SUMMARY: Digital things go wrong, causing personality disorder. Are today’s malfunctions worse than before? I call this state of un-well-ness “digital identity disorder”.
With all the excitement about digital identity (see, for example, Digital ID World’s definition), I wanted to describe a more low-key variant: namely, that which gets lost when your digital world becomes broken or bug-riddled. Consider the following (true) scenario:
- My desktop computer at work has been upgraded, and is now both slower and suffers from unreachable web pages that clearly exist, but not always, and not in a replicable way
- My laptop has been upgraded, and now can’t drive an external projector, plus a few other display anomalies; the hardware manufacturer pleads ignorance, and online advice is thin.
- My internet connection at home suffered a bizarre breakdown in service due to ‘rotted wiring underground’ (now fixed).
- My home computer, even with up-to-date anti-virus software and a good firewall, suffers from spyware and browser hijackings
- My PDA, since upgrading the synch software, has a permantly-empty contacts list
- My wireless setup at home no longer ‘passes through’ the connections from my wireless hi-fi (that’s right, hi-fi, not wi-fi) that I use as a high-quality infinite jukebox
- Having migrated this blog last week, certain (but not all) ported entries wreak havock on RSS aggregators, typically because of the inclusion of non-standard characters such as ‘smart quotes’ (as opposed to the ‘dumb quotes’ used in this sentence) — this in 2004, yet! Oh, and the URLs have changed too — I could fix that, but have run out of time and patience.
- Having personally overseen the largest wi-fi broadband schools network setup in the UK (about 7 years ago), I find that due to a quirk of history I’ll be the last person in the UK to actually get broadband at home.
- I’m forevor running out of hard disk space, everywhere — despite fairly regular purchases of ‘ample’ space/hardware
- Email overload has become a double-bind: too overwhelming in volume to read, even scanning quickly, too full of possible importance to ignore. And those auto-deleted spam-filtered items? Well, I once did a quick analysis on 5000 trashed items over a one-year period: only one falsely trashed item… not too bad, but still anxiety-provoking.
- … there’s more… but read on…
OK… you get the picture. So what? Surely this is indicitave of one sad geek-wannabe, since a true geek would have fixed everything, and a non geek would just not have cared, or not been painted into such a corner, right? Besides, what’s the big deal: there are a lot more problems in this world than lost blog entries, spam, and buggy operating systems, right?
Well, I’m not comparing this to real troubles in the world. Instead, I want to make a point about how our identities can become dangerously wrapped up in a digital quagmire. Sure, there have been many proclamations about us all becoming a bit too wedded to the technology, but my feeling now is that our dependency is at a dangerous inflection-point. Once one gets in too deep, disruptions are extremely disconcerting. We have limited patience for fixing/editing/debugging, which over a certain period of time can be enthralling, but over a longer period can become downright soul-destroying.
Robert Pirsig argued many years ago, in the well-known Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for the benefits to personal well-being that ensue from a level-headed approach to the challenges of debugging [this is a gross over-simplification, but not a bad encapsulation for the purposes of this posting]. But today’s software environments are chamelions tantamount to Pirsig’s (protagonist’s) motorcycle switching from petrol-power to electric-power to nuclear-power to something-unheard-of every 2 or 3 years. Worse, the switchovers happen at the precise moment when a real dependency has developed.
I’ve seen people lose their hard drives: pretty bad. I’ve seen people lose their email passwords with no recovery possible: pretty bad. I’ve seen people lose all their blog postings: pretty bad. But what is it that’s actually so bad? In a nutshell, an increasing portion of one’s identity becomes tied up in digital artifacts, and when these go haywire, it becomes extremely unnerving. When the number of things going haywire exceeds a certain threshold, we get downright grumpy. In fact, I’ve observed the same problems among definite non-geeks who have become overwhelmed with the increasing pace at which digital artifacts (including emails) are thrown at them.
The upshot is that I’ve been rather grumpy for about a week, as all these problems combined and compounded one another. The lesson is clear: time to step back for a bit. I naturally need some of the technology to do the bits and pieces for some papers I’m writing and presentations I’m preparing, but I’ve decided that actually no, I do not need most of it, so I’m going bypass some of the debugging for a few weeks, let the buggy systems languish for a while and deal with them next month.
I’m certain that I can ultimately deal with the problems, because I always have. The resources are certainly ‘out there’, and here in KMi, for solving them — but ‘out there’ is precisely one of the problems: the internet is an invaluable resource for helping me repair problems that I wouldn’t have had in the first place if my life weren’t so damn, well, digital.