A lot of tweets start with the phrase “that feeling…” You know, “that feeling when you see your keys on the seat of the now locked car” or “that feeling when you realize you’re talking to the person who wrote the stupid note in the kitchen.” One that I could tweet today is “that feeling when someone blogged about a topic similar to the draft you are working on.” I’m not talking about the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination or my New Year’s resolutions or anything predictable like that. I’m talking about something a bit more obscure.
When I met one of our neighbors back in the ’90s, he was already retired from a career working with computers. I asked him if he had a home PC and he said: “No, and I don’t want one.” I asked why and he said:
“I have a friend who is a retired plumber. People still call him when their toilet is clogged. Nobody calls me for anything.”
He added that technology was changing so fast that he wasn’t sure he could keep pace even if he wanted to.
That was almost 20 years ago. I assured him that he could probably pick things up very quickly. Technology had changed, but the fundamental elements remained the same. That’s what I thought, but today I am starting to understand what he might have meant. The fundamental elements are the same, we store stuff and we want to be able to retrieve stuff. We supply raw data to number crunching algorithms and we get answers. We connect people to people, people to machines and increasingly we connect machines to other machines without the need for people. The connections are wired and wireless and they are rendered clear by every conceivable size and shape of device. But, behind the devices, the connections, the wires and the radio waves, behind the touch and speech and keyboards and pointing-clicking things; behind all of that are people.
The important thing about those people is that they have chosen to spend their lives talking with machines. These are necessary people, people like me and my neighbor. People who are often as frustrated by problems and change and by all the little things that should work (but don’t) that you are. Still, we keep the machines running. We keep the bits flowing through copper and glass and through the atmosphere and through space. When I was trying to encourage my neighbor, I was speaking of fundamental things that were easy to understand like the old adage “garbage in – garbage out.” Today, the problem seems to be more likely to be a confused operating system or a mismatched pair of communication nodes than data entered by a human. Our connections are tenuous and fragile. As Scrooge said to Marley:
“…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
I felt like Scrooge the day after Christmas. I was providing “coverage” for my department which made me the go-to-guy for all the technical problems. We were having phone problems and the fact that these problems were as ghostly as Marley notwithstanding, people brought them to me. The UPS man hadn’t gotten an answer when he called the operator from the lobby. Telecommuting employees were unable to connect to their coworkers and while peoples’ ‘presence’ could be detected, messages could not be sent. My first reactions were:
“Doesn’t the UPS man remember how to knock?”
“Get in your car and drive to the office” and
“Do realize that you called me to tell me that you can’t send me a text message?”
My second thought – well my second thought is where I reach that awkward moment that I could tweet about. My second thought was about how “all I probably have to do is reboot something.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, on the other side of the equation, a blogger friend named Dan was figuring out the same thing. So, in partial response to Dan:
It’s not like “rebooting” a server is a magic bullet; it’s not all we’ve got. We’re what they call ‘experts’ and knowing that gave me the courage to look sound and act confident. Knowing that allowed me reassure people that their problems were important to me and that they could trust me to solve those problems. Just like those guys in India that you were speaking to.
Solving the problems wasn’t as easy as rebooting a server. Well, actually it was that easy, but before we got there, we had to rule out the other devices. I was reasonably sure the problem was a certificate error. Certificates are little eThingies that tell one machine that another machine is safe to talk to. When our phones are, as a friend often says, “in a state of great sidereal discord,” a certificate is usually to blame. The question was which device(s) had not accepted the certificate. I got a buddy on the line and we were able to figure out what device needed to be rebooted. It was like telling two children to pull the string tight between their tin cans. If you understand that reference, you are either as old as my neighbor or you watched the movie “Walk the Line” all the way to the end. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Happy New Year and may all your strings be tight in 2014.