In my coming travelogue (too long in the pipeline) I discuss two ways of looking at and dealing with the world, that I describe as rational and irrational approaches. The irrational approach is often described as magical thinking. Wikipedia defines magical thinking as “in anthropology and psychology, denoting the fallacious attribution of causal relationships between actions and events.”
Magical thinking is often derided by rationalists as nonsense because reason shows us that mistaken attributions to the causes of events are simply wrong. Of course, this is true, but in my book (when it finally emerges) I argue a case that irrational perspectives have other values, giving meaning perhaps, and that they might, actually, be the natural state of human existence.
Anywhoo, that’s not the point of this blog post.
I’ve worked in large companies, on and off, over the years and had to deal with the IT departments within them. When I worked at SAP they had an office, more of a workshop really, where, whenever someone left, their computer was stripped down to components, the hard disk was erased and then reused with a new installation of the operating system. It was a great way of doing things because you never ended up with a legacy PC with someone else’s cobwebs, old applications or user profiles or even more embarrassing leftovers. Other companies, I’ll not say which, do exactly the opposite and leave the PCs in the office and new users have to make do with all the crap left on them by pervious users. This was terrible and the PCs frequently ran very slowly (or locked up completely) with constant problems and the situation was probably very costly in the long run. All this was within a major, international, blue chip organisation.
The point is IT professionals don’t seem to fix problems any more, they get things working. That can involve going right to the cause with specific knowledge and experience of the cause of a problem (a fully scientific approach which, in fairness, is an actual fix), to a dig around in the settings until something works with a declaration of, that seems to fix it! The latter is a much less satisfactory experience for the hapless user who has phoned the help desk, been told that their problem isn’t the high priority they claimed it to be and, after days of struggling, finally gets a call from someone in a distant call centre who has no idea of the original problem and who seems to try things at random until the problem appears to be fixed.
Now this may just be an example of cost cutting and that the organisations I’ve worked for over recent years are doing everything on the cheap. SAP was a very well-off organisation (their Christmas parties were amazing) but I’m sure their approach paid dividends even if not easily quantifiable. Alternatively, it may be that IT is becoming so complex, with applications and operating systems interacting in ways not predicted (or tested for), third party add-ons and apps written by the sort of people who wouldn’t have been able to write software in a professional environment in the past (welcome to the world of Android), bugs in the operating system that are scheduled to be fixed later (or never), and other influences that we can’t imagine. Even fully released operating system updates can cause things to fall over unexpectedly, as with MS office recently failing to work at all after an update to Windows (and this stuff is written by the same company!). The solution was to send an email, which was in Office, that wouldn’t work!
So, it comes back to Arthur C Clark’s idea that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, to those creating these devices understand them, although people who create chips probably don’t know the details of applications and almost certainly the reverse is true. The people who create the operating systems or platforms probably have the best idea as they are in the middle of it all. But next time you get a call from an IT support engineer listen closely. Undoubtedly, they will have more knowledge than you but they may be referring to the sacred texts on the internet or other reference materials where their knowledge falls short. They will know where to look for solutions and they will have foundation knowledge that allows them to interpret the sacred texts. But if you listen you might just hear, behind the sound of the click, click, clicking of a keyboard, ancient incantations in barbarous tongues as they seek a fix to your problem that neither you nor they really understand.