Cyber Breakdown

     It's not that things go wrong that's so frustrating. It's they way they go wrong that drives us crazy. I feel like the guy in the movie "WestWorld" who finds out what happens when things go wrong where things can never go wrong.

     My 1973 Volkswagon beetle used to break down, and so does my similar-vintage hifi gear, alas. There were specific steps taken for diagnosis and repair, steps within the realm of normal knowledge (and maybe above-average intelligence). We detected a failure, used symptoms to diagnose a cause, planned a repair, and fixed the problem.


     My friend Jerome bought a fancy new Dodge car circa 1984. He was so happy with his new, computer-controlled toy. One winter day, while waiting at a red light with a fogged up windshield, he punched the DEFROST button and his new, computer-controlled toy leapt into the intersection. With both feet on the brake he was able to stop the car. Maybe you can figure it out, maybe it's obvious to you what happened, but it certainly wasn't obvious to him or me (talented engineers both of us). In their engineering wisdom, one group of designers decided that the windshield defroster would work better if the air conditioning were deployed to make the air drier. Another group decided that turning on the air conditioning should add some throttle to compensate for the extra load the air conditioning puts on the engine. The third part of the mystery was simply that somebody was overzealous in setting this compensation. So Jerome's car leapt into a busy intersection on a winter day because the air conditioning was not correctly calibrated.


     I was in a movie theater recently where the movie stopped playing. (I finally found a movie playing where the audience conversation did not completely obscure the sound track, but that's another story.) I have had that happen in the good-old-analogue days, too. The film might break once in a blue moon. This time the all-digital projector system immediate started playing an advertisement for the theater chain while a large white square appeared reminding somebody to change the filter. Of course, there was nobody in the projection booth watching for this filter-reminder message since the whole point of all-digital, computer-controlled systems is that we don't need humans watching over them.


     I bought a digital-video-disk (DVD) player. I expected it to work a lot like my compact-disk (CD) player which works at the press of a button and stops working at the press of another button. I can press buttons to select tracks on a CD and to search within a track. Sometimes it skips and I have to play a special CD with a brush to clean it.

     A friend warned me that a CD player is designed as a piece of consumer electronics and a DVD player is designed as a computer. He's right, alas, and the differences are not flattering to the DVD. Maybe something is wrong with my player, but I think it's just the way they're designed. Sometimes it stops when I press a button and it just hangs there, totally unaffected by any other button I might press after that. The only cure for the DVD paralysis is a power cycle, turning the unit off and then back on.

     Recently I was watching a movie with the microwave oven on nearby. Never mind the electro-magnetic radiation issues of microwave ovens, its most obvious emission is the sound of its fan. I can live with a whirring fan for ten minutes to heat my dinner, but I decided to turn on the captions so I could read the dialogue even when it was spoken softly. After some playing around, I decided I preferred the TV-set captions to the DVD captions and turned off the captions after flipping the menu option through French and Spanish.

     Now here's the cool part. The dialogue captions were gone, but any sign in the show was super-titled in French. So when the camera panned to a GAS station, the white letters on top of the picture said "L'Essence." I fiddled around with remote for a few minutes and decided having extraneous French supertitles was easier than turning the DVD player off and searching for my place in the show.

     Add to that DVD-power-cycle hassle that they won't let me just sit down and play a DVD. First I have to watch an FBI warning about video piracy. Presumably I'll be interrogated by Agents Mulder and Scully if I try to copy the disk. Then I have to watch a two-minute intro, a montage to sell me the TV show I already paid for. Only then am I offered a menu of choices.

Telephone Support

     Nowhere has the computer become an instrument of psychological torture more than the telephone. First, they have developed automated callers to harass me at all hours of the day and night with sales calls. I got a series of FAX calls between 2:30 and 4:00 in the morning to entice me to buy stock from one company. If I no longer wanted their "newsletter," then they gave me an automated number to call, which worked the third or fourth day I tried it. The machines don't hook up a human being to the call until they determine from voice sounds that a human being has answered the telephone at my end.

     I eliminated a tremendous amount of that traffic with the TeleZapper, a device that fakes out their electronic intrusion by playing the first tone of the number-out-of-service recording.

     At the other end, heaven help anybody who wants human assistance from a company over the telephone. When is the last time you have called any decent-sized company and not had to go through a maze of touch-tone menus. And, of course, we're exhorted to listen to the entire list because "our menus have changed."

Cyber Run Amok

     The wonderful thing about cybernetics is that it allows machines to perform repetitive functions that we humans don't feel like doing. With a community of sharp analysists and crack programmers (not likely these days, another story), we can have machines support decisions that are hard or tedious for humans. This is the dream a generation of smart people worked for.

     Somehow it hasn't happened. Things broke then, things break now, but there is a qualitative difference in how they break. It isn't dramatic failure like the HAL 9000 computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's more like a creeping cyber-crud.

     It gets back to my concept of perception arbitrage. People would not have made the decision to automate stuff if they knew how bad it would be, people won't admit they made such a terrible mistake, so we pay a community of so-called experts to fix what we won't admit is broken. We have an entire industry making its living on the difference, the arbitrage, between the dreams we expected from our cyber-technology and the reality we got stuck with.

     Look at the bright side. Non-cybernetic systems will be fresh, new, and exciting in twenty years and those of us who are still around will have cushy jobs re-inventing the systems that we consider quaint and old-fashioned today. The catch is we have to put up with this cyber breakdown for another twenty years to get there.

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