The Waste of “Progress”

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.

5 thoughts on “The Waste of “Progress””

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Three words about Progress-That-Is-Not:

    Electronic Health Record.

    Bean counters see it as their holy grail, but it takes time and effort away from patient care, depersonalizes the whole experience for both patient AND doctor (nurse/PA/RT/etc.), and really slows things down. For the ER, there have been several well-designed studies that show that even a good EHR with a motivated design team and motivated end users “only” slows through-put by 20%. By through-put, I mean time from patient being triaged (“Hi, I’m Sandy the Triage Nurse. What brings to you to the ER) to final disposition (where the doctor either discharges a person to home or admits them to the hospital).

    And since Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has made them mandatory though it failed to designate any standards, so very few of the programs (of which there are hundreds, if not thousands) can effectively communicate with each other, though they must all communicate with the Medicare service. But not for patient care, mind you. Just for billing.

    Because it’s all about money.

    I’m not naive enough to say ‘money doesn’t matter, only patients matter,’ but until there is are real and credible
    changes in US society about personal health, nothing is going to change except everything will be slower and more frustrating.

  2. Mage says:

    I think to a certain extent you can blame business models for continual software upgrades. The question is how does a company stay in business over time, if their software starts ‘good enough’. Once they’ve sold to however large a client base they can develop, then to continue to generate cash flow they must ‘upgrade’ the program. There is much the same problem with game publishing (either paper or computer).

  3. Jake B. says:

    I’m reminded of a Robert Heinlein story — although which one I have no idea — in which he observed that people like to work and will find things to do even if they needn’t.

    More specifically I think of it as the curse of an overstaffed HR department. These people need to prove their value to the organization. How can they do it? Since it’s HR, they need to make you do things. Like fill out surveys, take new trainings, participate in team-building exercises and all that other BS that only people without enough real and meaningful work really enjoy doing.

    Also specifically, the intersection of multiple users, frequently upgraded software, and a single server. I shall give thanks the day my colleagues come to understand the principle, “Never upgrade unless you really need to.”

  4. Brad says:

    This topic always reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon…

    http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2011-02-03/

    The whole thing about Word mystifies me, though. So many people say its horrible (especially published writers) but I use it all the time to write and for work and find it works perfectly fine, so I don’t understand what’s so bad about it. If the grammar check is no good, just ignore those suggestions and focus on spelling ones. I guess it’s that thing were people don’t like Microsoft by default, because they’re the dominant player. I read Piers Anthony’s newsletters and he’s always going on about how much of a hassle Linux and his word processing programs are, all of which could be completely avoided… but he’s just too stubborn to use Windows and brings it all upon himself.

  5. What bothers me, personally, is that the earlier versions of grammar checking were BETTER. It’s hard to be optimistic about anything whose “improvements” are worse than the features in the product they’re improving.

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