Dark soul of a new machine

Or how Sally Feldman's iPad went from cuddly kitty to proud panther

October 28, 2010

Have you ever noticed how, whenever a new digital aid is introduced into any transaction, it's the customer who ends up paying for it? When you're booking tickets to the theatre you have to endure five minutes of tinny show tunes, then a series of cheerful ads, then a string of irrelevant choices, then if you're lucky you might get to buy the tickets - but only by paying an exorbitant booking supplement, plus the hidden charge of your phone bill.

Worst of all is my pet hate: the multi-option voice-recognition system. It's clearly designed to engage you in long and infuriating exchanges at astronomical cost. You yell. It misunderstands. You spell out the name of the cinema, the film, the time, then your name and address and probably that of your next of kin as well, all of which it invariably mishears.

Actually, there's one word that the disembodied voice does seem to recognise. I discovered this after being inspired by the Vagina Monologues when the audience was encouraged to reclaim the "c" word as a precious body part rather than a term of abuse. I have frequent opportunities to exercise this newfound liberation when spelling out my postcode, EC1. The unflustered recipient always manages to understand my meaning perfectly, which does help to cut down the expense a bit.

Higher education has developed its own version of dumping on the end user. Claiming, piously, to be doing their bit to cut down on our profligate destruction of the world's forests, organisers of all those endless academic meetings no longer circulate wasteful hard copies. Instead, they email the documents as attachments. This, of course, means that the arduous task, not to mention crippling expense, of printing, collating and copying is delegated to the receiver.

Rather than tax my rapidly shrinking budget, I am constantly searching for a way to create a paper-free office. Every new Palm or Pilot that jostles its way into the marketplace promises to do the trick. But I've tried them all. And I've learned through bitter experience that none of them makes any difference.

For a start, no one fully trusts computers, so we make hard copies of everything, which just adds to the paper clutter. As do all the empty boxes you have to keep in case something goes wrong. Laptops are no answer, either. They're cumbersome to carry round, and it's hard to read off their screens. Handsets and mobiles are even worse, because their screens are even tinier, and anyway they can never be relied on to download long documents properly.

It's true that some of my more digitally adventurous colleagues do ostentatiously bring out their laptops or handsets at meetings, but I can never quite believe that they're actually deciphering complex spreadsheets or checking vital health and safety statistics. They're far more likely to be catching up on their emails, completing a sudoku or planning that night's supper.

But at last, a new device arrived that really seemed like a solution. The iPad is light, stylish and a dream to use. It will carry all the documents you need, yet despite its compact size it is really easy to read: you can enlarge the section you want, annotate it, make notes, pull it this way and that. It's so neat and elegant and smart, it makes paper look like an embarrassment from an earlier, more primitive age.

At first, I had such high hopes for my beautiful, clever new toy. But like a seemingly cute new kitten, the iPad is insidiously beginning to take on a life of its own. It bleeps through the night, even when switched off. It's constantly telling me what to do, even though it's damned if it's going to do what I want. Still, at least it recognises me and will grudgingly behave itself when I proudly flourish it at meetings. But no one else can borrow it because it simply refuses to accept their downloads, let alone their commands.

Nor will it deign to communicate with any of my other devices. In fact, it's behaving more like a proud panther than a cuddly kitty. Not only that - I think it's infecting my whole menagerie of appliances with a spirit of rebellion.

My new iPod, for example, won't charge on the speaker dock, even though the previous one did. Suddenly, my BlackBerry won't accept my work calendar any more. And even the iBook, once so meek and obedient, will no longer sync with the work PC, let alone with the lordly iPad. Sometimes it just freezes, a smirk of dumb insolence colouring the blank screen. I can still connect my camera with my home computer, but not with the work one and only sometimes with the iPad.

Yes, I know that with the iBook, the iPad and the BlackBerry I shouldn't need a camera. But with all this refusenik-syncing going on I need to be sure that there's still a safe place for my holiday snaps.

Clearly, I'm suffering a very severe case of appliance overload, combined with the sad fact that I'm no longer 13 or I'd be on top of all this at the flick of an overdeveloped thumb. Without a resident 13-year-old at home, though, I have to rely on the university IT crowd. And I think the TV programme that has immortalised them has gone to their heads.

Every time I log a complaint about all my gadgets, I get the same answer.

"Have you tried turning them all off. And then...switching them on again?"

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