Wednesday, March 12, 2008

And the Heat Goes On

In David Pogue's March 6 post (, Pogue claims "It’s time to place half of the tech-support blame where it belongs: at the feet of Them. The Users."

Now it's true that most tech support representatives at most companies don't deserve some of the anger and abuse they have to face, but in fact, that should be part of the job description. Many companies hire or contract tech support to act as human shields. Basically, they are the face of the company ... the only beings that poor, long-suffering users can actually contact. So it is upon tech support that the anger, woe and despair wrought by poorly conceived and recklessly implemented products gets heaped. It may not be the fault of the tech support representatives themselves, but they are hired as heat shields, like the ones that are supposed to keep spacecraft from burning up on re-entry into the atmosphere.

Of course, there are idiot users out there, just as their are idiots in all walks of life. There are even idiot tech support representatives ... ones who can barely follow the script and thus dispense advise that causes damage worse than the original problem.

But in the overwhelming majority of cases, people contact tech support about actual design flaws or operational defects in their products. And the source of this problem is the very pervasiveness of technology itself.

When I started out, computers were delicate instruments, housed in special rooms built exclusively for that purpose. These rooms had raised floors to facilitate cooling and to hide cables the size of firehoses. They had climate control systems that carefully monitored temperature and humidity. And they had locked doors, to keep the bumbling masses out. Only the annointed, the few, the truly geeky could gain entrance to those sacred temples of data.

And these machine were treated with respect. They were coddled. They were backed up. Their tape drives(!) were cleaned and the head degaussed. Disk cartridges were backed up and rotated in drives the size of washing machines. Technicians performed periodic maintenance, and ran software diagnostics to verify the integrity of the system.

Now, every parking garage ID card has a chip inside, and the average wrist watch has more computing capability than what served an entire office back then. And, of course, we have developed software complex enough to keep these incredibly powerful machines performing just as slowly as the old ones did in their day. We have computers in our cars, our phones, our watches and TV sets. We use calculators for jobs that are too menial for the desktop computer. Instead of room-sized stereo systems, we carry music players that also let us surf the Web, read our email, and check the weather without the burden of having to actually look out a window.

And, of course, we expect all this technology to work all the time.

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