Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Slave To The Machine - The Impersonal Computer

The PC promised to liberate us from the tyranny of the mainframe and IBM.  Today, we are now enslaved to a new online master.

I was very sad today.  We are going away for a short trip and I was wondering whether to bring my laptop with me.  I keep track of all my expenses on a 2002 version of Quickbooks, which I realize is nearly 20 years old.   I write documents on Word 2000 which is even older.   All my software is obsolete, but it was bought and paid for, and works as well as any of these newer versions do.

And the newer versions, you cannot buy.   You can only rent them online for a low, low monthly fee of paying forever through the nose.    $9.99 a month for Quickbooks doesn't sound so bad, until you realize that in one year, you've paid more than what you would have for the original software.

Not only that, the prospect of subscription fatigue sets in - the slow death of 1,000 cuts for all the subscription services in your life - from cable television, to online streaming services, to various software "subscriptions" and so forth.   Why pay for something perpetually when you can own it outright?

As my example illustrates, you can run a piece of software for decades after you've paid for it, and it works perfectly fine.  Well, except that the people who write the software decide to come up with new formats and forms that are not supported by your old version - such as the "docx" gag used by Microsoft to force people to upgrade to the latest version of Word.

Or take Quickbooks.   My original version - from the 1990's - worked very well.  But my accountant would tell me that she could not import my data into her newest version, so I was forced to upgrade twice.   When she passed away, I went to TurboTax and stopped upgrading.   I guess that was in 2002 - may she rest in peace.

But now that I am retired, I use the computer less and less.  I write these missives and I balance my books every day on Quickbooks.    Having your own financial records is important.  Relying on your bank's software is like flying blind.   Let me explain why.

In boating, you have a depth finder on the stern of your boat.  It is a useful thing to have, as it tells you the depth of the water you are on.  But at 25 knots, on plane, you only know the depth of the water you were in, and not the depth of the water where you are going.  Nice bit of information, that.

A GPS with a moving-map display will show you charts that indicate the dept of the water where you are headed to, which is good to know, as you can change course before you run aground.

In the same way, banking software (online apps from your bank) are nice to have, but only tell you about things that have already happened - the depth of the water you have already passed over.   Your own financial software, kept current and up-to-date tells you what expenses are upcoming and what checks (themselves an antiquated concept) or automatic debits are outstanding.   You can tell what your balance will be, not just what it was.   Good thing to know, that.

Because with this information, you can balance your accounts to the penny and never bounce a check, overdraw an account, or go over your credit limit.   And if you program it right (with reminders and autopay) you can never miss a credit card payment or other loan obligation.   Tracking all of my expenses in Quickbooks was one way I was able to dig my way out of my financial mess.

But sadly, those days are gone.  And the way the computer business is working, they are gone for good.   My old laptop, running Windows 7 Ultimate, is woefully obsolete (but still working, nevertheless).   When it dies (and its mate dies as well) I will have to "upgrade" to Windows 10, or a Chromebook, or God forbid, some Apple product costing thousands of dollars.

And I will have to rent my software if I want to keep writing things or using financial software.   I looked into using a Quickbooks "app" but found the ones online to be woefully inadequate.  Not only are they very superficial, they cost $9.99 a month to use.   That's not saving me any money.

Perhaps I will give up balancing my accounts and go back to bouncing checks.   It is sad that I cannot go online to my Bank's app and enter pending checks and charges which would be helpful.   I will have to work something out.

But what made me very sad was that the machine that promised so much back in the 1970s - to liberate us from corporate tyranny - has been co-opted into a machine of slavery.  The PC had been supplanted by the smart phone, a set of gilded shackles that so many are proud to wear and show off.   It doesn't save you money, it only helps you spend it, with monthly subscription fees and helpful suggestions on how to "save" by buying more crap - usually on Amazon.

Owning the means of production was a mantra of Karl Marx.   If you have to rent everything in your life - including your money - you will always be a slave to the bank, the finance company, the leasing agency, the app store, and so forth.    You will never have, you will only borrow.

I guess the new generation, raised on this idea, doesn't see the problem with this.  Huge corporations are buying up housing stock in the US (and building more) and renting it out to millennials who never see ownership as something they will enjoy, as they borrowed a college education they will never own - a worthless college education, in most cases.

Granted, there are so many wonderful things you can do with this new technology.   But I think we lost something there - owning.   When you owned your own PC and knew every single thing about how it worked (likely because you built it) and knew every file in every directory on the hard drive (because there was only 40 MB or so of it) you had power over the machine.   You ran it, it didn't run you.

Today?   We wonder what these "background jobs" and oddball files are, running on our computers.  We have no idea why with each "update" the machine runs slower and slower.   We just hand over our money and hope it all works OK - and as a result are more vulnerable to viruses, hacking, and guys from India calling claiming to be from "Microsoft Computers".

The Personal Computer was a beautiful dream - a dream that has died.