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..