The luddites at Microsoft

Sam Smith, 2011

ON THIS DATE in 1811, Ned Ludd and friends smashed weaving machines in effort to preserve jobs for the workers. Last weekend your editor observed the anniversary by attempting to recover from the ill effects of a smashed machine, in this case a computer.
It occurred to me, as I toiled away on the minutia of data retrieval, that the Luddite tradition was alive and well at Microsoft, only rather than the manufacturing equipment being the target, it is now the final product. And rather than destroying machinery in order to permit employees to retain old ways, Microsoft employees are destroying machines with delayed fuses in order to force the rest of us into new ways. They have taken the old scheme of planned obsolescence and combined it with chaos theory to create vicious and unpredictable interruptions in our lives. And because of the high volume of calls, they can’t speak to us about it right now.

I know of no machine I have owned from my first Lionel train to my last car that ever displayed as many manifestations of ill health as the average computer. Further, while I have lost cars to thieves, collisions with errant cows, and old age, I have never had one crash in the totally inexplicable manner of a computer.

And so it was that during the past three days, I have made one visit each to Radio Shack, Staples, and Office Depot and two to Comp USA. I have had two lengthy conversations with Sony Technical Support and four with Checkfree. I have cursed my carelessness, gloried in unexpected gems still on my high selective backup discs, and been amazed at how many files one man can create between computer upgrades.

Even though Sony Technical Support assured me that there was no hope for my machine short of wiping clean the hard disc, I discovered a $50 wonder from On Track that allowed me to delve into the mysteries of DOS for the first time in years.

And so I sat for hours in front of a 13″ black sky, filling it with alphanumeric constellations and feeling a bit like God and a bit like a damn fool. Somewhere in an unused corner of my mind the difference between DIR W and DIR P still lurked and as time wore on I found the uses of *.* and its variations slowly returning. I could, despite the contrary assurances of Sony, retrieve modest sized files as long as I remembered what was in them, based on the truncated nomenclature of DOS in which WHITEWATER SCANDALS CHAPTER 10 becomes WHITEWA~.DOC.

I’ve done as much as I can for the moment and the old machine will sit behind me for a month or so in case I can remember other goodies still hidden on it. If, when I reformat it, it still works, it will be exiled to my home where the present occupant lacks a shift key.
Meanwhile, I have a new machine. Which means I have moved from Windows 2000 to Windows XP, which means that (a) my old printer doesn’t work with it (b) the old printer cable doesn’t work with it and (c) I no longer can sneak on an old Excel program whose serial number I lost but worked fine except for a series of error messages. These are not revelations that arrived simultaneously, but were spaced with annoying distance across the past three days. And they all cost money.

My wife tells me I am far too stingy about all this, but I can’t get over the feeling that one of the world’s richest men ought to be able to manufacture an operating system that lasts at least as long as my Plymouth minivan, which not only is happily in its seventh year but has outlasted its own brand name.

Instead, I am forced by the reverse Luddites of Microsoft to upgrade when all I want to do is just want to keep on trucking. I don’t believe it is really Bill Gates’ business to decide when I should improve my lot in life, and it is certainly not his privilege to do so in a totally unannounced fashion.

At the very least, he could not be so damn patronizing about it. With each new Windows upgrade I find my work increasingly interrupted by strange cartoon creatures making gratuitous suggestions, balloons telling me the obvious, and formerly useful space taken up by visual therapy guiding me towards purportedly rational computer behavior. In time, I remove most of these invasions of privacy and sanity and get the machine back to looking as much like Windows 95 as possible. Still, each new edition presents novel challenges; I have already been peremptorily ordered a number of times to send an “error report” to Microsoft. But since I bought an operating system and not a long term relationship, I have simply ignored the command.

Meanwhile, I love my minivan more than ever. I have never had to have a conversation with Heather or Justin in technical support in order to get to the end of the block, it has no funny creatures leaping out at me, most of the time it does its job, and, best of all, when it doesn’t feel well, not only does it usually warn me in time, there are scores of people in my town alone who know what to do about it and have it ready for me by the end of the day. Would that computers worked as well.

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