Updates are Available

I, like most denizens of the modern world, am a pretty big fan of technology. (To clarify for the pedants out there, I am talking about machines with microchips and screens, though I do enjoy a good inclined plane.) I do most of my work and play on a computer, keep my to-do and grocery lists on my phone, and even recently started using an app to track my sleep patterns throughout the night. My tech is a major part of my life and only becomes more so as time goes by and more nifty gadgets are invented.

This is why I, like many of my fellow technophiles, hate switching on my computer or phone to find one of these notifications:

New updates are available. Click to install them using Windows Update”

Steam update, please restart Steam”

The latest version of Skype is ready to install now. It won’t take long to upgrade – and you’ll get all the latest improvements and fixes”

A new driver is available for your GPU”

iOS #.# is available for your iPhone and is ready to install”

Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the necessity of updates. I know that they’re intended to improve upon what I’ve been using and that they fix existing problems, some of which I don’t even know about. I know that other programs will run better if I keep my OSes and graphics driver updated.

Given that I know that updates are, ultimately, a good thing, it would make sense for me to be pleased to see that they are available. I, however, am not, and for a simple reason. As much as I live my daily life as a quasi-cyborg, the reality is that I’m only human, and humans hate updates in any aspect of our lives.

We hate updates because…

Updates take forever (or, at least, longer than we’d like them to) to download and install and they take us away from other things that we’d prefer to be doing.

Some people are fortunate enough to have super-speedy internet. I am not one of them and, consequently, downloads can take an age and a day. Then, once that loading bar finally reaches 100%, it goes back down to zero because now it has to install. This inconveniences me because, when I sit down at my computer at the end of a long workday, I don’t want to spend half an hour updating my graphics driver – I want to play League of Legends! Never mind that the driver update is actually going to make everything run better, I want instant gratification! I want to either download and install this update in under thirty seconds or put it off as long as I can so I can play my game.

It’s not difficult to see how this attitude can translate to lower-tech areas of our lives. Downloading and installing six-pack abs takes a lot of time that most of us would rather spend doing something else. The same goes for learning an instrument, or becoming fluent in another language, or learning to cook something more complicated than pasta. I think that you would probably be hard pressed to find a person who didn’t think that one or all of these would be positive “updates” to their lives. Any one of these would certainly be a new feature that I’d be interested in.

And, yet, when it comes to actually hitting “download now,” I, and many others, hesitate. Sometimes, what I want right now feels more realistic and maybe even more desirable than the “trust me, this will be better” promises of long-term goals. That doesn’t mean that spending an evening watching Netflix with my cat is actually better than doing some level grinding on my “guitar” skill. It just feels that way. Deciding to do something that you dislike instead of something that you enjoy can be a real challenge, regardless of whether the disliked activity is leading toward a desirable goal.

Updates make things different and it’s a pain to have to relearn how everything works.

The graphics team behind the update had decided that they didn’t like rectangles anymore so the sharply-edged buttons are now weirdly rounded. The “log out” button on your fitness tracker game is now where “start” used to be, so it takes six tries to get going when you aren’t paying close attention. And where the heck did they hide the message function?!

Logging into an app or program to find that everything is different and that you have to relearn how to use it is annoying. Logically, we know that these changes must all be improvements or that, at the very least, there is a good reason for them to have been made. At the same time, in some part of all our souls is a grumpy caveman shouting, “DIFFERENT BAD!”

Change is hard. It’s uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing and, for a while, the learning curve makes things really inconvenient. Figuring out how your life is actually going to function now that you’re financially responsible/eating healthier/going to aerial yoga class three times a week can be a serious challenge. You can’t live your life on autopilot anymore and, suddenly, everything takes a lot more conscious effort.

Fortunately, there is hope in all of this chaos. As any long-time Facebook user can confirm, eventually you do get used to the new layout. Old habits are hard to break and new ones are hard to form, especially when some old habits that you didn’t intend to break wind up having to break anyway to make room for the new ones. Over time, however, you often come to prefer life after the update. You did, after all, install the update for a reason.

Sometimes, updates inadvertently break things that worked fine before.

When I said that updates change things for the better, what I really meant is that they are intended to implement positive change. Realistically, though, they occasionally miss the mark.

Sometimes, when you update your OS, an older game that you still love to play stops working and you have to spend hours online researching a fix. Maybe an app that you use on a daily basis gets some cool new features, but now doesn’t talk to another app and renders it useless. Or, heaven forbid, something goes horribly wrong with an update and you wind up losing a bunch of data that you were meaning to back up, but never got around to doing so.

If you look back though our collective history, you’ll notice that humanity is actually really good at solving problems. It is also exceptionally gifted when it comes to creating problems. With as many solutions as we’ve discovered and created over the last several thousand years, we’ve probably discovered and created just as many problems, if not more, to replace those problems that we’ve solved. Some of those new problems are directly related to solutions to former problems, like MRSA, or radiation poisoning, or Windows 8.

