Far From Everything There Is To Say About Upgrading Operating Systems


Every now and then it’s good practice to upgrade your operating system. This teaches you to stop trying to do daft things like that for a year or two. I here mean your computer’s operating system. You’re welcome to try upgrading the operating system on something else, such as your thermostat, your hips, or your frying pans. That’ll teach you an even harder lesson.

The earliest computers had no operating systems at all. Users, like you but more old-fashioned, would just take whatever you had and bring it to them. Primitive weather models, Pi written out to eight digits, those oscilloscopes they show you pictures of in saying this was somehow a video game, large blocks of nutmeg, military-surplus tennis rackets, whatever. Then the computer would put whatever you had in wherever something fit. They trusted this wouldn’t avalanche too often, not during working hours. It would anyway, and they’d blame it on a “tube”. These were heady, exciting times. It seemed like computers could do anything. A high point of this was during the Presidential Election of 1952, when UNIVAC stunned television reporters by tipping over and spilling 25,000 golf balls over the CBS Newsroom. They tried to make this more plausible by reporting it as only 22,500 golf balls.

But we couldn’t keep up that happy state of affairs for some reason. Probably respectability. Everything good gets foiled by people who want to be respectable. By this they don’t mean, like, being considerate of people. They mean boring. So we got the modern operating system. This takes everything that might go into a computer and tries to organize it. This starts out well, the way it starts out well when you put things in a new house. All the surfaces are neat and as clean as they ever get. And the computer, like you, stacks things in neat little containers. They’re marked things like “Music” or “Kitchen” or “Miscellaneous” or “Misc” or “Misc 2” or “Living Room/Paid Bills/Books/Saved Games/Movies/etc 4-A” before the organization breaks down altogether, later that day. If you’re wondering why you have the folders Games/Music/Saved/ToSort, Music/Saved/ToSort/Games, and ToSort/Saved/Music/Games, consider this: not one of them has anything containing music nor created by any game in it. They’re all the digital equivalent of that strange piece of metal that’s in your junk drawer. The one that looks like it might be this weird multi-tool? But also might be what’s left over after something fell off an airplane? And you don’t dare throw it out because how would you ever get another one?

And this organization breaks down too. Bits fall loose, perhaps because you’re using “lossy” data formats like JPEG and forgetting stuff. Frames drop out of those Let’s Play videos. You know, where you find some game you could never do anything with, and someone’s explaining it all? But you can only ever find, like part 28 of a 154-part series, and when you search for the start you get parts 26, 78, 55, and 184, and that’s it? The bookmarks you have rot, so when something reminds you of a web site you used to visit all the time, like, four years ago you look now and there’s just compost and a warning that you need to update RealPlayer. Support files for old software rolls loose, getting caught under the file cabinet, and then one day sitting in the middle of your desktop is a 45-second audio loop from when you played Zoo Tycoon 3: Ungulation Nation!. This e-mail from 2014 you’re totally going to answer someday has now declared it needs to be opened by the rxRawrSnag-CodeMaster tool, which does not and never has existed.

Thus the value of the complete upgrade. It wipes everything clean. Every program has to re-establish its right to be where it is, and to do what it does. Right after the upgrade there’s the promise of a new start. You get to fiddle with the desktop pictures and maybe how fast the mouse should respond to things. Your software goes through a land rush, each bit of code fearing that it’s now going to be declared obsolete or at least not really useful. Everybody ends up stressed about different things than usual, which counts as improvement.

Some operating-sytem makers are trying to get rid of the big upgrade. They would. How are we supposed to ever fix a thing?

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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