Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Philosophical Printers: a study in complexity



I make a habit of confessing my cognitive errors, as a warning to others, an illustration of my inevitable limitations, and the better to understand them. You may remember the difficulties I have getting myself to conferences, because of having to coordinate travel times, country zone time changes, car rental and return times,  to say nothing of getting the dates of travel to correspond to the early commencement of welcoming lectures the following day.

Last week I had a struggle with a printer which would not print. Printers used to be insensate objects which merely printed. They knew their place: slaves to the computer master. Now they have developed philosophical doubts about their purpose in life, and will not print unless handled with extreme tact. They can hold your work hostage, and know how to exploit Luddite bargaining power. They demand registration, your personal details, and the right to tell you in subsequent communications how they are developing as a product. That is the unkind interpretation. A more gentle view is that they are suffering from identity anxiety and polymorphous existential doubt: they do not know if they are scanners, copiers, glossy photograph booths or even, in their atavistic past, fax machines. One gains the impression they have been reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

Newly bought, my printer seemed benign: a harmless helper without sharp edges. It arrived without a full set of printing cartridges, so it sulked at being asked to work without the required complement of colours, particularly the missing magenta and cyan (it was quite peeved about those) and there was a delay till those were delivered the following week. The proffered installation disc was rendered obsolete by my new laptop no longer catering for this out-of-date medium, so I downloaded the software and then the problems began.

The printer had its own set of priorities. It was willing to connect by Wifi, but demanded that any device have a username and a password. My router had a username and a collection of passwords, though not labelled as passwords, on the underside of the router. I tried a variety of these, but the printer rejected them petulantly. Eventually I found a new potential password on the edge of the router, and that partially mollified it. It printed a test page, and then nothing else. Documents it rejected, keeping them in the Documents Printing queue for ever. This is the printer equivalent of the Passive-Aggressive ploy.

After many attempts, I decided to resolve the high level of complexity by going for a very simple solution: a cable between printer and computer. After a week the cable arrived, and when attached the printer still sulked, printing nothing, other than a page saying it was connected, but had elected to go Offline. It remained Offline thereafter, whilst still occasionally moving the print head in a suggestive and reassuring manner.

There were two problems: the connectivity problem, whatever it was; and my mental model of the problem, which was probably wrong in one or several of its parts. For example, should the computer and printer talk to each other through the router, or to each other? When the printer asks for a password, is it the password to the router or the computer? Why doesn’t the direct cable work,  and why does the obviously connected printer say that it is “offline” and remain sulking offline? Why do the many instructions distinguish between different types of cable, USB, Internet, etc. but not explain why? Why do the advice forums say that you should re-install the software? Why do so many advice forum questions get answered by people who have surface plausibility and zero knowledge?  Why are the simple installation manuals so simple, and yet so complicated in their ambiguity? Why does my iPhone have no problem connecting with the printer, even though it has never met it before, let alone never having been introduced properly?

You may say, quite rightly, that I should have solved this problem simply and quickly. True. I know it has not happened to you. I also confess that I do not know how I solved it, or if I have solved it permanently. It printed something, and I am grateful, as any supplicant should be. One of my many downloaded connectivity solutions may have done the trick, or they may yet interact to thwart me once again. It is a fraught relationship, ripe for psychoanalytic interpretations.

I simply illustrate that even trivial problems contain some complexity, and understanding some of the complexity does not necessarily help, because some complex understanding is itself imperfect, and because some things have become more simple as a new solution leapfrogs an old problem. That is the joy of competence, as Bryan and Harter found in 1897, in their psychological studies of the emerging technology of telegraphy. Once operators understand the overall meaning of a message, the details of the Morse codes of individual letters can almost be ignored. Key presses give way to a higher grammar, with a commensurate increase in speed and power of communication. Similarly, we will soon let computers connect to each other with their own handshakes, troubling us no more with their quaint requirements, local customs and digital shibboleths.

Till that day, there will be the odd confusion, born of imperfect understanding, a discrepancy between model and reality, in which the latter always triumphs, and the printer refuses to print. May it not happen to you.



  1. Love this story - I am convinced that there is an inverse correlation between intelligence and likelihood of getting entirely enmeshed in technological difficulties with these "simple" machines meant to serve us...the rare instance where reasoning is to your detriment.

