Software Update

I received a letter in the mail from my car’s manufacturer. They’re issuing a safety recall to repair a condition involving the Smart Junction Box:

The Smart Junction Box software logic may not properly interpret the signals received from the multifunction switch in certain circumstances. As a result, the turn signal may intermittently activate in the opposite direction of what was intended by the driver.

Car Recall, from Jeff on Blogger.

If I take my car to the dealer, they’ll fix it for free. The fix is to “update the Smart Junction Box logic.” That’s a fancy way of saying “software update.” They’re sorry for the inconvenience.

I’ve had this car for six years. There are 111,000 miles on it. I’ve never had a case where I signaled to turn left and the right turn signal indicator came on instead. But next time I go in for service, I’ll have them take care of this. They’ll update the software on the junction box and we’ll be all set.

The computer on which I’m writing this, by comparison, has an operating system that was installed 10 months ago. It has had 89 operating system updates since then. There are apparently more to be installed, but there’s a problem downloading and installing them. I can click a link to get more information about how I can waste an evening trying to get the buggy update software to update the buggy operating system software.

The software company is not sorry for my inconvenience. They certainly didn’t send me a letter in the mail telling me how dangerous it is for me to keep using the computer. I can’t just stop by a service center and have them take care of it for free. They won’t give me a loaner to use while they work to correct the problem. The implication in the computer industry is that it’s my responsibility to always have the latest updates installed. If I don’t do that, I’m being insecure and irresponsible.

I get it. My car isn’t going to crash, and potentially injure people if I don’t get this blog post written. If I have trouble watching a Youtube video, people aren’t going to die. But the software running this laptop is the same software that manages security systems, and public safety infrastructure, and medial equipment, and much of the financial industry. Seriously bad things can happen when software doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. And whose fault is that? The end user. Why didn’t you have the latest updates installed? That’s your responsibility.

As technology becomes increasingly intertwined with all aspects of our lives, we need a recalibration of responsibility.

I’m reminded of this XKCD comic from a few years ago:

XKCD, Randall Munroe. Actually, this one probably illustrates the point better, but it’s a bit too disturbing for me to embed it here.

The story of the Boeing 737 MAX is exactly that. When a culture of methodical attention to detail and safety meets the fast and careless culture of silicon valley, we end up with plane crashes.

The big reason why a lot of people don’t trust technology is because the technology industry has repeatedly proven that they’re not trustworthy. They don’t care about the quality of the product. Just look at the user agreement that you have to click through before you install the software. It says right in there that the software doesn’t work, and it’s your fault for being stupid enough to believe the sales hype. They might use slightly different words, but that’s basically what they mean.

That’s fine when the stakes are low. But in cases where we’re relying on tech for important things, we kind of need it to work. The worst part of all is that they’re entirely capable of producing reliable software. One software update in six years for my car is actually pretty good. When it’s expensive to fix problems, they work hard to avoid them in the first place.

But as long as the industry can keep blaming its customers for the shoddy software it’s shipping, technology is never going to be reliable.