Yeah, that’s me…

Douglas Adams once wrote (in paraphrase) that any technology that appeared before you were 15 has always existed. Technology that appeared between the time you were 15 and 35 is new and exciting and you can probably make a living from it. And technology that appeared after you were 35 is unnatural and Satanic.

I bring this up because I’ve been working on a PowerPoint presentation for a client, and I’m having no end of grief with it. Now, before you accuse me of being even older than I am, I’ve been using PowerPoint for about twenty years, and I’ve given TED-quality talks to a couple of conference keynote sessions of well over 500 people. I’m not a fossil, okay?

But this is the first time I’ve been called upon to provide a narrated presentation that can be played in my absence. Covid etc. So I wrote a script, then wrote the slides, and tuned it up three or four drafts’ worth. I know this stuff: you don’t just wing it, you open off-off-Broadway and work the kinks out of it.

So then I record it. It’s about 40 minutes. And on playback, every third slide or so, there’s an audio drop-out, where half a second or so is just missing and the audio on both sides re-connects over the gap. Visually, it would look like the difference between “a few seconds of missing sound” and “a few sec/ng sound,” where there’s just stuff left out of the string.

I go online. Hmm… dropouts are a “known problem” in Office for Mac 2011. As in, “we know about it, but we don’t know what to do about it.”

“But Herb!” I hear you wail. “Why the heck are you still using Office 2011?” Because my cat killed my new 2019 computer with a glass of cranberry juice. Because my old computer is 32-bit and the new Office software is 64-bit, and new software won’t run on a 2012 machine. Because Apple’s supply chain has left me waiting for a new computer for over six weeks. Leave me alone, okay?

So I borrow Nora’s nearly-new MacBook Pro, and try to record the start of the show as a test. No audio. Check system preferences… yes, it recognizes the microphone, and the speakers are on and turned up. Still nothing. Start a new show, two slides, and try to record that… no audio. Try to go old-school and INSERT audio in those slides… and the security dialogue opens up and says “PowerPoint isn’t authorized to access your microphone.”


Okay, so I re-set the security settings, record the test slides again. Audio! Yay for that! So I open up the original recorded presentation file to see what it sounds like on Nora’s computer. No audio. Nothing. The timings are there, it’s changing slides in ten-second sequences or so as it should, but dead silence.

This is what our vaunted work from home (WFH) environment looks like, in which we’re all called upon to act as our own IT departments. Since Covid changed our work, I’ve downloaded Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Skype for Business, and Cisco Webex Meetings, depending on the platform that each different group or client uses (and that’s beyond the Google Hangouts and FaceTime that I already knew). One of the groups I’m part of shares documents in WordPerfect.

Remember Y2K? (Of course you don’t, because you’re a freaking child!) We all worried that every computer everywhere would collapse when they could no longer recognize date codes that were created back when Stanley Kubrick could make a movie called “2001” and have it be set in the unimaginable future. Now, twenty years further on, computing has grown by at least two orders of magnitude, and what’s going to collapse is the interaction between incompatible systems supported by no humans. We’re going to be scavenging berries and wearing possum skins within a year.

More seriously, imagine the learn-from-home environment. Imagine a poorly educated parent unfamiliar with anything beyond their phone, trying to help their seven-year-old kid do an online lab and upload their homework to the classroom’s dropbox. Every social class divide we ever saw in education is going to be vastly multiplied this year. The comfortable families will have comfortably adequate access to information structures, and the scrambling and desperate families will scramble and become even more desperate.

When everything works, we take it for granted. But as soon as it stops, we realize that we might have been leaning a little too heavily on it.

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