Show a desktop computer to an average person, and he or she will think, "Very useful sometimes but those things sure screw up a lot." The exception are Macintosh users, who are so obsessed with brand-status that when their computer crashes they think, "Sure is an interesting feature, deleting the hard drive and shutting off like that" (this is similar to the behavior of heroin addicts that considers living under a bridge to shoot heroin "a minor inconvenience"). But for most of us, the computer represents the duality of modern technology: superior technology -- in theory -- with a high rate of failure in reality. Is the problem our technology? A conspiracy of Jewish unicorn-gremlins that sabotage it? Masonic symbols on microchips? Or is it something subtler... something inward...
Dill Computers is about to introduce its fall line of machines. Binkely Berman, Project manager, is explaining to Mikhail Dill, the founder, about his new machine. "We found quality parts and put them together," he said. "If our margin goes down to 28.2% from 36.6%, we can sell them for $500 and have the best computer on the market." Mikhail Dill thinks this is a neat idea, but since he got big in this business by caution and severity, he runs it by his lawyers, accountants, and management consultants first. The lawyer comes into the room first.
"On the surface, there's no problems," he says. "But keep in mind that by starting a price war like that, because this machine is clearly better than others, you'll be opening yourself to non-competitiveness legislation as well as lawsuits." Dill thinks: this is actually a small risk, but maybe we'll raise the price by fifty bucks.
In comes the accountant. Contrary to popular belief, accountants are not as destructive as portrayed; however, they are (while being usually politically liberal) the most conservative types you can imagine because their entire job revolves around the ratio of likelihood of something going wrong to cost. So the accountant's presentation is brief. "Using premium parts is an unusual decision," she says. "Were we to use standard parts, we could assemble the machine for $32.50 less per unit and make a 36-38% margin."
Dill thinks. "Would we save money on technical support if the machine broke down less?"
"Hard to tell, sir," says the accountant. "We have pared technical support down to two former drug addicts reciting sections of the Windows manual and reminding people to plug in their monitors," she notes. "It can't get much cheaper. But we have no data on saving money by having our product work better, because we're not sure how many people are calling tech support based on the product not working, or their minds not working."
In comes the management consultant. This is a person who literally generates no actual positive net result for society, because their job is to maximize profit. They are hampered in turn by political factors: they cannot recommend too many firings, or suggest anything publically unethical, but that which is legal and makes sense on a spreadsheet is fair game. The management consultant takes one look at it and says, "You know the shareholders are gonna have your balls for lowering margins."
Dill thinks and says that he senses new markets might open up with a better quality machine. That sinks him, of course, because the management consultant hauls out a sheaf of "research."
"You did know, of course," she says, "that 86% of the customers identify software and ease of configuration as more important than how long the machine lasts or how fast it is? These parts are high quality but might be more complicated. Ease of use is really tops."
Dill says he thinks the software can be configured for the new parts.
"But that will cost money!" ejaculates the consultant. "And then there's the fact that according to a recent Diff-Zavis study, the average user is consuming only 60% of the machine's power anyway. These people don't need faster machines, or better machines, they need easier ones. Just look at the success (market share: 2.4%) of Apple Computer, Inc."
Dill tells her he's fine with it and off she goes. In comes the shareholder representative.
"Backdoorway and Hewlett-Bastard are estimated to have a 2.68% increase in profit this quarter," he says, smirking over his blue wool pinstripe. "You're talking about reducing profit margin at a time when our competition is fiercest."
Dill, uncharacteristically, says he would rather make a better machine. (Dill prides himself on succeeding despite not being the smartest or noblest engineer, but in having made technology "accessible" -- meaning cheap and easy -- and deriving from that huge profits.)
"The shareholders don't know that," says the rep. "All they know is that you're bringing in less money, selling more complicated machines, and requiring more support resources since these quality machines are obviously going to have a range of function; they're versatile and flexible and people are going to do everything with them. That won't work at all. It's cutting into advertising."
Speaking of advertising, in comes the adman. "Mikhail, baby," he says. "Bigger, better is not where the market is going. Lifestyle marketing is where it's at. You want more computers sold? Make 'em in pink like Apple does, and we've got a humdinger of an idea for you... get this... put a built-in vase on top of the things. Wowza! Instant market recognition."
