Update This! The Rush for “Change”

By | May 3, 2012 | 0 Comments

Recently my notebook computer no longer recognized a mouse. After consulting experts, I was forced to reinstall Windows. I backed up my files first, but the computer was back where it was when I bought it five years ago. This gave me an opportunity to observe how much had changed since then.
First I reinstalled the antivirus program and waited for it to update all the new virus definitions that had been issued since it was new. Then I went to Windows Update and was greeted with the message that 74 “important” updates had accumulated since I bought the computer. This took over an hour and a restart. But on each of the three subsequent days, there were more “important” updates, for a total of over 100.
Granted, technology moves fast – too fast. Granted, Microsoft employs thousands of technicians to keep its products up to date. Granted, as millions of people use these products for various purposes, problems are revealed that careful testing had not revealed in product development. And granted, antivirus programs must be updated continually to meet new attacks by assorted hackers.
But even so, I was surprised by the number of updates that had accumulated in a relatively short time. By way of comparison, I have a car that is almost 10 years old – twice as old as my computer. To the best of my recollection, there have been two recalls for minor corrections that never affected the operation of the car in the slightest.
Cars have been manufactured for over a century, while personal computers are only a few decades old. One expects young technologies to change faster than mature technologies. But I couldn’t help wondering how many of the over 100 updates were as necessary as the two recalls for my car, which as far as I could see weren’t really necessary at all. In other words, which updates are real improvements, and which are just updates?
I spent most of my professional life working in a large public hospital. I wish I had kept all the memos I received during those years – all the directives from my department chair, all the proclamations from the executive director, and all the decrees from personnel and payroll. They would have filled a filing cabinet to overflowing.
If I had kept them, I could make a rough calculation of how many were important advice on how to prevent or overcome real problems and expedite our work, and how many were bureaucratic meddling that created problems and impeded the work. My estimate is that perhaps 90% were of the latter type.
On the rare occasions I pointed out problems, I was viewed as a troublemaker. Bureaucrats have little time to solve real problems – they are too busy manufacturing problems and increasing organizational complexity in order to justify their own jobs. This is an endemic disease of bureaucracies. It is true of government bureaucracies, and to a lesser extent of business bureaucracies, but might it also be true of technologic bureaucracies?
For example, among the over 100 updates installed on my computer was one I did not want. When Windows was reinstalled, the settings all reverted to the default value – including the one that allowed updates to be installed automatically. I changed the setting to “ask before downloading” updates, but before I did so I was the unwilling recipient of Internet Explorer 9. As far as I could see, its principal change was to separate the “home page” and “refresh” icons as far as possible, a dubious advantage.
But IE9 did not work with my website – my article had line breaks where there were none, and some words were in Times New Roman instead of Arial. So I uninstalled IE9 and reverted to IE7, which continues to work perfectly. Nevertheless, there is a price. Every time I boot up my computer, my work is partially obscured by a balloon nagging me that there are new updates. I am reminded daily that I have not conformed.
But, you protest, if I updated my website to the latest version of WordPress, it might work with Internet Explorer 9. Or it might not. So the upside of updating my website would be that after expenditure of considerable time and effort, it might work as well as it does now. But the downside would be that it might not work at all. Keeping things as good as they are now is not my idea of “progress.” Making them worse is even less attractive. But it is “progressive.”
This reminds me of a well-known techno-geek I heard on the radio a few years ago. He announced that Microsoft was developing a new version of Windows, which was promised to remedy the problems with then-current Windows Vista. The man paused dramatically, then said, “Oh, are they going to reintroduce Windows XP?”
That one sentence said a great deal about the difference between change and progress. In his expert opinion, a change back to Windows XP would represent real progress. In fact, the large medical group where my internist practices, and the major bank I use, both still use Windows XP. So do many other organizations. Does that tell you something about change versus progress?
How much “change” is improvement, and how much is merely change for change’s sake? This obviously applies to President Obama, who campaigned the first time with the mantras of “hope” and “change.”
In business, change may have an economic motive. Advertisements loudly proclaim “New and Improved!” But in many cases, the product is not improved, and it may not even be new. Laundry detergents were watered down, then were “concentrated” in half-size bottles at the original price. In effect, the price doubled. Similarly, a leading paper towel sharply reduced the size of its roll, but blatantly insulted the intelligence of its customers by renaming it “Big Roll.” This product deterioration is not included in the government’s deceptively low inflation figures.
Then we have “green” technology. Not long ago, the restrooms in an upscale mall were “updated.” The toilets and urinals flush electrically, the faucets and soap dispensers work electrically, and paper towels were replaced with an electric hot-air blower. How is it “environmental” to increase needless electricity usage?
Even worse, about one in four faucets and soap dispensers no longer work, and the toilets and urinals flush so feebly that urine remains. How is it “environmental” to allow human waste to accumulate in a public place? But in one sense, this technology is “green.” It puts billions of greenbacks into the hands of manufacturers who make devices that no one would want if the government didn’t push people to buy.
In technology, the economic motive is equally strong. But in addition, the juvenile attraction to the “new” plays a powerful role. I was interested in seeing the new iPhones and iPads, but I did so a few weeks after their introduction, when I happened to walk by an Apple store. Yet thousands stood in line for hours, sometimes overnight. This goes beyond interest and approaches obsession.
It is a testament to the dedication of health-care workers that patients received decent care in our large public hospital. It is a testament to the dedication of those who work in counter-terrorism and national defense that our enemies have not yet overrun us. These people manage to do their work despite the bureaucrats. If you doubt this, look at how the Soviet Union – that paradigm of huge, top-heavy bureaucracy – imploded after 74 years of “building socialism.” But don’t worry. Our “progressives” are sure they can do better. If ObamaCare is not repealed, we will see if they can. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Past a certain point, self-confidence becomes hubris, unrealistic theories become delusions, good intentions become excuses to impose tyranny, and technologic innovations provide the means to impose it. Now that’s a really “progressive” update.
So I guess I’ll just remain old-fashioned. I’ll stick with my old version of Windows and Internet Explorer – they work. I’ll download important updates if they address security issues. I won’t update my website as long as it works. I won’t drive myself crazy trying to keep up with “new and improved” versions that may not work with one another, and probably won’t work with older versions of hardware or software.
And most important, I won’t let my desire for the latest technologic gizmos translate into a desire for the latest political and economic experiments. If Internet Explorer 9 is incompatible with my website, I can revert to Internet Explorer 7 and go on writing. But if the latest left-wing political and economic schemes are incompatible with my freedom, it will be impossible to revert to the constitutional republic in which I grew up. It will no longer exist, except in my memory.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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