Rant: That Should Never Happen Design

One of my hopes for the future – admittedly, one of my dying hopes – is to see an end to the “That Should Never Happen” design philosophy. This philosophy certainly has high aims, in that it tries to create technological solutions so reliable that workarounds and backups will be unnecessary. Why would I oppose such a noble philosophy? Because my experience with technology is that these attempts are doomed to imperfection and failure and that in the meantime, they are doing harm by removing our backup systems.

Here’s one of the simplest and most frustrating examples of this philosophy: the death of power switches on computers. “But my computer has a power switch,” you say. “It’s right here on the front, glowing all blue and pretty!” If you’re that disillusioned, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that is not a true power switch. That is a spring-loaded contact-switch meant to signal the computer BIOS software to toggle the power state. It is not a true power switch.

For those who remember the original IBM PC, it had a true power switch. It was a big and clunky red switch on the right side, back with the power supply and single cooling fan. When it was in the on position, it closed an electrical circuit, and power flowed into the PC. When it was in the off position, the circuit was open, and no power made it past that switch.

So why is that so superior? After all, aren’t software-controlled power systems better? They can go into power-saving states, turn the computer on and off at certain times, and ensure the proper shutdown of drive caches and other advanced OS/hardware systems. Yes, these software systems are great… except when they fail.

Of course, that kind of failure should never happen, but in the fifteen years or so since I last had a true power switch on my computers, every single one of these software-managed power systems has eventually had trouble. It’s not that it was stop working altogether, but it would start to have intermittent failure. The OS would crash, and the shutdown procedure would be unavailable. Even the so-called power switch would do nothing but continue its pretty blue glow.

And before you point to the superiority of your OS or hardware of choice, I have seen this happen across the PC/Apple divide as well as in Windows, Unix, and the Mac OS. That might not be your experience, but between computationally-heavy tasks like rendering, programming, and gaming, I push my computers a lot harder than the average user. In other words, I take my computers into the realm of “that should never happen.”

Instead of having the backup of the physical power switch to fall back on, I must now crawl back behind the desk and unplug the computer from the UPS. On my laptop, I must physically remove the battery and wait several seconds for any on-board capacitors to discharge. I have to go even deeper towards the primal physical state to hack my own backup solution.

While I continue to hope that this hubris-driven design philosophy will go away, I fear it is only on the rise. Apple has dominated much of the technology design in the last decade, and while they have made some absolutely fabulous products, they are a big believer in hiding the pesky details from the end-user. “No customer-serviceable parts inside.”

It may be a long-time before the trend reverses. In the meantime, I think I’m going to kill off some fictional designer, and as he plunges to the fiery depths with his malfunctioning machine, his final words will be, “But that should never happen.”

How about you? What flawless system has gone crunch in your life lately? Did some always-in-sync cache lose its state? Did a dripless faucet bust a valve? Did some permanently-lubricated sealed motor seize up?

What Are We Missing?

One of the least avoidable dangers of writing about future worlds in science fiction is missing the technological revolution that’s just around the corner. Certainly, it’s equally easy to forecast a technology that never arrives, but that doesn’t date the story. A story written in the 1930’s with flying cars can still feel like the future, but one that leaves out computers is fatally dated.

Missing the Call…

The most glaring example of this that I’ve run into in recent memory was Connie Willis’ 1992 “The Doomsday Book”. It is an excellent novel and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It involves some time travel back to medieval England from the year 2054. It wasn’t the time travel that bothered me though, since that still feels like future-tech. No, what kept throwing me out of this future world of 2054 was that they had no mobile phones.

Certainly, they had advanced video phones, but all of them were tied to landlines. Normally, a little thing like this would have been easily ignored if it remained in the background, but it had a significant impact on the plot. Specifically, characters were trying to get hold of one another, and they kept missing each other because one or another was away from their desk or office when the call arrived. Not being able to get hold of various people was rapidly escalating into a life and death situation. I even recall one scene where someone is told to wait by the phone no matter what. Really – glued to the landline!

When I read it five or six years ago, I’d had a mobile phone for eight years or so, and in that time, they had already gone from miniature bricks that businessmen carried to the early smart phones that were well on their way to becoming ubiquitous. Now mobile phones are everywhere, from grandmothers to African bushmen, and it’s only been twenty years since Willis’ book was released. The notion of not being able to get hold of someone in an emergency because they’re away from their desk now seems ludicrous.

In fairness, it’s hard to fault Willis. In 1992, mobile phones really were bricks, and they were most common as car phones. Even then, they were idle toys for the rich or politically connected, not everyday tools for the common man. It wasn’t just that the technology got so much better so quickly. It’s that the demand that wasn’t there at all in 1992 became rampant in just a decade.

A Fleet of Missed Boats

But Willis is not alone in having missed out on the shape of technologies around the corner. Plenty of authors in the 1960’s familiar with room-sized computers completely missed the desktop computer that arrived just ten to fifteen years later. While several authors in the 60’s and 70’s talked about computers networked together, I don’t think many (or any) of them foresaw the massive peer-to-peer impact that the web has had on personal communications. And I think most everyone missed the pending collapse of the Soviet Union pretty much right up to summer of 1989.

Are We Forever Doomed?

So where does that leave us now? What technological revolutions are just around the corner waiting to mock today’s science fiction writers? Are we on the verge of common and effective anti-viral treatments, i.e. no more common cold, influenza, or AIDS? Are computer implants about to become not only possible but turn into the mobile phone of the next generation? Are we about to get that peace-loving world government, not through war or democratic revolution, but through that unexpected philosophy to be named later?

This is pretty hard to guess at because not getting caught by the unexpected revolution means guessing not just one thing but all things. Miss one life-changing advancement and your story could be like Connie Willis’ with everyone playing phone tag, afraid to get up from their desks. With possibly changes looming in computers, genetics, medicine, politics and more, it’s hard to know where to jump. Certainly, you can jump too far without much penalty since your flying car will be either commonplace or still futuristic, but if you don’t jump far enough in the right direction, you might start looking foolish in just a few years.


This might seem to be an endorsement of some variation on “the coming Sigularity”, but it’s not. I’ll talk about that in more detail next week, but for now I’m going to say that yes, this kind of guesswork is hard now, but it’s always been hard. It was hard for writers back in the 50’s, just as it was hard when Connie Willis missed mobile phones in 1992. Probably the biggest thing that’s changed in the last 60 years on this front is that now we have a real appreciation for how hard this kind of guesswork is.

But still, any tips for the future would be nice. What life-changing advance is waiting around the corner, hoping to make me look foolish in twenty years? I’d like to beat it if I can, but even if I can’t, at least I’ll be in good company.