It doesn’t matter how well you’ve thought things out or how many tests you’ve run; whenever you make a change, something can always go wrong. We can and should try to minimize these unintended negative consequences of our actions, but it’s one of the hard truths of life that they’re going to happen anyway. At that point, all we can do is try to control or reverse the damage we’ve created and figure out what went wrong so we can avoid making the same mistake twice.

Everybody hates updates. It’s why companies make their “updates are available!” notifications so deceptively cheerful and polite. They’re a tap on the shoulder, reminding us to do the responsible thing instead of what we actually want to do in the moment. We have the option to ignore that reminder but, should we choose to do so, we must keep in mind that, eventually, our devices or lives aren’t going to function as well as we’d like them to. (My sister has been wondering why her computer hasn’t been working properly. She hasn’t updated Windows since April.)

As a rule, updates are good. Our systems would work better and could do more things with them installed, even through the changes might take some getting used to. There’s also some risk involved because we can never be completely sure what the end result will be and how compatible the new features will be with the rest of our lives. With that knowledge, it’s just a matter of deciding which updates contain features that make enduring the update process worthwhile.

* Also worth noting is that people don’t like it when updates they don’t want are forced upon them. (Looking at you, Microsoft….)


One Foggy Day

I live in Michigan and, if there’s one thing we have in abundance, it’s water.  The Great Lakes alone contains about 84% of the fresh water in North America, which is somewhere around 6 quadrillion gallons of water.[1] [2]  And that’s not even counting our 46,199 inland lakes.[3]

The point is that Michigan is a rather damp state.  We also have really inconsistent weather, which means that it can be a good 40 degrees cooler in the morning than it will be in the afternoon.

I like this fact because it results in a lot of really nice fog.  I love fog.  Foggy mornings were, by far, my favourites on the days I had to ride the bus to school.  I live in a very rural area and the sides of the road would have miniature clouds hovering above the wetlands that are pretty much everywhere around here.  On those mornings (and I use that term loosely because it was at least an hour before sunrise), I used to daydream about dressing up in white and just standing in a fogbank by the road to freak people out.

Though that idea has not entirely lost its appeal, my idle thoughts on foggy days have since grown a bit more sophisticated and have evolved into a three-phase (ish) process.

  • Identification: “Hey, that’s fog!”
  • Evaluation: “That fog is pretty!”
  • Reflection: “Why do I think that the fog is pretty?”[4]

I feel comfortable in assuming that most people agree with me that foggy days often have positive aesthetic value.  A scene like this is, I’d suggest, fairly universally beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Terri Moore Photography http://terrimoorephotography.squarespace.com/

The puzzling thing about that fact is that we judge something to be beautiful when we can’t see it very well.  In fact, I would argue that we judge it to be beautiful because we can’t see it very well.

When you look at something close up, you see it in complete detail.  Everything that is good about it is evident, but so is everything that isn’t as good.  Even when the positive aspects of the object in question outweigh the flaws, the flaws do tend to build up in our minds so that we think of that object as beautiful in spite of its flaws instead of just beautiful.

However, when something is shrouded in a light fog (or strategically draped clothing, or a fresh coat of paint), you see it in a much less detailed way.  The general form of the object is visible, but the flaws are hidden.  And, as we all know, humans are exceptionally good at ignoring problems we can’t see.

On the other hand, we’re also really good at imagining problems we can’t see and that probably aren’t real.  While fog can add an ethereal beauty to a landscape, it can also inspire fear, as evidenced by such horror films as The Fog:

There’s nothing scarier than an army of oversized Jawas.[5]

I know that I prefer to be in environments where I can see what is going on around me.  It’s a survival instinct – if you don’t know that the dinosaur is standing behind you, you don’t know to run away.[6]  When fog is thick enough to actually conceal what is around you, it can get reclassified from “beautiful” to “dangerous”.   After all, anything could be hiding in the fog, just waiting to attack you as you stand, blindly, unaware of its approach.  And, even though there’s probable nothing there, we tend to invent a few attackers if we look at the fog long enough.

Perhaps what we see in the fog are not really solid objects, but the idea of the thing.  A tree shrouded in mist can be what we visualize as the perfect tree in a way that a completely visible tree cannot.  Likewise, the monsters in our minds tend to be hiding in the fog, as well.

When we can see things perfectly, we will generally admit that they are not perfect.  When we cannot see them at all, we open ourselves up to worry about what might be lurking out of sight.  A light fog seems to be the middle ground between sight and blindness, between knowledge and ignorance, that we can find truly and perfectly beautiful.


[2] Yes, “quadrillion.” I’m not making that up because “lots” wasn’t big enough.

[3] http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_52261_63251-160092–,00.html

[4] There’s always been a Step Three, but it was previously “plan practical joke”, not “form thoughtful response”.

[5] I have not seen this movie, but I’m guessing my version of the plot is better than the reality.

[6] *Disclaimer* I am not an expert on dinosaur attack survival skills.  This blog post should not be taken as advice as to what to do in the event of a dinosaur attack.