Why the digital society isn't working

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"Unreliable technology" - Video 2007

Technology may be changing us but we need to change the technology

1995 Archive article for historical interest. Sadly many of these urgent issues remain.

Even the simplest things bring the whole digital society crashing down around us.

First the software itself is bugged, and always will be since the hardware changes before the operating systems are proven and reliable, while software using those operating systems is usually completely rewritten before all the original bugs are sorted out. Therefore expect your programs to crash at any time. Believe me, they will. If you're lucky, the data may survive. If not, then it may be corrupted in subtle ways which you may take weeks to discover.

What can you expect when the power of computers is doubling every eighteen months and when today's computers are already so powerful that it would take every programmer in the world at least thirty years to realise their full potential? Companies are under huge pressures to kick out unproven products - every computer and software company in the world is doing the same which is why they all get away with it.

Secondly, most PCs sold today are completely unfit for use, for one simple reason: backup. Machines are still being sold with hard disks so large and floppy disks so small that it would take up to 2,000 floppy disks to contain just one (daily) backup copy. The cost of one backup set alone would come to more than the entire machine - plus labour.

As every manufacturer knows, it is an absolute law of physics that every hard disk will fail, and that failures can happen at any point in the life of a machine. As every user knows, major hard disk failure usually means total catastrophic loss of all data. That can mean the end of a small business or a personal career. But theft is commoner than failure.

It is completely immoral for companies to sell machines with no proper backup - hard drives greater than 200 megabytes in size (and that means all machines today) without a tape streamer included in the standard package. Most new users are naive, and assume that their machines are complete. Therefore they slip into a "no backup" routine with a few floppy disks lying about for working files such as documents. But a machine without a proper backup device is a disaster waiting to happen.

Manufacturers tell us that recovery is easy - just insert their software CDRoms and it all happens automatically. And the same with any other bought software. This is a wicked lie. Every piece of software you buy inserts unique code into the registers of the machine to run under Windows 95, and many programs require hours of fiddling about with special settings to make them work properly with everything else. All this set up work is lost, plus all the time making the original installations. Even worse, all the help that was around for free at the end of the phone will now cost you a bomb - even assuming that the helplines for those programmes or hardware add-ons are still in existence.

The whole thing is a mess.

And don't kid yourself that a daily backup routine will save you. It won't. Especially if you have been backing up each time onto the same few tapes and a major corruption slipped onto your disk some weeks ago in important files without you realising. Unless you have a well organised system of archiving you will find that your copies are all far too recent, and all contain identical problems.

And there's another issue. You can make all the backups you like but unless every one is checked for errors you may find as others have that when you need them, the tapes you have been using were faulty or there were errors in the backup programme. Restoring from backup is the one function that most users only test once - when it's too late.

Finally you may find that instructions to backup every file have left you with useless tapes because they failed to include hidden registers that you don't see on your hard disk, without which nothing will work.

A common digital disaster is the one-desker, who keeps his or her backup tapes and disks in the same desk or office as the computer. One night a thief comes and steals the computer - and the tapes. Or there's a fire. Theft is very common, and sometimes they take everything.

So what's the answer?

  • Don't throw away all paper - it could save your life
  • Be careful to make digital copies of all important changes at least once a day
  • Give each copy a different name and date so you don't write over earlier ones
  • Make a full disk copy plus registers using a reliable brand tape streamer or duplicate hard disk device - and check data for all errors
  • Keep at least one set of recent copies off-site altogether

Problems are nothing new. I was amused to stumble across the following article I wrote for the Independent several light years ago (April 1995).

Patrick Dixon explains why he won't be going out without paper and a printer (1995)

"Some conference centres and hotels are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to computers - as I discovered when I tried to send an e-mail message recently. For a start there was no phone in my room at the conference centre. A neat row of pay phones was no help. They offered to fax the article for free. But how do you produce a paper copy with no printer? (1998 update: I stayed recently in a five star hotel with phones in the rooms fitted with computer jacks but no power sockets within fifteen feet of any phone extension. How stupid can you be?)

My Orange mobile phone has a fax and data socket, but they say it will only work later this year. Anyway, the reception was so poor that I would have had to fax outside in the rain, with the computer in one hand and the phone plus umbrella in the other. (1998 update: I now use a Nokia 9000 dataphone with combined e-mail, web access, fax, phone, diary, word processor. But bad reception can still be crisis-inducing.)

So I bundled into the car and drove 12 miles to a large Forte Posthouse hotel. The receptionist was full of smiles but said it was impossible. It was a common problem, she said. Almost every week, someone staying in the hotel tried and failed to connect a computer to their phones. There was no suitable socket anywhere in the hotel. She was so sorry. (1998 update: still many phones in hotels are hard-wired in with no access points and only a bare handful have ISDN lines, and even then only in a Business Centre. Some of us need serious bandwidth and would pay extra for it in our rooms.)

I turned back with my hand on the door - what about your own fax machine, which must be on a direct line? Couldn't we unplug that? Just for five minutes? I'll pay whatever you want. I was getting desperate. Absolutely not, she told me. It was needed for bookings. Try the petrol station. I took one look at the line of cars and gave up that idea.

A shop? A small office? Excuse me, can I use your phone - unplug it and shove my fax modem into your socket? I passed an estate agent's, chemist, post office, supermarket, bicycle shop ...

Clutching all my electronic bits I pushed open the door. There was no sign of life apart from a tiny dog, which was pleased to see me. There was a room at the back and I heard a cistern flush. An old man wandered in. The only technology he seemed to have was a solitary light bulb. Was there even a phone? Could I fax from here?

He was puzzled but friendly and pointed to a phone socket on the ceiling. A stool would reach it. My next problem was power. The computer battery was fine but the modem needed a transformer. So we perched the modem on the stool, half suspended from the jack, then unplugged his kettle and trailed leads across the shop.

I knelt down on the carpet between inner tubes and powered up, watched by the dog and the old man. In my haste, I abandoned e-mail for a simple fax. Next time I'm away from home for any length of time, in addition to the laptop, power supply, fax modem, connecting cables, mobile phone, phone charger and pager, I'll take a printer, headed paper, parallel port cable, mains extension lead, adapter and phone chargecard. And they say teleworking is easy?

Original article published in the INDEPENDENT 3/4/95 P23

Update: In April 1998 it is still the case that most newspapers in Britain require stories to be filed by fax because their systems cannot cope with e-mail from outside. It is also the case that hardly anyone in BBC TV or Radio has any access to the Internet at work - unless it is a direct line to their own domestic service provider.

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