The modem problem

Sometimes, I find myself missing the friction of using everyday things. Without it, everything seems to happen magically in the background. With no hiccups in the process, we have no reason to pause. No reason to stop and wonder how something works.

I often think of this as the “modem problem.” As in, any time you call an ISP for tech support, the first and only thing to do is reset your modem. It’s just What You Do. This is, without fail, the first piece of troubleshooting for basically anything that plugs into the wall. Turn it off and back on again is a long running IT joke, but it’s also an unfortunate truth that it’s the only way most of us can fix half the shit in our homes.

Every modern device is designed to be magic. To work in the background, without any input from us. We design phones, computers, and software to automate as much as we can, tucking away the ugliness. But friction is what sparks the interest in how something works, and without it, figuring these things out is so much harder.

As technology tucks away its rules and systems deeper into a black box, the harder it becomes to tinker with, and ultimately, the harder it is to fix. But more and more, we can’t crack open the things we own to figure out how they work, either literally or through software.

For someone like me, who learns best by reverse-engineering, this is a huge bummer. I am not a computer scientist. I am not a coder who creates new software from scratch. Instead, I’m the weird uncle who swings by too early in the morning to help you fix your car, then bangs on the carburetor until something happens.

If someone builds something, then hands me the code or a finished product, I can often figure it out well enough to bend it to my needs (this has long been how Mojiferous and I have worked together. He, the smart one, makes something, then makes it usable by me).

I tend to think of both software and hardware like collage. Where you pull apart something someone else made to learn about it, then take those pieces and turn them into something new to fit your needs.

One of the things that initially drew me to the Raspberry Pi years ago was the fact that it kind of worked. Then the more you poked at it, the more you learned about it, and the better you could make it work. And while that’s the whole point of the Raspberry Pi in particular, that doesn’t mean the big tech companies can’t take lessons from it as well. In my perfect world, we’d get these magical devices and tools to easily peek under the hood, tweak, and repair.

The ideal of tech is to bring the supposed benefits of all new technology to the masses, and to do so it needs to be easy to use. Which is noble, I guess, if you pretend that selling more units doesn’t also enrich those who make them. There’s a more cynical view too, where the more big tech hides from the buyer, the more they can get away with. What that means is different for every device, but behind every magic trick is the ugly truth that we’re all getting played.


Currently reading: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
Currently listening: Mono Requiem for Hell

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