Tech Complexity and the New Dark Age

by James A. Bacon

There are numerous existential threats to Western Civilization — reckless fiscal and monetary policies leading to government collapse, the rush toward a zero-carbon economy supported by a shaky electric grid, and, least appreciated, the increasing complexity of technology and information systems. We have brought the first two dangers upon ourselves, and we theoretically have the power to reverse them. But we are powerless to deal with the fourth.

I have ranted in the past about system complexity. Like most Americans, I live on the Internet now. I cannot function without it. And it’s a mess. Infuriated by recent incidents, I feel compelled to escalate from rant to fulmination. Imagine me typing these words with spittled lips and fire shooting out of my eyes.

My consternation began earlier this week when I was spending the night out of town on business. My old laptop was frustratingly slow and klunky, so I broke down, went to Best Buy and purchased a new one. When I brought my shiny new Samsung back to the hotel and tried to set it up, I got caught in a Catch 22. I couldn’t establish an Internet connection, my laptop informed me, because the time on the laptop’s internal clock needed resetting. But I couldn’t reset the clock because… I couldn’t get on the Internet!

No problem, I thought. I’ll just turn on my iPhone hot spot, and hop online long enough to reset the clock. For reasons I cannot fathom, I could not sync my iPhone Bluetooth with my laptop’s. I’d done so at a restaurant earlier in the day with my old klunky laptop. But I couldn’t make a connection now with my shiny new laptop.

OK, that was frustrating, I thought, but no problem. I’ll take the laptop to the Geek Squad at Best Buy. So, I called Geek Squad to set up an appointment. Unfortunately, Geek Squad wouldn’t give me an appointment because my membership had just expired. And my membership didn’t renew because the personal credit card they had on file had been compromised, and a new card was in the mail.

No problem, I thought. I’ll just use my debit card.

Then I made a mistake. I should have known better. I googled “Geek Squad” on my iPhone and clicked on the top search engine result. Unbeknownst to me, the website was not the real Geek Squad but a look-alike. It told me to enter my debit card number. Ordinarily, that would have set off alarm bells. But I’d been getting notifications that my Geek Squad subscription was about to expire, and I figured that Geek Squad had tried renewing my credit card and it hadn’t worked, so, it seemed logical that I had to input a new credit card number. I entered my debit card data. Nothing happened. Frustrated, I entered my business debit card. Nothing happened. Then I realized, oh s—, that’s not the Geek Squad website.

Long story short, I finally found the real Geek Squad website and connected with an agent on a chat line. I explained my problem. The agent queried — and I’m not making this up, I wrote it down — “If I understand the issue correctly, you need help with wifi poooter.”


“What’s a poooter?” I asked.

“Noun, pooter (plural pooters). A glass jar used for collecting small insects, etc. It has two tubes, one (protected by a gauze) has two tubes, one (protected by a gauze) which is sucked, the other up which the insect is drawn.”

I don’t know if I was dealing with a deranged AI program or a call-center agent with a demented sense of humor, but I’d never experienced anything like this before.

The Geek Squad chatbot (or whatever it was) couldn’t help me fix my problem, but it did set up an appointment for me at Best Buy that evening. Geek Squad is a solid outfit, and the Best Buy guy figured out that my Samsung needed to do a massive round of updates…. like a half year’s worth. No wonder stuff wasn’t working properly. Thanks, Samsung. Not!

Meanwhile, late that afternoon I started getting notifications that my personal debit card and company debit card had been compromised. You’d think it would be an easy thing to get in touch with a bank to confirm that, yes, a particular transaction was indeed a fraudulent one.