It comes down to, two days later, the final planning meeting. Dill stands up. "Originally," he says, "We were going to make a better machine with quality parts and an expert configuration. Research suggests that not only is this too hard for the user, but all but a handful of them are oblivious to quality since they shop by price and convenience -- too much research, numbers, ideas confuses them and interrupts their pursuit of pleasure. So we're going to do what we always do, which is pile together the crap our purchasing department found on close-out, staple it together, and put a pink vase on top."
Griff Bigglesmountain at Bucklink High Speed Internet is planning his next campaign. "So we get them a reduced-speed high-speed at a lower cost, and we make it easy to install," he says. "Since the installation is our highest cost, I've had a brainstorm: we're going to bundle software with our installation. StealPlayer, HIV Messenger, DVD-Fry and Snorton Anti-Virus will pay us to have a default installation of their software with our 'EZ-konnect' point and click software. Their stuff works for a month, then either gets upgraded for $$$ or it starts showing ads."
"That's what we always do," says the CTO. "Why are we gonna load all that useless crap on these poor people's machines? If they got a Dill Computer, it will already have fifteen different sample packages. If they have a Mac... well, who cares about 2% of the damn market, especially since the only software they use is Bath House Video Chat."
"Yeah, but 34% of them either have a corporate move, get AIDS and die, or flake out and discover themselves in some non-digital way within the year," says the director. "We gotta have a one-year contract to really show some profit."
"How do we make such huge sums of money then?" asks a confused intern.
"Well, the biggest chunk of our audience are normal people, who install the damn thing once and pay $30/month to check their email for the next five years. We make bunches offa them... it's everyone else who loses us money."
"Why not avoid marketing to them?" says the intern.
"Can't," says the director. "We put a sign that says 'Morons Do Not Apply' and we're going to get sued more ways that Britney Spears has taken dongs... we try to sell it to smart people, and someone's gonna say we're elitist and then no one's going to buy it. It's a sad fact of life that we need the idiots as much as they need us, or something like that, son."
"OK," says Bigglesmountain. "So we put all this crap in the package but, what if there's an existing version or worse a competitor for one of these softwares?"
"Have our stuff do a militant install," says the Director. "Nuke the configuration files, then put ours in, and if their other stuff doesn't work, too bad."
"We're going to need to include versions of the network code for several versions of the operating system," says Bigglesmountain.
"Crap," says the director. "Well, all of these operating systems can use the version from 1998... so have that in there. If it overwrites something newer, it should work -- but let's not think too hard on that..."
In Rupture, Washington, the board of Macrosloth, Inc. is sitting down to a scrumptious meal of $12 donuts from the luxury Thai organic donut shop. "So about this new operating system..." says Toby Ballher, CFO and CTO and OOD of the company.
Bob Goetz, CEO, looks back at him. "We were gonna include an anti-virus," he says. "But it's gonna screw up our supplier relationship with Aborton Anti-Virus, so we gotta leave that off. Ditto the better text editor, the non-retarded firewall (NRFW), the advanced file system... we put any of those in and it cuts out our business partners."
"How about the OS itself?" asks Ballher.
Goetz shrugs. "It's an update to the previous," he says. "We had eleventy-billion lines of code, and really the task is impossible in the time we had, so we picked the top ten things from the consumer survey and fixed them."
"Ease of use, of course," says Goetz. "That means nothing and the customers don't get more specific, so we added colored icons... made the windows bigger... use only monosyllables in the help file. They also wanted a better version of the card game that comes with it."
"Enough!" says Ballher. "I've seen the salaries and resumes around here -- we're hiring the best in the industry. Why's this so damn difficult?"
"Contradictory objectives," says Goetz. "It has to run on all sorts of hardware, and half the time the consumer 'saved' money and bought some half-baked no-name from the third world, put together in six months and full of errors... so it has to be dumb as a brick in how it deals with hardware and should ignore most problems. Um, and people are going to install all sorts of software on it. This is a desktop computer. That means they'll put everything from $5,000 CAD programs to freeware utilities that show the time in flashing colors with animated hearts and dancing bears, so it's gotta be super-tolerant of that... also, there's really not that much of a mystery here, so we have to keep adding features to keep them feeling like they're getting 'new' technology. The basics of what we're doing haven't changed since the 1970s... a PDP-11 and our OS have more in common than cars and trucks do to each other. Oh, and market forces... we have to make it cheap, reliable, easy, and on time, all of which are contradictory objectives. We have to include stuff that the average moron repair person can fix and charge money for, and a bunch of development tools so the average idiot programmer can spend a lot of time screwing with it. But really the basic question is that there is no objective. We make an operating system for users who don't know what they want, but demand what they think they want, and since we have no idea what they use it for, we throw everything and the kitchen sink into it and hope it doesn't crash."
