Onceability: The consequence of technology rot

(Note: I wrote this some time ago for the Inuseful blog – my only English post in an almost entirely Swedish blog. When starting up this English blog, it seemed appropriate to include it here.)

I installed a wireless network at home. It worked for two years – and then suddenly it failed. For the whole world, I could not find out how to re-configure it. Embarrassingly enough, I couldn’t even remember how to get into the damn thing.

And I had a very helpful plug-in for my web browser. But after the browser had updated itself, it announced that the plug-in wasn’t compatible anymore. I searched for a replacement, but the list of plug-ins had 5000 items and the search function couldn’t find anything of the same kind…

And I used to access the voicemail on my mobile phone by just pressing a button on the keypad. But unexpectedly it stopped working. Perhaps it happened when I switched operators … but I could not figure out how to get it back. Nor even whether the problem was on my phone, or with the new operator.

You might think I’m just hopeless with new technology. I’m not. Rather the opposite: I’ve been working with computers for more than 30 years. I really belong to the ”early adopters”; I’ve often been one of the first users of new technologies.

But every so often, I wind up a ”somewhat-later abandoner”.

Digital technology may contain no moving parts but it still, somehow, gets worn, splintered and corroded. It rots. It decays. The rot, though, is mostly invisible (and un-smellable). Still, one day, the thing is broken.

Sometimes I manage to fix the system in question. But – again – every so often I find that I just can’t. I fail when I try to re-find it, or when I try to re-install it, or re-start it, or reconfigure it. I managed to do it once. No matter how I try, I just can’t do it again.

This, I suggest, is an inherent quality in much new technology: the fact that you, as a user, manage to do something once – but not a second time.

I have proposed a new word for this quality: onceability.

It could be defined, tentatively, as ”the quality in a technical system that prevents a user from restoring the system, once it has failed”.

Onceability can be the result of the exaggerated demand for un-memorable passwords. Or of an obscure interface in the product itself. It also ”helps” if the thing came with unintelligible documentation, so that getting it started was mostly guesswork and trial-and-error in the first place. Or perhaps there was no printed manual, only a link to a web page – that has since disappeared (because the provider went bust, or just changed their web content management system). Indeed, onceability can arise not from a malfunction in the product itself, but from changes in the environment, to which it is (or was) connected.

A product’s onceability is, to a certain extent, linked to its usefulness. If it is really useful, we will certainly go to considerable lengths to repair it. But sometimes not even that helps; the onceability factor can, ultimately, trump the usefulness. Even if the damned thing would be really helpful in the long run, I can’t give it the time and attention needed to make it work again …  Not right now. And ultimately never.

“What happened to that clever new device of yours?”
“Hrmpf. Another victim to onceability.”

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