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The Computer Tax

By Elio Grieco and Christina Eichelkraut Co-Founders, egx.org


This article is part one of the three-part series Computers: The Pitfalls, Perils and Promise published by egx.org. The articles examine the societal challenges that stem from technology's ever-pervasive role in our lives and consider how to confront those challenges so technology and humanity can reach their full potential. Solutions do exist, but they require society to radically change the way it thinks about computers, technology and ourselves.


How many of us have cursed under our breath as we wait for our smartphone to reboot, a web page to load, or the show we're watching to buffer? Who hasn't felt jagged frustration at the endless parade of passwords and captchas modern web sites demand? Tech glitches snatch time from us in small, irretrievable snippets every day. We call this loss of time "the computer tax."


Each instance lasts mere seconds, but cumulatively the lost time adds up. While there's no full tally available of just how much of our lives we lose to paying the computer tax, it becomes more apparent with each additional layer of technology.


Ironically, computers were invented to give us more time by freeing us from the repetitive and mundane tasks necessary to keep the world running. Initially, this meant computations and calculations, something humans are not especially quick or accurate at performing. Early computer scientists realized that with enough Math an entirely new class of problems could be solved. Math enabled computers to become tools for composing letters, sending information, editing or even synthesizing videos. It seemed as though the golden age of the computer had begun.


Computers became embedded into increasingly more facets of our lives. Today, they are so ubiquitous not having a computer integrated into a task is hard to imagine, whether it's doing laundry or going for a walk around the neighborhood. The human body and brain are the only machines on Earth a computer can't replicate and yet we strap computers onto them or embed them within ourselves.


Now, at last, we have begun to suspect there may be a limit to how much computers can improve our lives. It is harder to ignore that rather than reducing the number of monotonous tasks in our lives, computers instead increase them. At their worst, computers add extra, time-wasting steps to what used to be quick, simple tasks.


The Broken Promise of Paperwork Eradication


Filling out forms has never been fun or streamlined. Computers offered a glimmer of hope. Finally, we could be spared from the monotony of typing our name, address, and identifying number. In theory, computers can do this and some programs even purport to do so.


In reality, computers have added another circle to the hell that is completing paperwork. Partially filled out forms often do not automatically save the information and thus crash. Worse, forms get snagged on a glitch and the session times out, forcing the user to fill out the entire form again. When that happens, not only has computer use failed to eliminate mundane repetitiveness, but it actually made an already-tedious task more awful by forcing the user to do it twice. This is a hefty tax to pay for an ostensibly straightforward task in terms of a person's time.


A bigger problem is when entire systems overload so one can't fill out the form at all. With good old-fashioned paper, a form can be filled out once with a pen and dropped off with no more time than it took to complete that task. Sure, there may be processing delays caused by whatever procedures the paperwork is subject to, but ultimately the paper can be manually set aside and someone will eventually process it. On the other hand, a digital paperwork process can be fully stalled any time a web portal is down.


Watching a Movie


Streaming initially offered the dazzling promise of having any movie available at a moment's notice from anywhere in the world. We now know that's not how things actually worked out.

First, you have to figure out which streaming service actually has the desired movie, a problem so common that there are now services to help with the task and a plethora of articles attempt to assist in determining the total expense. Once you figure that out, you may need to set up a new account -- a process often mired in answering the same repetitive, mundane questions bureaucratic paperwork requires. Still more time is stolen from you as you are essentially forced to link the service to various devices, all to access the "convenience" of streaming merely.


After tapping "play" you might be treated to various spinner animations indicating a buffering issue, a problem created by the choke points inherent in centralized network infrastructure. If the network is completely down it's pretty much impossible to watch anything, even previously watched movies. And so you become victims of copyright and contract vacillations, meaning a movie you previously enjoyed on one service might, without warning, become permanently unavailable anywhere.


Email and Textual Communication


Email was considered a technological wonder when it debuted, and no wonder. It is essentially a hybrid of the printing press and the telegram.


The problem is its adoption was truly universal. Both legitimate users and scammers quickly latched on to email's utility and essentially free cost. Since sending a million emails costs no more than sending five, spam's birth was perhaps inevitable. Early adopters of this new, unwieldy technology naively ventured online, hoping to see photos of their cross-country grandchildren growing up. Instead, they discovered that Nigeria had a panoply of troubled princes and they, and only they, could help. Today's users are more sophisticated, but spam has been bolstered by far more dangerous threats that include phishing emails and sextortion. The Nigerian prince still lingers as well, albeit with more clever guises.