"But these developers," says Ballher. "Don't they get pissed with this piece of junk?"
"Hell no," says Goetz. "They love it. They can charge for hours and hours of time just fixing the time display. Their job remains so frustrating, boring, tedious, illogical, and driven by memorization that no one else wants it, so they've got job security. And open source software? Those people are so busy wanking off to their own abilities that they don't notice their software is just as bad. And Apple? Their hardware is such junk that even if their OS wasn't bug-riddled the machines would crash constantly. So we've got no competition, which means there's still no objective, so we keep pasting together this collection of random shit and shipping it out to the poor idiots."
"Christ," says Ballher. "I should've gone into major league baseball."
So Quincy and Lucretia Consumer get this new computer, see, and they take it home and plug it in.
Right away the thing has problems. "Why's it loading so slow?" asks Lucretia.
Quincy looks at what the operating system's running. "Holy crap! It's got 41 applications already running, all little things. StealPlayer Audio, some DVD burning, a color picker from Abode, two virus-checkers, two software-updaters, chat programs and video cams, the Dill idiot-proof remote upgrade/fixit facility, the wireless network bandwidth monitor, the consumer suggestion indicator, bug reporter, Boogle tool bar, dancing bears and flashing colors... no wonder it's running slowly. Only 30% of our system memory is free for our programs. The rest is running this garbage! And then there's stuff the operating system has running that we'll never use, like file and printer sharing, remote object linking, messenger services, communion with pagan gods file system..."
Then they plug in the high speed access. "It's got a CD," says Lucretia.
"Probably crap," says Quincy, "but if I'm masochistic enough to live in a liberal democracy, there's no reason I wouldn't install this." He puts it in. Flashing colors, lights, tons of crap being copied to the hard drive... "Now it's crashing," says Lucretia.
"Well, it just installed another forty apps," says Quincy. "Photo uploader, printer tester, ass wiper... couldn't we do all this stuff ourselves? This isn't mal-ware, and it isn't spyware, it's moron-ware."
"You know, it's weird," says Lucretia. "This computer now runs as slowly as the old one, which is going to be 64.2 lbs of toxic garbage in a landfill, since no one wants to spend time retrofitting old machines that are statistically likely to fall apart within six months anyway. I mean, how many of these hard drives last past five years?"
"The good ones do," says Quincy.
"Yeah, but those cost $20 wholesale," says Lucretia. "The drive in this cost $11. We probably saved $1.40 on the purchase price by getting the cheaper drive."
"Well, what do we do now?" says Quincy.
"I'm calling someone," says Lucretia. "He's an ex-lover but he's allright, I promise." She hangs up the phone a minute later.
"Hope this guy's good," says Quincy.
Suddenly there's a hammering on the door. Lucretia swings it wide and there's Vijay Prozak, a two-foot blunt hanging out of his mouth, banging on the door with an M-60 machine gun. "Heard ya got the computer AIDS," he says, then mumbles incoherently. He drops the gun on the floor ("if I'm going to shoot the computer in frustration, I'm going to kill it dead pronto") and blows thick resinous smoke around the room... Lucretia notes her head is filled with helium and the voices of singing children, the children she did not have because between the career and cable, who has time? -- Quincy watches the world stretch away from him like a rubber band and come back, quivering as if underwater... -- the family Chihuaha named Child/Sanity Surrogate hides under the bed in its SS uniform, imagining that the Hebrew National man has come to put a bun around it and sell it to tourists...
Prozak kicks over the extra chair. "No multitasking for you," he says. More thick smoke, tinged with tobacco, floods through the room like an errant orgasm. He squints at the computer and begins writing in Latin on a prescription pad.
"What's that?" asks Quincy.
Prozak shows him the Latin, which has magically modulated into Sanskrit... "Komonova Anhavjaselphagudtijm," he says. "Means 'totally laden with useless, parasitic shit' in Hindu."
"Oh," says Quincy. Prozak produces a Possessed Seven Churches CD and whips out a CD-R from under it. "Stripped down version of the OS," he leers. "Got none of the 'free' software, and none of that Communist open-source shit either. Those people nag at me like Christians... don't want no Communists in my car. No Christians either."
