That ever-elusive Techno-Mojo

I am currently left in a state of technical impotency. This, of course, is partly my own fault as I did choose to solely use Linux on my laptop. Linux is the computer equivalent of Doing It Yourself, even though the various distributions do try to make it a lot easier on the user, and it helps having an online forum where people are helpful with suggestions on how to solve your problems. Still, Linux fosters frustration like a little kitten (rather than Windows which relates to frustration like Sisyphos to his rock). And though the kitten can be nice at times, it tends to be infuriatingly cat-like (as in sprawling across the part of the newspaper that your trying to read, purring in the most relaxed self-satisfied way).

In this case, the kitten won’t allow me to upload my digital photo-documentation of my doings in Manchester for all the world to see.

The reason is that the network security here at the university is so tight. I can bring my laptop to the wireless hotspot and log on, but only to use the http protocols that web browsers use. I can not (for instance) log on to remote computers, download mail to my email client (I hate the clunky feel of a stuffed webmail account) or use Instant Messaging.

After several fruitless attempts to increase my internet privileges through the (totally unsupported) university secure connection, I am now dejectedly left in a state well-recognized among all but the most expert computer users (though all the real experts wouldn’t call themselves ‘users’ – more like ‘administrators’, ‘programmers’ or ‘hackers’):

It just doesn’t work

Generally, we want things to “just work”, if they don’t, we lose our technical potency, our techno-mojo, so to speak. Regaining this mojo usually involves a steep learning curve, testing different options, playing around with stuff, switching settings and being patient.
Most people don’t want to patiently try stuff, which is why I could get a job as a computer supporter: I didn’t need much specialised knowledge, I just needed a basic understanding of how users usually use computers, how computers usually respond, and how programs usually are designed. I’m no Microsoft or Apple-certified guru, I’m more of a computer pedagogue.

I may not know all about computers, but in most cases, I know enough to know what I don’t know. And then, it’s possible to find an answer.

I recently read a book called “Close to the Machine“, written by a longtime computer programmer. It describes the life of a pre-IT-bubble-burst software engineer and the thoughts and situations of her (yes, really! A girl!) working life. It is quite fascinating for me, as a non-programmer to read, especially as you get insight in some of the more mysterious dealings of computer lore.

She has this wonderful description of the ever-changing, furiously tumultuous world of computer technology, and how she (and everybody else) has to do their utmost to keep up. Her conclusion is worth repeating here:

The corollary of constant change is ignorance. This is not often talked about: we computer experts barely know what we’re doing. We’re good at fussing and figuring out. We function well in a sea of unknowns. Our experience has only prepared us to deal with confusion. A programmer who denies this is probably lying, or else densely unaware of himself.

The awareness of my own ignorance came to me eight years into my career. I was still working for the company that built the [database] software we were configuring at the AIDS project. I was having trouble getting a particular monitor to work with our software. I called the manufacturer of the monitor. I called the supplier of the keyboard. I called the compnay that wrote the device driver software, that built the mouse, that wrote the operating system. I received many answers, all contradictory. Somewhere through my fourth round of phone calls came to thoughts in horrifying succession. The first thought was: I suppose I know the answer better than anybody else in the world. The second was: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Over the years, the horrifying knowledge of ignorant expertise became normal, a kind of background level of anxiety that only occasionally blossomed into outright fear. Still, the fear was a great motivator. The desire to avoid humiliation was a strong concentrator of the attention. I even came to rely upon it. When I interviewed Danny, the dektop programmer, to work on the AIDS project, I knew he had less experience than he was letting on. I knew he was taking this job out of sheer will. But I hired him anyway. I did it because I saw fear in his eyes.

I told Mark, “The new guy is afraid.”

“Oh, good,” said Mark, “then he’ll work out nicely. If you’re not terrified in this profession, you really don’t know what you’re doing.”

I don’t have to be terrified, since nothing hangs in a thread whether I get these pictures online or not, but consider writing software for airlines, banks or credit card companies..


  1. We want pictures and we want them now!!! Cut the crap and install a proper program, as I know it there is allways some kind of problems with Linux.Even if Gates is a bad and very capitalistic person his program mostly works, and are able to correspond with the rest of the (waiting) world.Kjaerlig hilsen Laila

  2. I agree! We may not be terrified without your pictures, but we’re curious, and in dire need of something easily grasped on this otherwise very academic site…

    Have a nice weekend,

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