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On a Personal Note: Wireless technology with cables.

My wife has recently bought a new laptop. It’s a nice little thing, very much like mine; but unlike mine it doesn’t have wifi built in. So my wife bought a USB wifi gadget thingy, and it doesn’t work.

That is to say, it works, sort of, depending on your definition of “works”. It tries to connect up to our wifi network, bless its little cotton socks, but it doesn’t actually succeed. It never gets its IP address and gets stuck in an endless loop, for ever trying to connect but doomed every time to miserable failure.

To be honest, it’s beyond us. And before you all write in with suggestions about how we can get it to work or checking on the net for driver updates and goodness knows what, we’ve tried all of that. My wife has asked dozens of computer experts she happens to know, and they have each come up with a solution that differs from all the others in all but one respect: none of them work. Meanwhile, my laptop just has to be switched on an it automatically connects to our home wifi network, no questions asked. My wife’s just sits there banging its head against an electronic brick wall.

This is just the latest in a long line of technology-related problems we’ve had. You don’t even want to know what happened when we once tried to get a Windows XP machine to talk to a Windows 98 machine. And when I am knee-deep in cables and scouring the net for information about xyqrf.dll or this-will-blow-up-your-processor.exe, I can’t help but remember the good old days when I got my first computer.

Plug and play in the 1980s

My first computer was a tiny plastic affair called the ZX81 and the basic model had one kilobyte of RAM. To set it up you plugged it into a TV set and a power supply, turned on the TV and tuned it in. No installation procedures to run, no product keys to enter, no worrying about what information some monoloithic company will get their hands on when you activate the software.

True, there wasn’t much you could really do with a ZX81 except to say, “Look at me, I have a computer, I’m cool,” and hope to heck that the 16k RAM-pack didn’t wobble before you were finished playing one of those desparately slow clunky black-and-white games. But we had dreams: we dreamed that one day we would have computers to take the drudgery out of some of life’s repetitive tasks. We dreamed that by the year 2000 we would be able to tell a computer to take dictation; and we also dreamed that such computers would be even easier to set up than a ZX81. But then, back in 1981, we dreamed that half of us would be jetting about the solar system in private little space-shuttles.

What we got instead was a whole new vocabulary to describe all the problems we would face: spyware, hard-disk crash, blue screen of death… All rather depressing stuff really, and proof that we’ve merely replaced one set of problems with a completely different set of problems.

Deforestation from the comfort of your own home

Does anyone remember the “paperless office”? This was the dream of the 70s: that one day computers would take over all our paperwork and we would never have to print stuff out again — it would be stored on disk. Somehow, we never got to the “never have to print stuff out” stage, but instead entered the realm of desktop publishing. Desktop publishing, for those of you who have never had any experience of it, goes something like this:

  1. With infinite patience, carefully design and lay out a little booklet.
  2. Print a draft copy.
  3. Notice that the pages are all in the wrong order.
  4. Fiddle with settings and try again.
  5. Notice that half the graphics aren’t printing properly.
  6. Fiddle with settings and try again.
  7. Paper jam!
  8. With great force and frustration, rip jammed paper out of printer. Reset and try again.
  9. Notice that the layout is now all messed up after you’ve fiddled about with the settings.
  10. Fiddle with settings and try again.
  11. Discover an embarrassing typo on every page.
  12. Correct typos and try again.
  13. Send copy to proof-reader.
  14. Receive copy back with a new embarrassing typo underlined in red ink on every page.
  15. Correct typos and print new draft copy.
  16. Paper jam!
  17. Give up, and turn on TV just in time to hear depressing report on state of rain forests.

That, at least, is the rewboss method of desktop publishing and has occasionally had me knee-deep in torn and crumpled sheets of paper.

Another cable guy

And another thing. Do you know how many cables we have draped over items of furniture all around the house? Enough, I have calculated, to make a catapult big enough to send the moon flying towards Jupiter. We have network cables and USB cables and telephone cables and power cables… and yet, funnily enough, never the cable we’re actually looking for at any one time. And despite the fact that we have a wifi network, all our computers have masses and masses of cables attached to them, some of them actually required.

We could, of course, splash out on things like cordless mice, but cordless mice aren’t very good, interfere with each other and are likely to get lost (at least mice with cords remain attached to the computer). And every tiny little piece of equipment requires its own power supply. Plugged into one powerstrip, we have a computer, a monitor, speakers, a printer and a router. At least, I think so: right now, I’m afraid to look.

It’s a funny thing, being so disaffected with technology, because basically I am a sort of gizmo fan. I like gizmos — technological gadgets with sleek looks and blinking lights. It’s just that they haven’t quite delivered on their promise. Or else they’ve made life subtly worse: those communicator devices we would all wear on our wrists became mobile phones that merely meant that we were never safe from insistent clients with mad deadlines, and also tend to get lost between the sofa cushions.

So, rant over. Enough. I shall now settle in front of the fire with a glass of finest Scotch.

Er… no, I won’t. We don’t have a fire: we have central heating.

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