The Glass Seems Half Full to Me

Why is my computer always going wrong?

A lot of my clients have serious and urgent computer problems when they call me in, so it may not be too surprising that this is the kind of comment that I hear quite often.

Just to put this into perspective, though, a lot of my computer support clients do actually call me in for positive things such as training, help with upgrades, transfers to new computers and so on.

Laptop ProblemsNevertheless, it’s true that I’m often called in when there are problems and the client is not feeling too happy about being reliant on something that appears to go wrong all the time. In answer to the rather vague and sweeping question of “why are they always going wrong?” I often try to point out the opposite viewpoint: it’s a wonder that anything at all works in computers. It’s not the problems that surprise me, it’s the successes.

While I was doing a job on a client’s machine this morning I heard an email arrive on my phone. It was a client advising me that he’d paid two invoices by BACS. Within 30 seconds I was looking at my account details (again using my phone) and confirmed that a payment had, indeed, been received. 30 seconds later I had also viewed copies of the invoices on my phone (these were automatically sent to my Evernote account when I created them). Thus, I was able to confirm that the amount paid was not only safely received and credited to my balance, but I knew it was correct. All of this took place within two minutes at the most and took no more – from my end – than pressing a few selected areas of a screen the size of a cigarette packet. And I could have been more-or-less anywhere in the world at the time of doing this. To my mind, it’s awesome how this is all moving forward and how well it works almost all of the time.

Amazement at Computer
OMG – it works!
Look at it from a slightly different viewpoint. Think of all the people who have been involved in designing all the tiny bits of electronics and the other physical components. Think of all the tiny bits of computer code. Then think that all of the resulting hardware, firmware and software all has to work with all the other bits. These have been designed by other people in the same and and in other organisations, in the same and in other countries. Some of this design is new and some of it has evolved, Topsy-like, over the last thirty years or so.

Pull apart a laptop bought in London and you will see parts manufactured in Indonesia, Thailand, USA, Korea, China… You may well have bought this laptop online from Amazon. Do you even know where Amazon is based or have any idea of any of the people who work there or run it? Probably not, and yet you happily gave them your credit card details to purchase this box of delights, made up by all of these different people from all parts of the globe. You didn’t even have to leave the comfort of your living room sofa to order it – and it probably arrived at your own front door within a few days.

I feel really lucky to be the age I am. My career started before the information revolution took off, so I’ve not taken it for granted (as a much younger person probably would), and I wasn’t so busy doing other things that I missed it when it came around.

Telex machine
Telex machine from the 1970’s
When my career started (upon graduation at the beginning of the long hot summer of 1976), we used to have to book telephone calls to Czechoslovakia with the BT operator. Booking a phone call three hours in advance was quite typical. There was no STD to Czechoslovakia (this was back in the days when STD meant “subscriber trunk dialling”). The only real-time communication we had with our offices in Prague (only about 700 miles away but, admittedly, behind the iron curtain) was by telex. To keep the “phone line time” down to the absolute minimum, it was standard practice to prepare the telex message in advance on a piece of punched tape and then feed that back through the machine when the connection was established. Can you imagine communications working as slowly as that these days?

Personally, I hope I never stop being amazed at the speed of advance of IT and communications and the seemingly-miraculous way that it works – most of the time.

Maybe if the amazement stopped then the problems and glitches would loom larger..

(Last updated 08/09/2023)