My iNightmare

‘Why don’t I have a mobile, much less an iPhone or a BlackBerry? While I can afford the economic expense, I cannot afford the emotional expense when it doesn’t work’

Apparently, kids now spend an average of seven hours a day operating electronic gadgets. A theory: they spend 6.5 of those hours trying to get this high-tech whathaveyou to work. For gizmos have an inbuilt drag that I call the Malfunction Tax. It’s what those rave technology reviews won’t tell you: just how much of your time an iPad will eat when your shiny new acquisition goes haywire.

Fortunately, the solid fortnight of 2008 that I sacrificed when twice within two months my laptop imploded from the dread “blue screen event” has receded to a bad dream — both meltdowns entailing reloading the data, software and operating system from scratch. But my ongoing battle with three-in-one printers is still fresh. 

Some 20 times I downloaded the scanner program for my Epson Stylus SX600FW — a hardly snappy handle that, tellingly, I can now rattle off from memory — and the download always failed. Each time I acted on another ingenious fix from Bangalore, I was obliged to delete what sad little tidbits of the program might have stuck in the computer, a process akin to poking raspberry seeds one by one from a sieve. Since I got trapped into an anthropomorphised struggle-to-the-death that other owners of obstreperous objects will recognise — I would not allow this hulk of plastic to defeat me — that three-in-one must have collectively cost me a 40-hour work-week.

Bangalore finally announced that my scanner didn’t work — a determination that you rarely wrest from techno-geeks, and that you are only awarded after jumping through so many hoops that you could try out for the Olympics. Returning the Epson entailed dragging it all the way to Walworth, south-east London, and I reluctantly assessed that its 2ft by 3ft box would not fit on my bicycle. Calculating that for the time I’d spent on this £140 paperweight I might have earned ten times it’s price freelancing, I simply bought another one: an HP Office Jet Pro 8500 Wireless, whose unwieldy moniker I have also memorised — alas.

Now, I bought the HP only because some online wag claimed that you could simply plug it into my exact computer and it worked. An appealing fantasy. I’ll spare you the intermediate suffering, but as of now the HP will only scan on WiFi; when it’s connected by USB, I might as well have leashed my computer to the dog. Three of the four programs that should be able to run the machine refuse to believe I have an HP. Black-and-white photos will not import even through WiFi (“unrecognised file format”). Bangalore’s raspberry-seed-poking remedy runs to three pages.

Everyone has these stories, which aren’t captivating individually but which in their totality limn an ugly and too rarely painted picture. Each time we buy another gizmo, we’re not only committed to hours of tremblingly assembling its delicate snap-together plastic bits, loading its software and learning its often demanding technical protocols, but we’re prospectively surrendering yet more hours of aggravation when despite our dutiful decoding of mockingly sparse instructions it fails to function properly. Thus all these dazzling inventions are far more costly than their price tags suggest. Why don’t I have a mobile, much less an iPhone or a BlackBerry? While I can afford the mere economic expense of the accessory, I cannot afford the temporal and emotional expense when it doesn’t work.

The more gadgets promise to do for us, the more complex they grow, and thus the more fragile and the more likely to fail. Given the frequency with which whole businesses are paralysed due to some obscure IT crash, the Malfunction Tax surely costs Western economies billions per year. So maybe they should print warnings on digital packaging, just as on ciggies: “Do not purchase unless able to spare time and hair-tear when device craps out.”

All this newfangled junk costs us in spiritual terms, too, if only because we don’t understand it. I don’t mean we don’t know how to “right click” to retrieve a menu, I mean we don’t understand it. A passage in my new novel addresses this very regression: “Collectively, the human race was growing ever more authoritative about the mechanics of the universe. Individually, the experience of most people was of accelerating impotence and incomprehension.” So gadgets aren’t cheap. Unless you’re a microchip whiz, every new digital doohickey in your life taunts you with its humiliating inscrutability. You’ve bequeathed to one more modern magic lantern the capacity to make you feel stupid. Since every new thingamajig may capriciously go on the fritz but only after having insinuated itself as indispensable, you’ve just handed another inanimate chunk of plastic the power to make you cry. 

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