In response to the ever-growing hostility of email and the need to delete countless emails to get to a missive from a friend, people fled to the walled gardens of centralized platforms like Gmail, Slack, and Facebook. Little did anyone realize they were trading one threat for other, more severe ones like surveillance, censorship, and account lockouts. These platforms ultimately steal yet more time from users because the services do not interoperate. You are forced to sign up for multiple sites and download their attendant apps. Checking your email has gone from a straightforward digital task to a trek through various platforms and interfaces. The need to be aware of what each separate inbox holds at all times taxes not just your time but your brain as well. Anyone who emails is thrust into a constant state of distraction during which they can not operate at their full mental capacity. Worst of all, the distraction takes you away from the people around you, robbing you of your ability to stay mentally and emotionally healthy and engage with loved ones in the moment.


By comparison, consider checking snail mail. One walks to the mailbox, opens the door, extracts the mail, shuts the door, and sorts. Sounds downright relaxing and one might even get fresh air.


A final twist of the digital knife is how social media companies wrest control of information by presenting and organizing it. Just as physical stores place essential or desired items at the back of the store to encourage impulse buys, centralized communication platforms use the same trick digitally. Rather than show a chronological list of messages, social media feeds and timelines are constantly rearranged by opaque and ever-shifting algorithms. These are not designed with the user's needs in mind; if they were, a person's social media feed would be transparent and editable. Instead, information is tuned to promote specific posts --usually paid for, often inflammatory-- and hide others that don't directly produce revenue for the company by keeping the user engaged with ads.


Changing interfaces and versions


The constant state of flux in user interfaces is another cross that computer users must bear. While most tools converge toward more useful designs, computer interfaces change on a whim and frequently for the worse.


The hammer, invented 3.3. million years ago, hasn't evolved too significantly from its basic form because it hasn't needed to, though admittedly it may have updated features such as a rubber handle. Still, a hammer from a century ago works the same as one made yesterday. There is no learning curve to use a hammer from the last century versus a hammer made a week ago. However, when a website or service updates its interface, long-time users are at first confused and forced to take virtual "tours" of features they had already been using. Yet more precious minutes of productivity, leisure or communication are siphoned away in the name of alleged progress.


The time collectively stolen from humanity due to arbitrary interface changes should infuriate us. These changes frequently do not even do what they often purport to, such as increasing productivity, usability or efficiency. Such rapid changes in various systems keep people in a perpetual state of inefficiency and make constant retraining necessary.


One deadly example of an interface transition is the shift from physical buttons to touch screens in cars. Using physical controls facilitates muscle memory and allows control to become automatic. Conversely, touch screens require the user's vision. This means no matter how many times one has used a touch screen they always need to glance at the screen and consider where to press. While this may seem like a minor, occasional annoyance it becomes truly problematic in scenarios like driving where precise control and rapid response are critical. It's not a surprise that an increasing number of studies find that using touch screens while driving leads to higher driver distraction and an increase in accidents.


Rampant Rent-Seeking


Finally, tech has killed the concept of owning things. You pay money, the company who invented the technology changes something, you pay them again. Buying music used to mean it was yours forever. But continual re-issuance of the same song on new media formats (Cassette Tape, Compact Disc, MP3) meant that you had to repurchase it in a few years. Streaming is merely the culmination of a decades-long rent-seeking trend in the music industry. No longer content with forcing music lovers to buy new formats, people must now pay perpetual, monthly subscription fees. If you miss a payment or the company shuts down their DRM (Digital Rights Management) servers, all the music, books, movies, etc. you allegedly "purchased" evaporate instantly, and in the case of the DRM server shutdown, permanently.


Another disturbing development has been bringing the subscription model to physical goods like cars, as the article Want a heated steering wheel in your BMW? You'll be able to download one via subscription explains. Formerly paid-for devices like smart speakers can now be retroactively converted into subscription-based items, rendering them suddenly useless without a monthly subscription fee to a streaming service. Rather than making product and service purchases more convenient and reliable, digital goods are apt to disappear without notice.


What's Next


This is by no means an exhaustive list of the issues plaguing contemporary computing. There are also legal issues, fragmentation, and lack of customization. The degree to which we have continued to embed technology into our lives, blithely ignoring the mounting computer tax, is incredible.


Even as some issues force us back to paper, still we cling tenaciously to a belief akin to gospel: If we just keep throwing more computers at the problem -- maybe quantum computers, maybe artificial intelligence, maybe blockchain, or just put computers in everything via the Internet of Things or augmented reality -- then somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, the next new technology will solve our problems.


To break free of the computer tax, we must foster a deeper understanding of software construction that prioritizes the user's needs and is built by engineers who prioritize correctness, reliability, and security in that order. We'll examine other challenges -- and how to solve them -- in the next two articles.


EDIT 2020-12-07: Fix implantables link as the original story seems to have been taken down by the source (ABC News).


egx.org is an Arizona non-profit (501c3)  that that addresses the societal challenges of emerging tech through thoughtful discussion, impactful initiatives, and advisory work for decision makers in education and public policy.

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