So, I called the bank that handled the nonprofit corporate account and got caught in phone tree hell. I couldn’t get through because I didn’t have the credit card password or PIN number or something. After enduring an endless loop, repeating the same sequences over and over, I finally got transferred to a real person. I’m sure my yelling obscenities into the phone was what finally did the trick. But the live person transferred me to another, who transferred me to another line…. where I was put on indefinite hold. There I spent 15 to 20 minutes listening to piped in music featuring, among other rage-inducing ditties, some whistling idiot who made me want to rip my eardrums out. It was after 5:00 p.m. now, so, for all I knew, everyone had gone home. I finally gave up and handed off the problem to Tom, our treasurer. Turns out that the cards given to nonprofit customers didn’t have passwords (or PINs, or whatever), so it would have been impossible to navigate through the phone tree even if I had known what I was doing. The bank was aware of the problem, Tom told me, but hadn’t gotten around to fixing it.

Meanwhile, in trying to cancel my personal debit card, I encountered a new thing — voice recognition. I was asked to repeat the phrase, “My voice is my password, please verify me.” I did as I was instructed. It didn’t work. After that failed three times, I was told to do something else, I can’t remember what — by now my brains were too fried to keep coherent notes anymore. That didn’t work either.

Somehow I did manage to get the card canceled.

Then I had a new problem. I was out of town, and all three of my personal and business cards were canceled. I had no way of paying for dinner. Oh, wait, I had cash in my wallet.

And guess what. When I paid with cash… it worked! No logins. No passwords. No phone trees. They just took my money and gave me change. Miraculous!

Bottom line: We live now in a world in which everything relies upon the Internet, which is wonderful when it works. But IT systems are complex, and they don’t always integrate well with one another. They’re under relentless, never-ending attack, and they get compromised frequently. Combine that reality with human frailty — forgetting passwords, mis-typing passwords, getting blocked out because you’ve entered the incorrect password too many times, falling for phishing schemes that come at you from every direction, dealing with help desk people with incomprehensible foreign accents — and you have a recipe for never-ending angst.

Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics (or whoever calculates productivity metrics) take into account the extraordinary amount of time we Americans lose while flailing around — teeth gnashing, knuckles turning white, blood pressures rising — while trying to get things to work? I doubt it. Things are much worse than the government knows.

Look, I know I’m getting older, and I find it harder to follow complex instructions, I make a lot of typing mistakes entering passwords, and I just get befuddled. I know that some of my travails are my own damn fault. But guess what — there are millions just like me! If the system works only for Mensas, Microsoft-certified technicians, and people under 25, it’s cruising for a Thelma and Louise-like ending.

I’m waiting for the whole damn thing to crash about the same time the electric grid goes dark and the government is too broke to help with anything.

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37 responses to “Tech Complexity and the New Dark Age”

  1. Irony so thick I stubbed my toe on it.

  2. Don Crawford Avatar
    Don Crawford

    I’m trying to get an electronic copy of my SSA 1099 from the SS website. The instructions are to use the “replacement forms” tab in My Social Security. This tab does not exist on any SS page I can find except the home page which says use the “replacement forms” tab. Does anyone ever check this stuff?

  3. Bubba1855 Avatar

    Sadly, I have to laugh…yes, laugh…Being a retired software consultant and weekly ‘road warrior’ I also had hardware issues from time to time with my laptop (company supplied). After talking to my peers I decided to go with a Dell laptop…with lots of tech support, like 24 hr replacement stuff, etc. Long story short, when I retired I built my own desktop. No, I’m not an EE/IT eng. Best computer decision I ever made. After 10 yrs, my desktop crashed…hey, ‘shit happens’, during COVID, and I knew sooner or later it would…so I backed up frequently. I decided not to build another one (I was 77)…bought a Dell desktop and an extra SSD. I swapped out the Dell HD with my SSD. Now, once a week or month I clone my SSD to my Dell HD. I do not own a laptop…everyone I know, including my kids have laptops. I learned early on that laptops ‘crap out’ much earlier than desktops.
    My retired neighbors are constantly asking for my help with their laptops…my desktop just keeps chugging on…
    My recommendation to those of you who use laptops/PC’s for work
    should really, like ‘really’ have a plan B…

    1. I’ve been building my own desktops since the 1990s. Install the OS and away I go. No bloated software from the manufacturer. Keep it simple.

