What Do We Get Angry About?


Anger is eternal but each era finds its own object of rage. Ours, I submit, is one of modern life's greatest blessings: the computer. I gaze into it every day - for hours on end. It gives me so much: a 1979 debate between John Cleese and Malcolm Muggeridge; a new Star Wars episode of Angry Birds; the full text of George Washington's farewell address; that day's photo of my little nephew's trip to London; a clip of the latest South Park; and a living as a blogger.

Should I not love this laptop nestled in front of me in the early hours, as I learn so much about the world? Should I not revere a screen that can show me my sister, thousands of miles away, as if she were next to me on a New York street? How can I hold the slightest grudge against a piece of light metal that would have seemed to the world of my youth something close to a sci-fi miracle?

And yet nothing enrages me as much when it fails. Failure, of course, is a rarer and rarer thing. Since I converted to the Church of Apple a few years ago, most things have run smoothly. I've never lost a huge piece of work because I pressed the wrong button. My last laptop died because I had filled its hard drive with so much stuff that it expired from exhaustion. Even then, by some miracle, I could send it to the company and have everything on it restored. And yet when the 'computer says no', I fly off into a spiral of frustration and anger.

The greatest American comedian of our time, Louis CK, had a wonderful skit on this strange paradox. He made a simple point about the mobile phone. In my lifetime (and his) we have gone from 'the phone' to 'my phone'. We have gone from the brick- heavy, stationary rotary phone to something that fits in your pocket. This phone provides you information - with no wires -by transmitting into space and back. It can show you where you are to a few feet after scanning the entire planet! And yet you rarely hear people expressing their delight in this miracle. What you hear and see is people swearing at their phones, tut-tutting, sighing and generally maligning the little thing.

Two weeks ago, for example, I was going to do a live video debate on the legalisation of cannabis. We were going to do it on Skype. All I had to do was sit where I usually sit and look into the screen I was already looking at. But there was a rare bug that somehow disabled the camera for Skype. I couldn’t be seen.

I immediately started huffing and puffing. How much time was this going to take to fix? I called my tech support guy, bristling with frustration. Within seconds, he was able to Google the problem, talk me through a few easy - but, to me, still maddeningly complicated - steps, and get it to work. By then it was too late. We rescheduled the video for the next week. And then the same problem happened again. At that point, I lost it. Manifold expletives deleted. What on earth is wrong with me? And us, for that matter, because I know I'm not the only one. So here goes. My working theory about computer rage is that advances in technology - miraculous, unbelievable advances that have improved our access to knowledge beyond most previously existing human beings' wildest imagination - have ratcheted up our expectations. Just as we lust for the latest iPhone (even though the one we already have is itself one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation), we despise the one that fails us - even in a trivial way. We are the spoilt-rotten brats of human history.

My second theory is that we secretly hate what we have come to rely on and yet don't fully understand. I'm an early adopter of most technologies. I was in internet chat rooms in 1991. I started my blog when Clinton was still president. And yet I know I don't know HTML code - and am too old to learn what tomorrow's children will learn almost reflexively. And when you slowly begin to rely on this impenetrable series of noughts and ones, and the sacred priesthood of the code-writers, you begin to resent it - and them.

So I hope at some point that Louis CK will do a skit on what has just happened with the Obamacare website. It is a debacle, a fiasco, an outrage - and everyone seems to agree on that. Heads must roll! Obama's presidency is revealed as empty! Why? Because the entire health insurance system and the entire tax code and everyone's health history was not instantly and smoothly accessible for more than 300m people on a single web page. Because Americans were not instantly able to see and compare a varied selection of private insurance policies at different price levels, match them with the subsidies available to them according to income, and enrol in a new or amended health plan right away. If that isn't reason to be spitting mad, what is?

You doubtless recall a similar disaster with the overhaul of the NHS's IT programme in recent years. The British government's IT guru, Mike Bracken, is in America right now to offer tea and counselling to distraught Obamaites.

He told Americans that watching the Obamacare glitchkrieg felt 'a bit like Groundhog Day to where we were three or four years ago'. Hundreds of millions of dollars, large-scale IT enterprise technology, no real user testing, no real focus on end users, all done behind a black box . . . ending in enraged citizens screaming at a 'computer says no' message.

The answer, of course, is more flexible, smaller, less complex systems designed for users rather than governments. I'm not excusing the Obama administration's failure. But I am asking for a little patience and a dab of perspective.

What Obamacare is offering is, for the first time in American history, a chance for everyone to get health insurance they can afford. And by health, I mean something our parents and grandparents would have deemed a fairy tale: treatments of astonishing power and complexity, the triumph over cancers and viruses, pharmaceutical miracles, improving health and extending lives to a point where no one has arrived before us. That we cannot get it instantly on a single screen with no glitches or delays is not a reason for massive anger. It is a reason, if we can only manage it, for gratitude.

Be the back man ...

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