We had one of those disastrous spells here at chez Derbyshire a couple of weeks back. It started with trying to switch our mobile phone contracts from one supplier to another, and ended with what seems like half of the hi-tech equipment in our house deciding it had, with disappointing lack of excitement, reached the end of its useful working life.
On the Thursday, I had already spent yet another wasted hour on the phone to an incompetent customer disservice department trying to get two SIM cards to work in our phones with the numbers transferred from our previous supplier. I guess it didn’t help that the previous supplier seems to have given me transfer authorization codes for somebody else’s numbers, or that the new supplier’s sales department had made up some non-existent email address for me and then emailed my user name and password to it.
So, in a somewhat grumpy mood, I tossed the ingredients for a nice soothing milky coffee into the microwave and pressed “Go”. Except nothing happened. No flashing lights, no whirring noises, no turntabular revolution. Not even a flash or loud bang to provide a satisfying indication that the twelve year old contraption we bought second hand from a friend was ready to go and meet the God Of Recycling.
Then in the evening of the same day that the microwave waved goodbye to the world, and after spending fruitless hours at work trying to log onto our Azure test account, I moodily flopped down in front of the TV and pressed the big red button. And was greeted by a screen full of wavy lines. It seems that the video card in the Media Center box had had enough and was no longer going to translate the ones and zeros coming from the hard disk into anything resembling a TV picture. Yet there was no satisfying puff of blue smoke, or crackling noise from incinerated components, or even a faint smell of burning.
It never used to be like that. I remember as a kid being in my Dad’s Morris Minor on the way to Gloucester when it reached its MTBF and exploded with a very loud bang, emitting clouds of oily smoke and depositing an assortment of pieces of former engine all over the road. Yet when my wife’s car broke down some months ago, all that happened was a light came on the dashboard and it gently cruised to a halt.
And if your washing machine broke in those days, it was accompanied by the sounds of somebody bashing saucepans together and a rapidly expanding pool of soapy water on the floor. Now it just displays some indecipherable “Error Code” in the display and grumpily sits looking at you with no intention of doing anything until you phone an approved (quoting from the manual) “domestic appliance maintenance and repair operative”.
This is a worrying trend. If you opened the bonnet/hood of your car and discovered a molten mass of connecting rods and melted spark plugs, you could take an educated guess that something was wrong with the engine. Now you have to get a (very expensive) specialist in vehicle electronics to connect your car to a computer in some foreign country to discover that the fuel stabilization flutter compensation valve needs replacing.
And it’s interesting that, even though we are surrounded by stuff that is supposed to free us from the drudgery of all those day-to-day tasks, we seem to have even less free time than our parents and grandparents. Is it because we spend so much time trying to figure out which hi-tech devices have decided to break down this week, and getting them fixed or replaced? It says something for adopting an Amish lifestyle.
Meanwhile, perhaps manufacturers should be compelled include a small firework in every electrical device that is ignited when any of the warning lights come on so you know that something has definitely gone wrong. And maybe a short audio file of clanging and grinding noises. It would certainly make having to have stuff mended (or, more likely, replaced with a new one) a bit less dull.
Of course, this would also apply to computers. Your laptop would satisfyingly dissolve in a cloud of black smoke when the hard disk died, or your server would produce an acrid smell of burning and light up the server room with exploding stars that would make it easy to track down the faulty one. We could even extend it to software. Instead of a boring error dialog, how about a very loud siren and flashing “DANGER” in big red letters all over the screen like you see in the movies. Maybe even an on-screen countdown to self destruct. It would certainly make being a computer programmer seem like a lot more interesting job.