Ben at Flying Totems:

Updates in tech are often a matter of taking something good or at least functional and making it worse. You’ve probably noticed this. So I hope that at the very least this one is equivalent to the status quo.


Matthew Crawford:

But the counter-productivity of today’s “tech” that I have in mind is not of this sort. It is not an unintended consequence, due in part to collective action problems (e.g., the congestion caused by everyone else also using a car). Rather, the very business model of tech, often, consists of adding layers of control to activities that don’t need them, and then locating that gratuitous, extra control in systems that need constant updating. The rents collected are various in form, some of it taking the form of hostage-taking, since the dysfunction that comes with failing to maintain and update the extra layer of bullshit can cripple any operation.

But the bulk of the rents are paid in the frustration and uncertainty that accompany tasks that were once simple and easy. Of course, this isn’t really rent, as it doesn’t benefit anybody. But neither is it a cost that registers anywhere in the system. It’s just part of the vast, subterranean economy of shadow work we do to make things more convenient and legible for some IT system that is profoundly stupid, compared to human beings when they are allowed to go about their business without being harassed. We also do emotional labor to keep ourselves on the non-felonious side of the very natural, Unabomber tendencies that are the only rational response of a self-respecting person to being constantly fucked with in this way.


Both of the companies I order nutritional supplements from have recently redesigned their websites. Company A did that in March. Since then, the products I already had on monthly subscription have been duplicating. That is, they send (and charge for) two bottles instead of one. Each time, I write and explain what happened, and to their credit, they remove the charge and tell me to keep the extra bottle. I don’t mind getting free supplements, but I’d just as soon avoid having to save receipts and write extra emails.

Company B just did their redesign this week. I placed an order on Monday, on the old system. When I hadn’t gotten a shipping confirmation by Wednesday, I went back to log in to my account, only to discover the redesign. The new system wouldn’t let me log in, so I wrote to ask what to do about it. Yesterday, I got a barely-literate email explaining that, yes, we have a new website [I noticed that, thanks], and you will be required to create a new account, and sorry, none of your previous order history will carry over. I wrote back right away: OK, so does that affect Monday’s order, or is that in limbo now? I still haven’t gotten an answer to that one, still haven’t gotten a shipping confirmation. Eternal optimist that I am, I thought, well, maybe this new system will solve the previous problem that Company B was infamous for — failing to update their site to accurately reflect whether a product was in stock or not. I’ve lost count of how many times I ordered something that was advertised as being in stock, only to get an email at the last second before shipment saying, “Sorry, product X is currently backordered.” Sometimes I wouldn’t even get that, just an invoice with the product quantity zeroed out, at which point I’d have to email for a refund or a replacement.

If the 1993 Michael Douglas movie Falling Down were to be rebooted, I’d suggest that the road construction scene could be replaced with one in which he takes his RPG to an IT call center instead.

I’m aware, of course, that we all get more curmudgeonly as we age. It may be that these kinds of petty frustrations were always there in some form, and the only difference was that we had more patience and energy when we were younger. Either way, this learned helplessness seems to be a common experience three decades into online life. I expect things to break down frequently, and I don’t expect to encounter anyone who can even take responsibility for the problem, let alone fix it. The petty frustrations multiply like gnats in the summertime.