The End of Technology

A snappy title for what may be an old-man rant. Judge for yourselves.

A week ago or so, we bought a new television. We bought the old one when we moved into a new house in Fort Collins, back in 2012. That 10-year-old television works just fine, except that the streaming services have been fucking about with their systems, and suddenly, there are bunch of formerly-free services that are pay-per-view (in one form or another) and their software is completely incompatible with “old technology.”

They call it “anti-piracy,” but I don’t think that word means what they think it means.

So I plug in the brand-new television, and it kinda works, but Netflix won’t allow me to play anything except Constantine (with Keanu Reeves) which is, frankly, not a very good movie. I go through two lengthy troubleshooting sessions on the phone, complete with remote service connection from a tech. Turns out, Netflix tweaked their “anti-piracy” software, and it is suddenly incompatible with God alone knows how many televisions, including (unfortunately) the one that still stinks of the packing materials in our house.

Quicklist: Types of Television

  1. Quantum Light-Emitting Diode
  2. Organic Light-Emitting Diode
  3. Light-Emitting Diode
  4. Liquid-Crystal Display
  5. Digital Light Processing
  6. Plasma Panels
  7. Direct View

Consumer Reports currently recommends 82 different models of television, and put 59 more into the “Yeah, not so much” category. That’s 141 “choices” to cycle through, featuring some random distribution of the seven different types of television listed above. Which of these are compatible with Netflix? And also with Amazon? Which is available at a good price at Costco? Do I want motion-smoothing? Is color saturation important? What about the Hip-Hop-Foo-Maroo option?

God Himself gave up on all this some time back and started designing a new universe that doesn’t support television.

I talked it over with my wife, and we’re taking the new television back, and reconnecting the old one. And if, in the end, I can only use it to play Skyrim with my old XBox-360, then so be it. It’s my Big Screen Skyrim machine. Or maybe we’ll just dump it and repurpose an entire room.

Imagine that.

I also tried to make an adjustment to my retirement plan this weekend. I’m not talking about tweaking investment accounts. I’m talking about the personal model I’ve put together for how the fuck we will keep the rain off our heads and food in the refrigerator for another 20-30 years, until we finally stop making choices and die.

I will be blunt: the mathematical model I put together for a heavy-ion accelerator back in graduate school was simpler.

Back in 1970, when I was in High School, I read a book called Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. It made a huge impression on me at the time, and one of his concepts was the problem of “overchoice.” Overchoice is a fragmentation of standard (or even substandard) life-choices into a lot of frivolous distinctions based on “market differentiation,” which can cause people to obsess over which is “better.”

When I was a lad, there was Ford and Chevy. Same damn cars, but people argued about “quality.” My father was a Ford man, and never bought a Chevy in his life, to my knowledge. A point of pride.

By the 1970’s this had become a major social pathology. Toffler called it “overchoice.” Other terms are “analysis paralysis,” or “information overload,” or “the tyranny of small decisions.” It’s closely related to “buyer’s remorse,” where you finally make a decision, and then start second-guessing whether it was the right decision. Ford or Chevy? Post Toasties or Corn Flakes? OH MY GOD I MADE THE WRONG DECISION I AM GOING TO DIE!

It burns up all the energy we could be putting into economic justice. Or climate change. Or global hunger. Or a normal family life.

Nah. What am I thinking? What’s IMPORTANT is the latest and greatest in Quantum Light Emitting Diodes. Whatever the fuck those are.

Apart from the issue of making us all into drones who spend our lives sorting grains of sand by size, all this overchoice starts to erode functionality. I went to a store today to get a piece of metal to fix a fence latch. At check-out, I encountered an electronic teller that requires that I first put my card in the slot, then select 1 or 2 for credit/debit, then press Enter. It’s one of the last of these dinosaurs in town. So, like everyone else, I stand there wondering why nothing is happening until the teller un-zones and says, “Press Enter” — it’s hard to keep the annoyance out of her voice, she does this all day long — and then I remember I’m in THIS store, and life moves forward. I go to two other stores, and encounter electronic tellers which have a completely different process.

Somewhere, a dozen executives chose one system or the other, and wasted God knows how many hours making the decision. Now they have teller machines everywhere, and can’t afford to re-tool. If they did, it would all change in a year or two, and they’d have to do it again. It gets folded into the cost of their business, and their prices go up.

In the process, the technology starts to diverge at a core level, and machines stop talking to each other. Suddenly, a brand-new television variant doesn’t work with Netflix. A major bank drops support for an old teller machine variant, and a thousand businesses need to upgrade. The upgrade isn’t compatible with old accounting software they’ve been using for years, so they need to spend more money. Some of them go out of business. The entire economy shudders, just a bit.

In space, they call this a Kessler Event, where all of the space trash we’ve dumped in low-earth orbit starts colliding, knocking more stuff out of orbit, until you have the mother of all highway wrecks a few miles above our heads and it comes raining down on us after knocking out all of the satellites we rely on to communicate that there is a shitload of burning metal coming down on our cities.

In my old-man opinion, we’re also headed toward a software Kessler Event.

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