I’m an early adopter of technology, esp. software. It’s an essential component of my self-image that began with mathematics in grade school. Back in the 70’s I entered early computer businesses after college and made my entire career in a variety of young companies in the software, support, and consulting wings of the tech industry.
Outside of business, in my personal tool kit, I eagerly embraced home computers for general use, and specialist devices and software for hobbies like music and photography. I immersed myself in evolving standards for good user design and knowledge management philosophies. I studied the engineering principles of mainframe operating systems. By today’s standards I may not be a tech expert, but I am, by god, an experienced technology user.
And I am paying for it. Every day. With the only currency that matters — time.
And so are you.
An early lost goal
Remember sub-second response time? That was the promise that any computer that can react quickly enough will come to seem like an internal mental reaction. You would be able to treat the computer like a psychologically immersive responsive tool, the same way a musical instrument feels.
Back in the green-screen days, before Windows and its ilk, it was possible to interact with computers at maximum human speed — as fast as you could type commands, they could be implemented, and keyboard buffers allowed you to control what command went to what program. That was sub-second response time — it felt like the computer was an extension of your body.
Ever since, computers have settled for becoming an extension of your intellect, instead. The more powerful the response, the more we expect it to be delayed by internet and other network latency delays, by software complexity, by the loss of keyboard type-ahead. We are grateful for the more flexible and powerful results, but we have lost the ability to treat the machine as a direct tool, one that convinces us it is an extension of our body by its immediacy. The required sub-second response time is an ever-receding goal, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Today’s computer technology goals
Power is the goal today. At one time, computer technology was positioned as “time saving”, just like kitchen appliances. Certainly you can do things that would be infeasible without computer technology and much more quickly than through manual efforts. But there is also an ongoing cost in time that we ignore. We pay a tax for our computer servants.
This tax is something we feel as an annoyance and rarely focus on. Every day, it seems to be something — update this program, change that password, fix a broken link, shop for a plugin, research a new tool. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that this is a bigger time sink than I quite realize.
Let me try to quantify it…
I’m currently running Windows 7. In my control panel there are about 198 installed programs, of which about 75 are important applications that I pay attention to, the ones I would install on any new laptop (details below). The rest are operating system programs, comes-with software, miscellaneous maintenance or connectivity tools, and so forth — the sort of thing that usually only makes its presence known when installing new software.
I also have important phone and tablet apps — about 20 of them.
In addition to my important applications, I maintain computer-mediated relationships with banks, bill-paying services, brokers, Paypal, and others, all of which change their behavior with some frequency and require maintenance to maintain the computer-mediated relationships. WordPress and Feedly are also fundamental online tools for me. There are about 25 of these.
So, I have about 120 applications/partners that I care about as part of my high-level computer-mediated ecosystem. I’m a modern tech-savvy citizen. Perhaps you are, too.
Maintenance of a computer-mediated ecosystem
How frequently does one of these entities change? I can expect a software update at least annually, and for many of these it’s several times per year, depending on how they bundle their changes. Banks and other partners seem to tinker with something (and break the automated connectivity) at least once or twice per year. My best estimate is that, overall, they average four changes each year.
That’s unfortunate, since 120*4 = 480, and there are only 365 days in a year. Thus it seems clear to me that every single day (if they were conveniently spread out) there’s at least one fledgling in my nest calling loudly to have its mouth stuffed with an update, a fix, a new password — whatever it takes to make it shut up.
How long does it take to satisfy the demand? Well, that depends. Updates are quick, unless the process breaks something, in which case the diagnosis/repair/rollback can seem endless. Many updates can be ignored, thankfully, but not all of them. For argument’s sake, I’ll call it 20 minutes, on average.
So, 480 demands * 1/3 hour = 160 hours. Really? 4 work weeks? Just to keep things alive and healthy, not to reap startling new features and functionality?
The price we pay
What can we say about the time-saving aspects of computer appliances that cost us four work weeks in a year? I can only think of it as a sort of tax. That’s not a perfect comparison, since no organization benefits from the time I give up. But calling it friction, which is perhaps more accurate, doesn’t capture the outrage I feel well enough.
For my entire life, the power of software has been outstripping the human efficiency of using it in our daily lives. In science and industry, on a case by case basis, we can easily quantify the cost/benefit ratio, but that’s not so simple for personal use.
Would I give up any of my computer tools? No, probably not. But I continue to look for ways to simplify them and make them more efficient (and that costs me time, too). Every housewife looks for the best arrangement of kitchen appliances whenever she moves into a new house, but they don’t have to be rearranged or replaced daily.
Part of what I achieve is true time-saving — it takes less time to reconcile banking using software than going over monthly statements. But much more of what I achieve is more power — I can do things I couldn’t have done any other way. It’s unsurprising that more power should have a cost
Let’s just be sure that the power we gain justifies the time we spend and the lost-opportunity cost of using the time differently.
List of my important desktop/laptop applications (75)
Basic directory, connectivity, backup, environment, mail, and conversion tools (16)
- ABBYY FineReader for ScanScap [scanner OCR]
- Acronis True Image
- Directory Opus
- Filezilla [FTP]
- Google Chrome
- Microsoft Explorer
- Microsoft Outlook [email]
- Microsoft Security Professionals
- Mozilla Firefox
- SyncBackPro [backup]
Gadgets, minor tools (9)
- Alarm Clock
- Atmosphere Deluxe
- Breevy [keystroke manager]
- DeLorme Street Atlas
- Google Earth
- Legacy [geneaology]
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Stardock Fences [desktop organization]
Games (single player) (7)
- Sudoku 9981
- GoldWave [soundfile editor]
- MusicXML to ABC Converter
- Neuratron PhotoScore
Photography and image manipulation (5)
- Adobe Photoshop
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
- DxO Optics Pro
- Filter Forge
Writing, document, and related office and information tools (29)
- Adobe Acrobat Writer/Reader
- Aeon Timeline [plotting fiction]
- Amazon Kindle [Amazon ebook database]
- Calibre [ebook database]
- CC3 [mapmaking for fiction] and related programs (9)
- FreeMind [mind map]
- Kindle Previewer
- Libre Office
- Microsoft Access
- Microsoft Office Professional [Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc.]
- Microsoft Office Visio Professional [layout design]
- Microsoft OneNote
- Microsoft Project Professional [task management]
- Quickbooks Pro
- Scapple [mind map]
- Todoist [task management]