February 6, 2016

· Apple · Nerdery

This week’s ATP episode covers the tide of complaints about Apple’s software quality problem. 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 are rarer. An important secondary point is that, partly as a consequence of the ubiquity of cloud services and partly as a result of Apple’s choices in software design, when these errors happen they often present themselves to the user in an especially opaque way. For example, poorly implemented cloud services result in weird and inconsistent patterns of events centered on syncing. Then, the Ivean determination to make applications as “pure”, “simple” or “clean” as possible means there are not many ways for the user to investigate, diagnose, and understand problems.

As it happens, while actually listening to the show I had one of these little experiences myself. My wife was out of town giving a talk yesterday and tried to Facetime me for a quick conversation when she got back to her hotel. Here’s a (typo-ridden) snippet of the chat exchange that accompanied our efforts to connect:

Facetime Frustration.

Facetime Frustration.

In keeping with the theme, this problem was local, irritating, seemingly random, and not an app-crasher. It’s the combination of seeming randomness and an inability to get a useful grip on the problem that’s so annoying.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Clarke’s premise is that the technology works, but in so sophisticated a way that it is opaque to our meagre understanding. His promise is that, in the future, we will have technologies like this to hand and we will understand them—or at least, understand them enough to relate to and command them rationally.

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, it presents only a blank face by way of explanation. And when you want to intervene, it offers nothing. The result is that, instead of being the powerful wielder of a magical device, the user is forced back towards magic’s traditional role in human societies: the ritual performance of obscurely relevant steps intended to force the Gods to do something. The Gods care nothing for people and their ways are mostly unfathomable to us. Magic is our only means of temporarily controlling them. And, indeed, during the show the hosts repeatedly expressed their annoyance at having to “do the rain dances” in order to make something happen. Instead of elevating us to a magical world, bad technology reduces us to it.

Snotweasel Foxtrot Omegaforce.

Snotweasel Foxtrot Omegaforce.

A final wrinkle is that any sufficiently broken technology tends to undermine the priestly caste. There are technologies where the Gods speak. They speak cryptically, it is true, but their words admit of interpretation. Consider the message above. It is confusing and unwelcome. But if you know a priest or shaman, you can show them the words “snotweasel foxtrot omegaforce” on your screen, they will understand the meaning of what has been spoken, and take the necessary steps to provide for your expiation. In an Ivean world, however, there are no more Delphic messages, because messages are confusing. There are fewer and fewer means of intervention, too, because divine perfection should not be tampered with. The result is that the priestly caste finds themselves degraded to the unhappy state of the laity. They are sinners in the hands of an indifferent God. In the process they are reminded of the full horror of living in a world where a sufficiently advanced technology really has become indistinguishable from magic.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.

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