This semester my wife’s university “upgraded” its computer system. The email speed and storage is improved. Pretty much everything is un-improved… or worse. As the head of the voice and opera program, my wife has to keep tabs on the schedules of a good hundred or more students. The former system allowed her to access multiple class schedules at once, allowing her to assure that students were registered in the right sections, which is always a problem, because the section numbers refer to the professors and the levels, and the registrar’s office seems to think that any professor can teach any student individual voice lessons and has a habit of assigning some students randomly – even when the students know and present the right section numbers. The new system only allows access to one section at a time, which more than doubles the time it takes her to make sure students are assigned where they belong. The old system allowed her to see whether an email had been opened, very useful in determining whether students and colleagues actually read what had been sent. The new system does not. In addition, the new system is different enough that it takes time to learn all the differences in necessary features. The verdict? A lot of lost time for everyone for little improvement overall, and significant drawbacks for people with administrative duties.
This isn’t limited to academia. At least every month, if not more often, when I’m talking with my editor and ask for information, it takes longer, because the computer system has been changed or “up-graded.” I asked other editors at the publisher… and they all rolled their eyes, not at my editor, but because they have noticed the same thing. Now… none of them can describe any aspect of the changes that makes their lives easier, but the changes go on and on.
I’ve noted, in past blogs, the continual changes in the Microsoft Word program, the vast majority of which merely add complexity for the sake of adding features… and some of which, such as the grammar checker, are so much worse than previous versions that using it will actually make bad prose awful and good prose far worse. And to top it off, you can’t turn off the grammar checker without turning off the spellchecker. Now… I understand that the latest version of Windows is going to smartphone icons, which will make using Windows easier for all the people who really don’t use it for anything particularly serious and add time and frustration to those of us who are tied, for occupational reasons, to Word and Windows. Another example of the hideous combination of American industry’s “one-size-fits-all” attitude and the need for a continuous illusion of progress.
I don’t mind true improvements in technology… but new “upgraded” features that do the same thing as older versions and new interfaces that don’t improve function, but still have to be learned, are a waste… and they’re anything but progress. In fact, they’re worse, because they present the illusion of progress. They also impose unnecessary costs on business and users because updating is required in order for “my” computer to read “your” files and documents, and the updates make lots of money for Microsoft and other vendors, but usually don’t generate commensurate income for most computer users.
Yet almost anyone who complains about these illusions of progress is considered a dinosaur or a troglodyte.