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Information: technology, torture and totalitarianism

25 October 2015

On 8 October when I switched on my computer, the mother-board expired, and I knew instantly that I would have to buy another machine. I’m the sort of person that believes in hanging on to solutions to problems rather than finding new ones for the sake of novelty: I’ve lived in the same house (which suits me) for nearly a quarter of a century, and I’ve driven the same car for more than 21 years (a Mercedes I’ve had from new, and there’s nothing wrong with it). But as I’d had the computer since the days when Office 2003 was new, I realised I was living on borrowed time. And so I was fully backed up.

Or so I thought. It has taken me until today to get back to where I was on 7 October. Within half an hour of the blue screen, I had placed an order for a replacement machine. And learned how the computer industry has changed. Windows XP no longer exists, and so with a new computer and operating system you need not only new software (Office 2016, Photoshop and Acrobat, the cost of which alone exceed that of Dell’s highest priced desktop) but also new peripherals (my allegiance to my Canoscan 99950F with its brilliant de-screen filter is almost as strong as to my 1970s audio equipment, but you can’t get Windows 10 drivers from Canon). It’s not difficult to see that this is a cunning plan from the computer industry to boost revenues (as is the alarming switch from purchase to annual licence fees, which add up to vastly more for reluctant upgraders like me). Benjamin Franklin’s axe no longer hangs over this business.

This would be an unreadable post if I were to list the hundreds of problems I had to solve to get things to work. Suffice it to say that, despite calling in a brilliant chap who does all sorts of clever and hazardous things (involving cables inside the two machines: don’t try this at home) to facilitate the switchover, I was left with a great many niggling things to sort out. (I won’t give you his name as he’s mine!) When you buy a new car (not that I would know) you don’t have to specify the number of teeth in each gear, nor do you suffer the consequences of finding that your specs don’t mesh. Nor do this for weeks on end as work builds up, unattended to. Imagine needing to phone a plumber in an emergency, but being given not a phone number, but a series of super-fiendish Sudoku puzzles to work out each digit. You can find the answer, but the amusement of a single puzzle wears thin when you have so many to do.

The problems compound when you combine different types of software. When you run Acrobat, you find that it disables the automatic entire-word selection in Word (don’t ask: I had it cracked five years ago, but can’t remember how). You may think that a computer is just a word processor, but even a simple website requires an HTML editor (for some reason or other the character set I’ve used for years decided to print gibberish), an FTP client package (Ipswitch doesn’t run on Windows 10, and FileZilla has to be acquired with great care to avoid bundled malware) and an indexing package that involved me in months of development seven years ago. But the small independent software providers were for the most part resourceful, generous and intelligent in helping me when I got stuck. And before you throw away your Canoscan 9950F, there is a solution – but not one you’ll get from Canon.

But the big problems were with Microsoft itself, and its Office 2016 package. I was entirely happy with Office 2003: it did practically everything I needed (and what it didn’t do hasn’t been changed). But a great many things it did to, and which had become instinctive single-click tasks for me, no longer work the same way. Standard colours for example have been jazzed up by some designer: blue used to have RGB parameters of 0-0-255; it’s been replaced by 0-112-192. Maybe you don’t notice the difference; and you probably think it doesn’t matter (but it does if you have 25,000 hyperlinks that are automatically selected on colour).

While I can see why Microsoft thought that those changes would give a subliminal facelift to the package (although whether anyone buys it for such reasons rather than out of necessity like mine I rather doubt), others are clearly mistakes. Just try adding the “show field codes” command to the “quick access toolbar” in Word 2016. You may not know what I’m talking about, still less grasp the coding which makes this a vital tool in running the pastellists.com database. But this was sufficiently important to me (and sufficiently difficult to by-pass, although I eventually wrote a script to do so) that I braved the Microsoft tech support machine. Many hours later I connected with a human being who told me this feature had been disabled owing to popular demand (really???), but finally agreed to put me through to a senior professional support person (that did not happen).

And yet, and yet…

From the pre-historic mists of my last employment in a company (long, long before the days of BYOD, an acronym I had never heard of until a few days ago), I can recall being told on my first day that I could not use the company laptop for my own software. But I complained this meant I would have to travel with two computers…. The bitter conflict of the front-office prima donna with a hobby and the IT director in a large organisation promising savings in support staff was too long ago for me to recount with any enthusiasm, but it impressed upon me (and him) just how much we value the freedom to express ourselves through the choices that cause all the setup issues when you buy a new computer.

So isn’t Microsoft just offering me the flexibility I wanted? After all, if I don’t like the new, slightly pastelly blue as standard (what’s not to like?), I can always delve into the full custom selection and key in the RGB parameters I want.

But of course I won’t. And so, by offering me freedom wrapped up in choice inside the strait-jacket of default options, Microsoft has the ultimate totalitarian solution. The one that can’t be referred to any monopolies authority because it purports to offer choice. The one that need not answer the telephone or put you through to anyone that cares. Because they’ve got you. It’s not Big Blue any more, but Big Pastelly Blue.

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