      I have a smartphone, but don’t do anything fancy on it. Too d&%m small. Hard for my old eyes to see, and I’m not very good with just my thumbs.

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        40″ monitors” cured the problem for me. I can read them even without my glasses and from a couple of feet away I can actually see the difference between 1080p and 4k. Best part is they’re cheap, have TV tuners, and purchase prices are subsidized by streaming services. Just don’t turn on internet access.

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Next time get a Dell laptop–good old American company. They have been easy to set up (even I could do it and that is saying something) and have been dependable. My only problem with mine now is that some keys stick because I have dropped crumbs on the keyboard.

    1. Lefty665 Avatar

      That’s brain dead. Dell is just as capable as anyone else of supplying a machine that needs multiple updates. Supply chains are what they are.

      I started buying Dell stuff (PC’s Limited) when Michael was selling parts out of his college dorm room and have generally enjoyed them. But Dell puts its pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us.

      You’ve got my sympathies on keyboards. They all seem to have food and drink magnets in them, at least mine do. Fortunately $25-$30 buys a good replacement a couple of times a year.

      1. how_it_works Avatar

        I still remember when Dell sent 4 bad blade switches in a row as replacements. This was on a service contract that the customer was paying megabucks for.

        They’d have been better off just ordering replacements on Ebay and cancelling the service contract. A 4 hour service guarantee is no good when the local warehouse only has 2, and they’re both bad.

      2. how_it_works Avatar

        As far as keyboards go, I used to work for a place with a lot of very disgusting keyboards. I started swapping them out and taking the old ones and running them through the dishwasher with no detergent.

        That actually worked to clean them up and after letting them dry for 24 hours, they worked fine and were almost like brand-new.

    2. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      What proof were the “crumbs”?

    3. VaNavVet Avatar

      It appears that conservative wokeness will be the death of us as it fights against progress to conserve the past.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    All of that would be really funny to me considering the party and all, but I know my day is coming. I’ve done my last hack on my XP machine to keep my beloved Outlook Express working.

    “Like most Americans, I live on the Internet now. I cannot function without it.”

    I think you’d be surprised how easy it would be. I can honestly say that I’ve not charged more than $2000 on a credit card in a year’s time and most of that was for things not available at West Marine. The place where I get my hair cut thinks my last name really is Cash.

    Besides, writing checks to VNG and Dominion keeps my fingers nimble, especially since they both want me to add an extra zero.

    Samsung, eh? Not a Lenovo?

    1. Lefty665 Avatar

      Think about migrating, Thunderbird worked well for me as a simple port from Outlook Express long ago. I don’t need anything heavier duty.

      You are on very thin ice putting XP anywhere near the internet. Do you enjoy living that dangerously?

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I kept an NT4 Gateway going until 2010. When the HD died, I jimmied an 85GB HD into it and scrubbed it clean with a fresh rebuild.then went to every dot-ru website I could find and watched as the viruses died trying to install.

        I keep my XP running because I have a 32-bit MatLab and Theorist that allows me to play with stuff I enjoy.

        1. Lefty665 Avatar

          Give me your address, I’ve got a basement full of old hardware and software I’ll send you.

          Surprising how spritely old hardware gets when you get shed of OS bloat. But progress, 2 Moore cycles/3 years and it’s obsolete. Sigh.

          Recently got a little 6″ square 2″ tall computer to play with. 16gb ram and 500gb SSD, Win 11 Pro, lots of ports for about $200 . Modest 4 core cpu, but another $100 gets one with 32gb ram and 8 cores. It keeps getting more amazing. EEs rock.

