The complexities of modern life,

published at 1:07am on 07/29/06

As somebody who is ostensibly good with technology (having spent the majority of my professional career involved in one technology field or another), I find it nearly impossible to have a good experience with my parents’ technology needs.

The current source of frustration in my life as it relates to the computer at the old homestead is the 200GB Seagate Push Button external hard drive that I bought to backup the new iMac that is sitting where the old PC (and before that, the even older Apple //gs) once sat. The problem I am having with this particular hard drive that is that, for some strange reason, it refuses to spin itself down. Ever. In order to see why this ends up being such a source of agita for me, we need to first understand the reasons for buying this drive in the first place. It is important to point out that my parents are reasonably technically savvy – I talk to them more via email and IM than by phone and my mother has recently shifted her attentions away from her twenty year old 35mm camera to a fancy new Canon Digital Elph. But at the same time, I can not seem to get them to understand where files live on their computer and not a day goes by without an email dragging mishap that leaves my cousin’s mail folder somewhere buried amongst the emails from their car dealership.

My parents are, in fact, the very definition of the average personal computer user.

Computers are supposed to help these kinds of people – they are supposed to make mundane tasks easier and give them access to online recipes and weather reports. So what is the problem? The problem is that I have now stuck them with a hard drive that never shuts down. (What’s your point?) A drive that is constantly whirring when it is on, and that never stops spinning at night, which almost guarantees (in a house in the Northeast in the summer without air conditioning) a life span of about a month and a half. (Hrm, yes? And?) A drive that we can not leave powered on and thus a system that can not be scheduled to turn on in the middle of the night, back up their computer and go back to sleep again. (Ah!)

I have, in fact, taken what should be an invisible, automatic system, and turned it into one that requires constant, proactive user intervention.

My parents are, of course, very casual computer users and are much more relaxed about the situation than I am. On a little pink piece of notepaper, my mother very diligently copied down instructions for how to turn on and off the drive and how to run the backups. My father insists that the backups will be run “whenever we put something important on the computer” and I can feel the technologist in me die a little bit when I hear the sheer inelegance of this solution. “This can’t possibly work!” I cry, because it is in my nature to want to apply the supposed right solution to every situation.

Here I am cursing Seagate for building this stupid drive that never spins down, cursing society in general (why not?) for accepting such shoddy engineering in its consumer electronics products, and cursing myself for buying yet another faulty component for their computer (it should be pointed out that the iMac has already been back to the shop once and the USB card reader I told them to buy had to be returned because it too was broken). I am cursing everything under the sun for giving me this component that only barely works, and yet in my parents’ opinion, it is just another set of instructions on a sheet of paper to help them work the computer.

You see, my parents treat the computer as an addition to their lives – they check their email, they chat with their kids, they read newspapers, they watch funny videos – but if they happen to lose their emails, it’s not a big deal and if the web is down for a couple of days, they have better things to do. The computer itself exists in a separate part of their lives, along with other specifically computer-related items and activities. Adding more steps and more activities makes sense because there is already an entire world of actions that need to happen when using a computer – adding a few more can’t hurt.

On the other hand, I see my computer as an integral part of my life. I spend most of my waking hours in front of the glowing screen – it is my town hall, my library, my evening news, my radio; it is my brain. Any additional actions that exist solely to support the operations of this electric extension of my life need to be relegated so far into the background so as to maintain this illusion of this complete man/machine synergy. In the (currently top of mind) case of computer backups, a constant reminder that my entire life lives on a couple of fragile platters would be enough to send me into an eternal state of sorrow and despair. By relegating them simply to automated nocturnal magic actions, I can continue to live in my dream world while still remaining confident that my entire life can’t actually melt away in a freak Diet Coke accident.

While I can’t understand how they can be satisfied with a non-automated, non-daily backup of their files, they don’t see why it’s upsetting me so much that they don’t have one. Somewhere in their house, right now, there is a backup drive that is turned off, waiting to be activated. And this is apparently just dandy.

Lesson learned: sometimes, the most complex solution turns out to be the simplest.

Filed under: Observations

At 6:14 pm on 07.29.06, dad said,

by way of explanation, much of my naivete relating to the computer might be explained by the fact that sitting in my garage right now is an old stromberg-carlson radio from my youth (or pre youth actually). to me, that’s the epitome of hi-tech.

on a more positve note related to our son’s involvement in our computer life is the fact that he just discovered that 7 months ago when our mac was taken in to the shop to be worked on it left with less memory than it went in with (while a constant diminution of memory is something i’ve come to expect personally, i don’t accept it in my computer). in any event, just got an email from the computer repair shop indicating that they will be supplying me a new memory module gratis (while of course denying responsibility for the missing memory).
so, the most recent filial computer experience (hard drive and all) was quite positive.

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