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Offbeat 26 January 2017

I might have written this column about current events, but the main player of the moment bores me. Rather than thinking about it or meditating on overblown trolls and bullies, I’d prefer to watch a cheap exploitation flick. Chances of me doing that are zero. Chances of me riffing on the other thing are less than zero for now.

The Internet is like Pandora’s box. It lets out all the evil and damaging stuff. You may immediately be thinking about racist sites and exploitative porn, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But there is another dark side to the thing.

Before the Internet, there used to be software that you could buy, and it would work, just like that. The time when that used to happen will probably go down in legend, sort of like the Garden of Eden and the happiness before the Fall.

If you spend 99 dollars on an old game from the dusty bottom of the bargain bin, you know for certain that you will need to download a couple of gigs from somewhere, which will take at least half a day, if not half a week. And to keep the thing running, you will need a bunch of ongoing patches and updates.

And it gets better…

It used to be that you could pay for the software once. At least it would be upgraded from time to time, and you would only buy a new software set every couple of years. Now, you have to subscribe to software on a monthly or annual basis. If I want to stay productive, my company has to pay through the nose, annually. Thanks to the Internet, companies have reached the conclusion that instead of charging once, they can charge again and again and again.

But wait… there’s more!

Remember the upgrades and patches, from a couple of paragraphs back? The miracle software that costs so much, every year, comes with counterproductive upgrades, every few months.

The incredible thing is that these upgrades leave effective software with ineffectual changes. I dread upgrades because about one in three throws me into complete disarray. The apparent convenience, and purported ‘great new’ functionality, are little more than a complete inconvenience. I have to find new ways to do the things that were easy in the past, and inevitably end up scratching through settings to restore common tools that were normal once upon a time.

Why? The only answer I can think of is that some glassy-eyed programmer needs to feel wanted, so repetitively reinvents stuff. Yet this programmer actually has no clue about the user experience.

Imagine that this notional programmer was asked to contemplate a hammer. By now it would be a shape constructed of paper, and we would be told that it is more convenient by virtue of weighing less, and being easier to pack in the toolbox because it is flat.

If you asked about its ability to hammer a nail, you would get a blank stare and a repetition of the story about weight and the benefits of its two-dimensional shape.

Does this riff seem over the top? I have seen some programmers remove a simple file copy function, and replace it with a ‘open-and-save-as’ function. Think about that for a few minutes, and I am sure you will understand why I get into homicidal rages, whenever I am confronted with an upgrade.

There is a culture of permissiveness towards this sort of product behavior. As far as I can tell, it comes from the idea of life-long learning. Life-long learning may be relevant in some instances, where there is a major breakthrough, but most of the time, minor innovators are so wrapped up in their minor visions, that they don’t grasp the idea that their ideas are actually so minor and often counterproductive that they should be avoided. Very often, the innovations, as in the ‘save-as’ mess aren’t informed by user experience either.

The permissiveness also stems from novelty. There are people out there who are so unproductive that they actually need change to alleviate the boredom of being underworked and having no material effect.

My year has begun with new product upgrades. I am unhappy and tense. I need to work, not relearn.

About The Author

Pierre Maré

Pierre Maré is a multi-awarded Namibian advertising strategist and copy writer. From 2004 to 2016 he wrote a weekly tongue-in-cheek column for the Namibia Economist, eventually amassing an impressive 590 articles over the almost 12-year period. This series of Offbeat is a digital rerun of his pieces that received the highest reader acclaim. - Ed.