In thirty minutes, he has installed the operating system and the four programs the Consumers actually need -- word processing, internet browser, e-mail and MP3/video player -- and is stubbing out the remains of his blunt. "You smoked the whole thing?" asked Lucretia. Prozak shrugs. "Gave some to Quincy," he nods at the fallen form.
He explains later over cocktails. "See, the basic operating system isn't that bad. The engineers at Macrosloth aren't bad. It's the marketing department. When you take away the cute visual styles, the extra gimmicks and flashing colors, and all the junk software, the computer really is a simple gadget and it works well. The OS is basically stable... the word processor almost so... the email client reasonable... and this browser, Opera, was created by some guy who hated both corporate software and open source, because he realized that like Communism and Capitalism what matters is the intent and goal behind the society more than its methods. His goal was a stable browser. Same with the guy who made this SSH client, PuTTy... or the text editor, EditPad. These guys didn't go Open Source or Croesian wealthy with the corporates. They just responded to function! So I took out the junk, turned off all the moron functions to make the OS look easy to use to idiots, put in some quality software, and kept everything as simple as possible. Now if Dill Computers had just gone with the original quality parts, it could have been as long as a decade before this fifty pounds of toxic crap hits the landfill... if all of our industry were designed around common sense like Opera and EditPad and PuTTy, the whole thing would be upgradable and would have reached this state of technology a decade ago. We could have saved... billions of pounds of toxic junk from the landfill..."
Quincy shakes his head. "So I don't understand... is the evil Mr. Goetz to blame?"
"Hell no," says Prozak. "He's just another pawn. He happens to be the richest one. The problem is our expectations. Instead of figuring out what the goals of our society are, and designing our technology to match, we try to make it everything to everyone and thus it becomes nothing to no one. And in our confusion, we let the makers of garbage software stick in all their crap, because more means a better deal (people "think"), and there's lots of others just trying to make a buck who get their hand in on the gig, and the end result is a big confused mess. Take away as much of the confusion as possible, and it works, but only about 1% of the market knows how to do that, so they don't count on spreadsheets. If we had a smart leader, he or she might define some of these objectives, and then we could cut out the 60-80% of this experience that's not relevant to getting anything done at all. But, that kind of realism is offensive," he finished.
"Why?" asks Lucretia.
"To take the world seriously is to accept death," says Prozak. "It also means seeing ourselves as something other than the center of the universe. That bothers most (99%) of all humans. We would rather be self-important up until the day we all die together than plan for the future. It's part of the natural regression of technological society. Technology makes life easy, so we have no goal... so we do what is profitable and ignore what is real... common sense is dead. And hell, why do we worry; the consequences are for our grandchildren to worry about." He looked at Lucretia's dry womb. "Or those of our neighbors from less developed nations, I guess."
Prozak lights another blunt and continued. "See, to be starving, to be striving for a society, that means everyone's on the same page: build or die. But when you've had society around for a while, people get used to the idea that there's food in grocery stores... medical care available for a few $$$... television and social lives to be attended to. They detach from reality. They detach from nature. To them, 'nature' is some mowed lawn with a few ceremonial palm trees. That same process afflicts the computer industry. Everyone is trying to do what is most popular, a kind of utilitarianism that makes King Individual out of each citizen, yet because it considers them together, makes an average of everything and then adds in all sorts of irrelevant stuff."
He fixes them with a cold eye. "It's not just computers that are laden with extra garbage," he says. "Most of what we talk about in this society, worry about, isn't reality. It's neurotic and it's distracting. But still, we think it's better than facing death, our own inadequacies... the inner world that is impervious to all but the daring. And that's truly the last frontier." He looks down at the blunt, which had vanished in his powerful inhale.
"Everybody's just passing the buck, cruising on the past," says Quincy. "We built all this... and now we're letting it all go. And for what?"
"Well, gotta go. And as they say, when you gotta go... but you know it's comforting to think that, after our society descends into the third world and ruins itself with industrial poisons, something will succeed us. Giant mutant frogs, talking mosquitoes, telepathic dolphins. The great thing about nature is that it keeps trying, and its creatures are sensible enough to kill parasites on sight instead of waiting for them to outnumber and outvote the few smart ones."
With that, he vanishes into the night, leaving behind a scent of sweat, black bean tacos and pungent, aromatic marijuana.
May 27, 2006