Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 21st Century will be great when it works

You know that feeling when you buy something and it breaks just after the warranty runs out? I'm starting to feel that way about the 21st Century. It's barely ten years old and it's starting to fall apart already.

Don't get me wrong, I was really enthusiastic about the upgrade. CE Version 21.0 looked like a big improvement on CEv20. True, CEv20 had rolled out lots of great functionality, such as air travel, women's suffrage, television and rock'n'roll; plus some really kicking upgrades to some apps that were only available in beta in ADv19, such as electricity, cars, atheism, moving pictures and oral sex. It also got rid of some tiresome functions that had been knocking around the system for too long, such as imperialism, cholera and capital punishment (although the latter is still available as an add-on for nostalgists who can't bring themselves to move on, rather like Space Invaders and box sets of Star Trek). But it also had some serious bugs: nuclear weapons, fascism and Rick Astley to name but three.

So while CEv21.0 has certain security vulnerabilities that can allow pop-ups like religious fundamentalism, George W Bush and Lehmann Brothers to crash the entire system, there's no doubt that it's a significant advance. At least, that's what I used to think. Now I'm not so sure.

I'm really not nostalgic about phones you could only answer in the room where the device sat and that stopped you roaming any further than the length of that twisty cable. I don't miss walking half a mile in the rain to the nearest red box just to have a private conversation (though I do miss the fact that it only cost 2p). I like having more than three TV channels, and I can't wait for them to come up with some more content so they won't have to show Lee Evans on a continuous loop in the vain hope of finding an audience that isn't utterly fed up with the weasel-faced little turd-burglar saying "fuck" every thirty seconds (Ken Tynan might have been the first to say that once-shocking, now nearly meaningless word on TV, but Evans must hold the record for the most utterances). And computers are a bloody marvellous invention.

So the 21st Century is a great thing, or it will be when it works properly.

I've got a new mobile phone: an HTC Wildfire. It's a smartphone. "Smart" means it doesn't know not to send text messages to landlines. "Smart" means it's got something in it called Android, which appears to be a system for crashing the phone every ten minutes. "Smart" also means it can link to my new car so that I can make hands-free phone calls, except that I can only call my own phone. "Must be a problem with the phone," says BMW. "Must be a problem with the car," says HTC.

Meanwhile my expensive, new(ish) computer refuses to join my wireless network. "You don't have a wireless router," it tells me sniffily. I do have a wireless router and I know it works because three other computers (including my neighbour's laptop) connect to the internet through it. Even Armageddon (that's my name for the recalcitrant computer, though I might rename it Priscilla, which seems more suitable) connects through it, only through a cable. Priscilla just refuses to believe it. "There's something wrong with your computer," say the router people. "There's something wrong with your router," say the computer people.

And that's how it works. You set up a cheap factory in China to make it (badly) and then set up a cheap customer service office in India to tell you that they don't know why it's not working at 60p per minute. Or, if you're BMW, you make a brilliant car in Germany and then put a crap computer in it. At least with that old phone (you remember, the one with the squiggly cable), all you had to do was plug it into the socket. You couldn't walk around, you only got one ring tone and you had no idea who'd called you if you didn't get there in time. But it worked, you never had to speak to a computer or to a human who'd been trained to behave like a computer and it carried on working for decades unless you hit it with a hammer or threw it down the stairs, and sometimes it still worked even then.

At this point I wonder why I've been seduced by all this. My car's Satnav takes ten minutes to discover that it doesn't know any more than I do where I want to go, but so what? I haven't lost my ability to read a map. Yes, it's a real fiddle to link my phone to Facebook, but can somebody remind me why I suddenly need to do this?

As we all know, the prime motivation for all human social interaction is the desperate need to get laid, and Facebook has done nothing to improve my dismal record in that regard. Nor have Twitter, mobile apps or wireless networking, although the last two might inspire some cheesy chat-up lines. They might work: I never get anywhere pretending to be a sophisticated chap who isn't primarily interested in the contents of your bra and knickers but would be a lot of fun if you gave me access, hopefully after an evening in an expensive restaurant with a bottle of Fleurie while you pretend to be interested in me pretending to know about Beethoven, the Booker Prize and the war in Afghanistan. "Nice tits; another Bacardi Breezer?" seems to work fine for some people.

"Hello? No, I don't have a password. I got this century free ten years ago. It was supposed to last a hundred years but it seems to have broken after ten. No, I don't have the original packaging. Alright, I'll hold…"

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