Once upon a time, when I was less grey but significantly more unhappy, I used to be a computer programmer.
Well, I say “programmer” but I was probably one step away from a hacker; little more than a one-man-band who would write software to order, bypassing all the formal training I’d been taught at university (who needs feasibility studies and system proposals anway?!), in favour of back-of-the-envelope plans. If somebody needed a quick and dirty solution to a problem, I’d create one in a few hours or days. None of it was cutting edge but it was pragmatic. I built stuff that did a job and fulfilled a client’s needs.
Which brings me to the reason I hated the job and eventually went back to university to study English…
Every few days, I’d come face to face with high-flyers used to getting their own way. They were very bright people but not in any way computer literate. They’d propose things that were hugely impractical; ideas that would need a team the size of NASA and a supercomputer to implement. Their grand plan would often involve tracking items through the real world or collecting huge amounts of private data that was beyond the technology (and laws) of the day. “Oh, it’s possible in theory,” I would tell them because in theory it was. But before I could explain why it was entirely beyond me, the technology, or their budget, they’d demand that I do it, quickly and cheaply.
When I heard about the government’s coronavirus tracking app, I had a few flashbacks to that awful time of my life. I could imagine myself as a young software engineer sitting in a meeting with somebody high up in the Department of Health as they declared their intention to take the biggest crisis to affect the UK in decades and solve it inside months by creating a hugely elaborate tracking system that would unite mobile handsets running quite different operating systems and link them to some enormous database, and then use that to work out who has come into contact with whom.
“Oh, it’s possible in theory,” I might have said, eyeing up the shortest route to the door, because I would also know the impracticalities of this plan are immeasurable…
I really hope I’m wrong. In fact, this atheist is happy to get on his knees to pray that it works. But take a step back and ask yourself: when has a government IT project of this magnitude ever worked, come in on budget, and, certainly, hit a deadline?
Pick two, as the old saying goes: cheap, quick, effective.
And that’s before we get to the technical problems that are now being reported: phones that can’t track other phones when in standby, the reliability of various Bluetooth chips/protocols to communicate with each other(stop your laughing at the back!), and the very idea that we have our phones with us at all times, with the app loaded, the battery topped up (Bluetooth drains them like crazy)…
A brief sidebar: I wrote some phone games a few years ago as a hobby and discovered the limitations of the APIs coming from Apple and Google. (API means Application Programming Interface and comprises all the instructions you can use to access the phone’s features.) You quickly discover the very many things you aren’t allowed to do, usually due to privacy concerns.
Then there are the people who simply don’t own a mobile phone. In 2018, it was 95% among 18-24 year-olds but only 51% among those aged 55-64. Factor in people who don’t always have it turned on, leave it at home, and won’t ever install the app because they’re too lazy. We’ve not even mentioned the many people who will be ideologically opposed to the idea of the government tracking their movements. Then there is the law. Israel has just stopped their tracking trials because of privacy concerns.
So much of this story speaks to my life as a computer nerd and the many people I’ve met who thought that technology can perform miracles. Politicians are no different and it’s noticeable how they get less excited by low-tech solutions (masks, ffs!) than high-tech fantasies. I hate to disillusion anybody but there are no miracles; just very clever code and often simple tricks that give the illusion of magic, like those generative adversarial networks that can produce stunningly lifelike photographs of people who don’t actually exist.
Even when things work, they rarely work well. Some of our best tech from the software giants have obvious flaws. Amazon’s Alexa can barely parse anything more than “play”, “stop” and “what’s the weather?” It certainly struggles with my Lancashire accent. As for playing an album that has the same name as a band… Then there’s the security at the heart of so many huge corporations; supposedly foolproof systems that are routinely hacked. Nintendo even managed to launch the original Switch with software protection so secure it could be defeated with a paper clip…
Track everybody in the country using their cell phones and then work out who might have met whom and do it before the winter?
Now that would be a miracle.