teeth and learn to worship the glitch.

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