    2. Bubba1855 Avatar

      Again, Nancy I love you. My wife and I only use one CC and we pay it off each month so no interest. The only debit card we use is for cash at an ATM of our local bank. We do not use a ‘mega bank’…it’s a local bank where the employees know our face and say ‘hi, Mr/Mrs W’. My brother in law banks with a ‘mega bank’.
      He’s always having issues with his account, but that’s another story…

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I use the fill-in 1040 forms, print ‘em, and mail ‘em the paper. If they don’t like it, tough. They can assign one of the new 87,000 agents to fat-finger it into the computer. I feel the same way about the tax industry as these boys and girls here at BR feel about civil rights compliance.

        Small banks are great, except every time I use a small bank it gets swallowed by a mega, specifically BoA. Three times. Southern Bank of Norfolk, Virginia National, and … blank.

        1. Lefty665 Avatar

          Use a printer with a duplexer and you can send them in printed on both sides for grins and giggles. Saves you postage too:)

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Just print twice with the first finished product face up in the feed tray.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Good news! A working Commodore Vic 20 has finally come down from the 300 dollar price. You can get one now for under a hundred bucks!

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      Wouldn’t surprise me if working ones were going for $300 now, because they have collector’s value.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        I discovered at a young age that computer engineering of any kind was not my future. My coding always resulted in “syntax errors”.

        1. Software compilers and computers aren’t very good at discerning what you meant, as opposed to what you wrote with respect to code.

        2. how_it_works Avatar

          I was able to programs that actually worked, but found that system administration was more fun.

  7. Lefty665 Avatar

    You’ve got my sympathies, not a good time. Not material now, but you can reset the time either in the OS or in the bios (uefi). That might have gotten you to an equally frustrating and seemingly endless series of updates.

    The endless loops of customer “service” are infuriating. I occasionally find that shouting obscenities will break out of an automated loop and get me to a live human. If I were on the other end of the interaction I don’t believe I’d reinforce that behavior. Go figure.

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      For a long time, Virginia’s 511 service wouldn’t understand correctly if you said “agent”.

      One day, out of frustration, I pronounced “agent” in a Southern accent (“ageeent”) and it connected me.

      Go figure.

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Wonder how !@#$%^&*( agent would have worked?

        1. how_it_works Avatar

          “I’m sorry, we didn’t understand that. Please try again.”

  8. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Reaching the end of this frustrating and somewhat terrifying experience, it was disappointing that no Constitutional or conservative principle was cited to remedy the problem. While wokeness, big gummint, errant fiscal policies yield under conservative theory, some things do not.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Indeed! 😉

    2. But at least nobody was likened to Hitler.

      Godwin’s Law anyone?

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    time spent on a task is considered “productive”, right?

    So, for instance, a car repair shop generates hours of work and economic gains so it contributes to GDP.

    And if a car requires even more repairs, it contributes even more to GDP!

    Similarly, all this time and effort on the phone uses
    resources and generates a “product” so it is, by definition, “productive” and likewise contributes to GDP!

  10. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    The believability of this piece is undermined by this opener…

    “There are numerous existential threats to Western Civilization — reckless fiscal and monetary policies leading to government collapse, wokeness undermining every institution in our society, the rush toward a zero-carbon economy supported by a shaky electric grid…”

    Color me skeptical…

  11. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Security suggestion.

    For online banking and finance, I use a dedicated laptop connected by ethernet to my cable modem, i.e., not the wireless router.

    On a locked stick, an Ironkey, is my portable browser set with highest security level and all bank and RIC login pages bookmarked. Set your browser to not connect except by https.

    User names and passwords are in a password locked PDF on the stick in case I forget them, not written on an index card in the desk.

    Always use two level security with a text to your phone, NEVER EMAIL. Never ever ever use your phone for banking and finance. This keeps the two levels of security separate on two different devices.

    It’s a hacker’s paradise out there.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        The company FSO has gone a tad off the deep end. The company is requesting that former employees take the Counterintelligence briefs and certifications tests. I wonder if Mar-a-Lago and Delaware are trickling down? Still not a bad thing. Get some interesting news stories.

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