Food for thought... from one of my favourite FT columnists.
Downsides to upgrades
By Harry Eyres
Published: March 25 2011 22:03 | Last updated: March 25 2011 22:03
All systems at the Slow Lane offices have recently been upgraded. These upgrades might be considered small beer in the Fast Lane but they have caused no little disruption to our world. First, we had to get a new cordless phone, as the old one, inherited when we bought the house, had begun to die in the middle of conversations.
You might think this would be quite straightforward but my experience of living in the wonderful new digital world is that nothing is straightforward. I purchased the cheapest and simplest model I could find, on special offer in John Lewis, and I imagined it might be a simple matter of plugging the thing in and getting going. How naive can you be?
I found myself faced with an instruction manual 74 pages long – the size of a substantial novella or a collection of poems – including instructions on matters such as “writing text messages”, “adding a new birthday (organiser) alarm” and “using a handset to put the base in registration mode”. There is a whole section on games (I can’t quite imagine what could induce me to play games with a telephone) and another one on security, which is the most bizarre and arcane of all. Maybe “modifying the base code” might come in useful if you were buying equipment for a place such as Guantánamo Bay but it all seems a bit excessive for a home phone.
Needless to say we still haven’t got the hang of this new phone, keep pressing the wrong buttons and have had to deactivate the answering machine (too complicated).
So far I’ve had better luck with the new printer/scanner/photocopier but can’t help feeling this magnificent, and absurdly cheap, piece of machinery, capable of producing colour prints to a professional standard, is altogether too magnificent. Perversely, I find myself missing the modest old Canon, less than half the size, which kept going loyally for more than a decade.
All of these feelings are amplified in the case of the throbbing heart of Slow Lane systems, the new laptop computer. When I mentioned to people that the old one was seven years old, their mouths gaped open as if I’d been talking about a penny-farthing bicycle or a wind-up gramophone. Seven years does not seem such a great age for a well-constructed machine – I recently retired the speakers of my hi-fi system after 40 years’ service – but computers, for all their modernity, or because of it, have no staying power; they age much faster than dogs, as fast as rats, perhaps.
The old laptop was getting slow and absent-minded and every now and then had one of those alarming blue screen episodes (senior moments, you could call them). The new one is faster and a bit sleeker and doubtless has more gigabytes of whatever you’re meant to have gigabytes of.
This machine, and this goes for any modern computer, has truly amazing capacities and powers. Linked to a search engine such as Google, it can scour the entire cyberuniverse in milliseconds. It forgets nothing, unlike this poor human brain of mine. It is incapable of making a Freudian slip; it is, I suppose, equally incapable of dreaming.
Our machines get better and better, more and more powerful, faster and faster (though not necessarily more reliable). We, on the other hand, do not. What is the effect of having this inhumanly powerful thing squatting in the centre of our lives? The computer and the web are miracles of connectivity but, as the journalist and blogger Nicholas Carr argued in The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, “the web’s connections are not our connections”. Might they not make us feel inadequate?
Old-fashioned instruments are not like that. They don’t intimidate us with their superior power. I don’t find my piano or my bicycle or my pen and notebooks intimidating – they are made on a human scale, they are designed to help me express myself in a human way. The piano will respond to my touch like no other; in that way it is more like a person than a computer, which responds to all touches in the same binary way.
I was not among those lucky enough to get seats to Sir Simon Rattle’s concerts in London last month with his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. But that splendid, flawed, beleaguered, democratic institution the BBC gave all of us here in the UK the luxury of the best seats in the Berlin Philharmonie hall, relaying two concerts the orchestra gave in its home city.
I happened to catch parts of two of them while out driving and each time I had to pull in to the side of the road. Playing as beautiful as this – in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, and in Stravinsky’s Apollo – might cause accidents. Apollo is Stravinsky’s Apollonian answer to his own Dionysian Rite of Spring, concerned with the assuaging powers of art, not its disruptive ones, content to convey nothing but its own magnanimities of sound. In this case the sound of 34 stringed instruments, old-fashioned things, in no need of an upgrade.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.