  2. Thanks. If it fails again, can I come round to your office?

    1. I think that you are implying that I am less intelligent than you and might have mine working ;) - one of the great joys in life is taking the old boy out to the garbage, after serving its long, passive aggressive life, lifting it above my head, and smashing it on the concrete as hard as possible before depositing it in the bin.

    2. Oh great! Now all my webpage adds are for new printers...

  3. Maybe I should repair my old printer rather than buy a new one.

  4. Could be worse, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation hasn't had a hand in the software yet. For all those deprived readers who haven't yet encountered Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, here's the apposite excerpt:

    Ford hunted excitedly through the technical specs of the ship, occasionally gasping with astonishment at what he read - clearly Galactic astrotechnology had moved ahead during the years of his exile.

    Arthur listened for a short while, but being unable to understand the vast majority of what Ford was saying he began to let his mind wander, trailing his fingers along the edge of an incomprehensible computer bank, he reached out and pressed an invitingly large red button on a nearby panel. The panel lit up with the words Please do not press this button again. He shook himself.

    "Listen," said Ford, who was still engrossed in the sales brochure, "they make a big thing of the ship's cybernetics. A new generation of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation robots and computers, with the new GPP feature."

    "GPP feature?" said Arthur. "What's that?"

    "Oh, it says Genuine People Personalities."

    "Oh," said Arthur, "sounds ghastly."

    A voice behind them said, "It is." The voice was low and hopeless and accompanied by a slight clanking sound. They span round and saw an abject steel man standing hunched in the doorway.

    "What?" they said.

    "Ghastly," continued Marvin, "it all is. Absolutely ghastly. Just don't even talk about it. Look at this door," he said, stepping through it. The irony circuits cut into his voice modulator as he mimicked the style of the sales brochure. "All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done."

    As the door closed behind them it became apparent that it did indeed have a satisfied sigh-like quality to it. "Hummmmmmmyummmmmmm ah!" it said.

    Marvin regarded it with cold loathing whilst his logic circuits chattered with disgust and tinkered with the concept of directing physical violence against it Further circuits cut in saying, Why bother? What's the point? Nothing is worth getting involved in. Further circuits amused themselves by analysing the molecular components of the door, and of the humanoids' brain cells. For a quick encore they measured the level of hydrogen emissions in the surrounding cubic parsec of space and then shut down again in boredom. A spasm of despair shook the robot's body as he turned.

    "Come on," he droned, "I've been ordered to take you down to the bridge. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? 'Cos I don't."

    The others followed quickly and the door slit back into place with pleased little clicks and whirrs.

    "Thank you the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation," said Marvin and trudged desolately up the gleaming curved corridor that stretched out before them. "Let's build robots with Genuine People Personalities," they said. So they tried it out with me. I'm a personality prototype. You can tell can't you?"

    Ford and Arthur muttered embarrassed little disclaimers.

    "I hate that door," continued Marvin. "I'm not getting you down at all am I?"

  5. I buy old sturdy laser printers *with* full or half full black cartridges at ebay for 5€ or less (colour is not much more expensive). Laser cartridges last for thousands of pages. Most manuals are online (I check that before I buy) though I prefer the simple ones with a few intuitively handleable buttons anyway. They usually last for a couple of years of my (very) modest use. Afterwards I can buy a new cartridge for a modest price (if I grew fond of it) or get another used machine for much less. Both Linux and Windows support most older printers out of the box (I guess MacOs too), so that's ok if you can do without fancy bells and whistles. I hide them in a nice wooden cart on wheels under my desk so I don't care if they're ugly. If one should start to stutter or break entirely no repair; I just get a new old one, I'm being sustainable anyway.

    ...take this, crummy, shifty, shiny new inkjet printers of hell made to guzzle tons of ink!! (when they work...) I like the smell of good ol' laser printers in the morning.

  6. Many technical problems can be solved by describing the problem in the Google search box.

    I once had a printer which would go into "deep sleep" after 20 seconds. This power saving feature nearly sent me 'round the bend, as it took more than 20 seconds for a document to load from the computer to the printer. Finally, I found a bit of advice on an internet board which helped me to turn off that power saving feature.

  7. Ah, the joys of win printers and win 10. I see problems like yours at least once a week and the only thing I can say for it is that it keeps the bank manager happy.

  8. What you need to do, doc, is arrange a football match between German Philosophical Printers and Greek Philosophical Printers.

    1. Who will define the rules of the game? English linguistic philosophers?