Philosophical Printers: a study in complexity



I make a habit of confessing my cognitive errors, as a warning to others, an illustration of my inevitable limitations, and the better to understand them. You may remember the difficulties I have getting myself to conferences, because of having to coordinate travel times, country zone time changes, car rental and return times,  to say nothing of getting the dates of travel to correspond to the early commencement of welcoming lectures the following day.

Last week I had a struggle with a printer which would not print. Printers used to be insensate objects which merely printed. They knew their place: slaves to the computer master. Now they have developed philosophical doubts about their purpose in life, and will not print unless handled with extreme tact. They can hold your work hostage, and know how to exploit Luddite bargaining power. They demand registration, your personal details, and the right to tell you in subsequent communications how they are developing as a product. That is the unkind interpretation. A more gentle view is that they are suffering from identity anxiety and polymorphous existential doubt: they do not know if they are scanners, copiers, glossy photograph booths or even, in their atavistic past, fax machines. One gains the impression they have been reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

Newly bought, my printer seemed benign: a harmless helper without sharp edges. It arrived without a full set of printing cartridges, so it sulked at being asked to work without the required complement of colours, particularly the missing magenta and cyan (it was quite peeved about those) and there was a delay till those were delivered the following week. The proffered installation disc was rendered obsolete by my new laptop no longer catering for this out-of-date medium, so I downloaded the software and then the problems began.

The printer had its own set of priorities. It was willing to connect by Wifi, but demanded that any device have a username and a password. My router had a username and a collection of passwords, though not labelled as passwords, on the underside of the router. I tried a variety of these, but the printer rejected them petulantly. Eventually I found a new potential password on the edge of the router, and that partially mollified it. It printed a test page, and then nothing else. Documents it rejected, keeping them in the Documents Printing queue for ever. This is the printer equivalent of the Passive-Aggressive ploy.

After many attempts, I decided to resolve the high level of complexity by going for a very simple solution: a cable between printer and computer. After a week the cable arrived, and when attached the printer still sulked, printing nothing, other than a page saying it was connected, but had elected to go Offline. It remained Offline thereafter, whilst still occasionally moving the print head in a suggestive and reassuring manner.

There were two problems: the connectivity problem, whatever it was; and my mental model of the problem, which was probably wrong in one or several of its parts. For example, should the computer and printer talk to each other through the router, or to each other? When the printer asks for a password, is it the password to the router or the computer? Why doesn’t the direct cable work,  and why does the obviously connected printer say that it is “offline” and remain sulking offline? Why do the many instructions distinguish between different types of cable, USB, Internet, etc. but not explain why? Why do the advice forums say that you should re-install the software? Why do so many advice forum questions get answered by people who have surface plausibility and zero knowledge?  Why are the simple installation manuals so simple, and yet so complicated in their ambiguity? Why does my iPhone have no problem connecting with the printer, even though it has never met it before, let alone never having been introduced properly?

You may say, quite rightly, that I should have solved this problem simply and quickly. True. I know it has not happened to you. I also confess that I do not know how I solved it, or if I have solved it permanently. It printed something, and I am grateful, as any supplicant should be. One of my many downloaded connectivity solutions may have done the trick, or they may yet interact to thwart me once again. It is a fraught relationship, ripe for psychoanalytic interpretations.

I simply illustrate that even trivial problems contain some complexity, and understanding some of the complexity does not necessarily help, because some complex understanding is itself imperfect, and because some things have become more simple as a new solution leapfrogs an old problem. That is the joy of competence, as Bryan and Harter found in 1897, in their psychological studies of the emerging technology of telegraphy. Once operators understand the overall meaning of a message, the details of the Morse codes of individual letters can almost be ignored. Key presses give way to a higher grammar, with a commensurate increase in speed and power of communication. Similarly, we will soon let computers connect to each other with their own handshakes, troubling us no more with their quaint requirements, local customs and digital shibboleths.

Till that day, there will be the odd confusion, born of imperfect understanding, a discrepancy between model and reality, in which the latter always triumphs, and the printer refuses to print. May it not happen to you.


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