The Human Touch
by Barbara Quint
Well, my dears, have I got some tales to tell! Over the last month and a half, I have gone through some overwhelming technological experiences and one lesson has emerged from both. We all know that as long as people need technology, technology will need people, but only the right kind of people — the kind that work well with technology.
Before we begin, have you ever thought that machinery may be moving toward robotic intelligence all on its own while we humans aren’t watching? Something along the lines of the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Now, we all know volitional movement can happen to some extent even with completely unanimated objects. Salt and pepper shakers come to mind. All of us have reached out to pick up such dispensers only to find they are not where they should be. The same thing happens with socks and shoes, objects that love to hide under furniture or scuttle behind other larger pieces of clothing. Usually returning such objects to their proper place simply requires an angry noise from a human, preferably with a cuss word included. A simple, “Where the heck is that !#$#...?” and the object jumps into view. One important rule here: In this game of hide-and-seek, the objects are seeking validation by human attention. If the human diverts their anger to another human, the object will continue the game indefinitely. Therefore, never indulge in such statements as, “Where the heck did you put that @#$@#$@...?” Anyone who has blamed a lifelong companion for the loss of a remote will bear witness to this truth.
But if even the staidest of objects can dash from place to place invisibly, how much more dramatic must the abilities of semianimated objects such as computers or video devices — most of them connected to even larger, more sophisticated devices and networks — be? And while, like the salt shakers, our beloved machines also seek human attention, they seem much less tolerant of cuss words. They’ve probably heard them all and more once too often.
Cases in point: A month ago I awoke to the realization that I was no longer the “alpha dog” in my own small home office. Four — count ’em, four — computer installations dominated my surroundings. One was totally unreliable, though one could still cannibalize the peripherals. The second was still functional, but even older than the dead one and becoming suspiciously slow. The third was fully functional, but, with some years on it and no reliable backup, needed the fourth — my brand-new HP computer. As always, I summoned my Techie Extraordinaire to solve my problems. It took a whole hot, humid summer day to get the job done, but he finally disposed of the disposable (including a trip to the trash barrel with an all-in-one, printer/fax/scanner/copier that died well before its time). He also salvaged the salvageable, boxing it into a gift for a digitally deprived student — with two monitors like two pairs of pants (very heavy CRT pants). What was left was a jet-black, flat-screen, multimedia backup system and a shiny, silver, bigger flat-screen, Really Multimedia, current system. All the software was in place. All the data backed up beautifully.
By the way, in the course of making the shift, I really believe I heard the lovely black computer starting to grumble when it found itself — after a history of devoted, unbroken service — relegated to the lonely status of backup. Call me superstitious or whatever you like, but hearing a computer grumble is a sound to which I always respond. Quickly, I walked over to the backup desk and started telling “Blackie” (its new name) how fine it looked and how much better it would work here. Then, when Blackie wasn’t looking, I sidled into the other office area and told “Silver” how we all had to be nice to Blackie and play well with our elders. Silver hummed its assent with youthful vigor, but a tad of condescension.
Only one final step — hooking the old machine up to its own online connection and the job was done. And here, as they say, is where the wheels started to come off the vehicle. For some unexplained reason, the DSL connection, which had worked fine for years with the old backup machine, would not work with Blackie. The other DSL connection — I have two separate DSL suppliers — worked fine with Silver. (I told you Blackie grumbled!) My techie finally called technical support to get some help. He called them six times, by my count, and three times, three separate technical support staffers had him checking lights and crawling under the desk. When this got unendurable, I started calling customer support to set up an on-site visit. After 10 separate calls, five of which involved listening to the complete score of Oklahoma! (well, maybe not the complete score), it became clear that no techie would ever be sent for no clear reason, though each staffer had their own theory. So I angrily cancelled the service.
After that, I tried switching to the DSL carrier that did work, risking the elimination of the backup protection from having separate DSL carriers. However, I still couldn’t get a scheduled installation, although there was some hope that a subterfuge might achieve that goal in time. Apparently, you have to order their wireless router and then, when it arrives, claim that it doesn’t work. Then they will send someone out to check it. The secret of success in this subterfuge is to remember to cut the tape sealing the box and pull the device halfway out of the box before the guest techie knocks on your door.
The more I thought about it, the more I still wanted an alternative backup. So I did what I thought I never would do — I ordered cable broadband service. Why had I held out against cable broadband? Memories and the lack of them. I cannot remember a year in which I have not had at least two repair visits from my cable television service. I can, however, recite their toll-free number from memory, having called it so often. On the other hand, I cannot recall the last decade when I had to call the phone company for repairs. Since the DSL connection relies on phone lines, that remains my primary online conduit. As a backup, however, alternative pipelines could work. If the phone lines ever do go down, maybe the cable television/broadband lines won’t. I wouldn’t rely on them as primary pipelines, but for secondary, they could work.
So the cable guy came out and installed the broadband connection, rather expeditiously too. Then, 2 weeks later, the television started to conk out. I waited most of an afternoon for a scheduled repair team to show up. Nope. The next day, a two-man repair team did show up and spent an hour and a half rooting about. Finally, they discovered that the broadband installer had done it wrong. In the midst of fixing the problem, they left to work on another customer’s issues. An hour later, they came back and finished the job. They had fixed the problem I had reported. The following day, the fourth cable guy came out to fix the problem the repair team had created all on its own. Is it any wonder that this cable service schedules its repairs in 2-hour increments from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., 7 days a week?
A month has passed. Blackie and Silver are working well together. The cable television company has a new owner. The phone service continues to plod on reliably. The new cable owner wants me to switch to its new telephone service. Would the phrase “when pigs fly” mean anything to them? I wonder.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
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