This week’s ATP episode discussed the tide of complaints about some apparent declines in the quality of the software that Apple is shipping these days. There’s some good sputtering from John. The gist is that niggling software problems have become much more pervasive, even as dramatic events like full-on application crashes have become much less common. An important secondary point is that, partly as a consequence of the ubiquity of cloud services and partly as a result of Apple’s own choices in software design, when these errors happen they often present themselves to the user in an especially opaque way. For example, a poorly implemented cloud service tends to produce weird and inconsistent failures centered on syncing. On top of this, Apple’s Ivean determination to make its applications as “pure”, “simple” or “clean” as possible means there are few ways for the user to investigate, diagnose, and solve these problems.
As it happens, while actually listening to the show I had one of these little experiences myself. Here’s a typo-ridden snippet of two people with college degrees trying to call one another via FaceTime:
In keeping with the theme, this problem was local, irritating, seemingly random, and not an app-crasher. It’s the combination of caprice and an inability to get a useful grip on the problem that’s so annoying.
Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction is, as you probably know, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Clarke’s premise is that the advanced technology works, but in so sophisticated a way that it becomes opaque to the meagre understanding of the uninitiated. Clarke’s promise, though, is that the future will bring technologies like this to us and we will understand them—or at least, understand them enough to use and command them in a rational way.
What complaints about Apple’s software design bring out, I think, is that Clarke only gave us half the story. Any sufficiently broken technology is also indistinguishable from magic. It just works … mostly. When it fails, by way of explanation it presents you with a blank face. When you try to intervene, it offers you no purchase on its smooth glass and aluminum surface. Instead of living as some sort of powerful wizard wielding a magical device, you are forced to fall back on magic’s traditional role in human societies. This is the ritual performance of specific but obscurely relevant steps meant to compel the Gods to do the thing you want. The Gods care nothing for ordinary people; their ways are mostly unfathomable to us. Magic is our only means of temporarily exerting control over them. And so you reboot the machine, reset the PRAM, check the SMC Unit, and so on. Indeed, during the show the hosts repeatedly expressed their annoyance at having to “do the dances” in order to make something happen. Instead of elevating us to a world of magic, bad software has reduced us to it.
A final wrinkle is that any sufficiently broken technology tends to undermine the caste of priests. There are technologies where the Gods communicate directly to supplicants. They speak cryptically, it is true, but their words admit of interpretation. Consider the message above. It is unwelcome and confusing. You know nothing of Snotweasel Foxtrot Omegaforce. If you know a priest or shaman, however, you can tell them that these words have appeared on your screen. They will understand the meaning of what has been spoken. Or at least, which is nearly the same thing, they will be able to look up the words in the Stack of Overflowing and take the necessary steps to provide for your expiation. In an Ivean world, however, there are no more messages. The Snotweasel is silent. Higher powers have decreed that messages from it are disorienting and upsetting. Unfortunately for the priesthood, there are fewer and fewer means of intervention, too. Divine perfection ought not be tampered with. The machine cannot be bent to your will by your foolish CMD-Opt-P-R keystrokes. The result is that even the priesthood is degraded to the unhappy state of the laity. They are sinners in the hands of an indifferent God. In the process, they too must confront the full horror of being made to live in a world where some sufficiently advanced technology really has become indistinguishable from magic.