The price of computer use. Part one

You wake up, do some of your morning stuff, and make your laptop on …, and you cannot start working. The system needs updating.

Whatever this means. To be frank, in recent months in my perception, I did not get any added value. I just do not know what these constant updates are there for. E-mails on ‘what we changed in the system’ I consider as spam. I do not have time for reading them. Besides, most messages are written in a language I do not understand, or the content is genuinely none.

Sometimes the upgrades are only slowing down my work as much processing or transmission power is needed. Sometimes I get a blue screen and a communique ‘This will take a while’. And I do not know what means this ‘while’. Will this be twenty minutes or one hour, three hours? The Microsoft guys seem not to understand that time is of value. Nevermind whether work time or leisure time. Time is of value in modern society.

My worst case was five hours lost on an update. It was two or three years ago as I left my regular job to freelance yet again. For five of six years before that moment, I did not know what meant updating. The IT guys in my company took care. In a busy managerial post meant for me ASAP. They appeared in my room within minutes from the call to help or made this remotely and solved any problem quite quickly. No trouble, no time loss for me. I never gave any thought.

macbook pro on brown wooden table

To be frank, during this five or six years, I had only one corner case of a bit different nature. We were that time prepping very complicated Excel sheet calculations on a big infrastructure project worth more than a billion EUR for the European Commission to approve. My best expert was constantly sitting for a couple of days, verifying the complicated formulas on traffic, economic values, and financials. Even with some automation, it required many manual working hours. She was happy, as our IT team brought her a new computer, with more processing power. And yet, after only a couple of minutes of usage, she came to me with a panic attack. She was not able to work on the new version of the Excel sheet installed with the newly upgraded system. A highly specialized modeling expert, used to intuitive computer work, a mathematical genius, was not able to convert to the new version within minutes. Under the time constraint, she would need long hours to get accustomed to. Until the IT desk restored the old Excel sheet version on her new computer, she worked on my ‘outdated’ laptop. Happy that we managed within the deadline, I did not put much attention.


But as I left the job, and bought me my first ‘private’ laptop for years, I had the same problem. I needed time to adjust to the new Office version. And it was much more time than I needed years ago when converting from Wordperfect to Word 2.0. That time I needed one night, and I was fascinated with Microsoft. Some twenty-five years later, I needed more time, and I was furious because I did find the upgrade not intuitive at all, looking for the simplest functionalities for long minutes. But as it turned out, it was the least of my problems.

After one month, as I was doing a highly advanced cost-benefit analysis of yet another project. I still had some spare time. I was happy that I would not have to work at night to keep the deadline … till on the opening, I got the blue screen and a communique ‘This will take a while’. The ‘while’ was five long but long hours. Five hours I had to wait, without any prior notice, to be able to do my work again. The irony was that the calculations I was working on were among others about time losses. In a cost-benefit analysis, you monetize events that do not have a market price. Quite quickly, I realized that during those five hours, I lost – in monetary terms – much more than an equivalent of my yearly fee for using Office. Sorry Microsoft guys, but I felt that you just stole from me on that morning …

Sometime later, I realized that although I paid for my laptop, and I was convinced that I paid for the software, I do not have any stable rights as a user. I do not even have the right to maintain the software version I paid for as I was deciding which computer to buy. You continuously do with all my hardware anything you want. When you want.

Last time you started a lengthy update as I took a bath with my computer on and streaming headline news that I wanted to listen to as I was taking rest from work. I even do not know how much time it took. This time I was not under a time constraint, so I left my laptop open and went out to enjoy the autumn sun. You probably asked me for permission. But I was not on the computer. But taking a bath, I was indeed still using it as my media center. Starting the update without my active consent, you deprived me of my daily routine.  I think I have a right not to have a TV set. I have a right to use live streaming instead and listen to it with my eyes closed. Taking for granted that if I do not actively decline by clicking ‘no’, I consent, is a too far fetched assumption in the present-day world. Maybe it was not … ten years ago. The world has changed in the meantime. It is called 3.0 or 4.0, and you are a part of it. Why can’t I when using your software?

I cannot say a bad word about guys from Microsoft, who many times have helped me remotely to cope with their operational system. They do their job. But for years now I am under the impression that testing software was pushed from inside the company to the outside world. This is users, who test. There are many of them fascinated and eagerly doing this for free. But my impression is that some long-lasting updates that happen one after another in the time span of one or two weeks, are not to introduce something truly new, but to correct mistakes and errors of the latest update. I have nothing against tackling errors by observing my activities, but my monetized time losses on constant updates are high.  If I had to do the cost and benefit analysis on my current relations with Microsoft, my marginal time costs of system usage (defined by time losses multiplied by the value of work or leisure time), would be quite high. In fact, I would be ready to pay additionally for the use of the operating system in exchange to have a right to vastly limit the number of time-costly updates and a right to decide what I wish to update and whatnot. The asymmetry of costs and benefits just reached the critical mass for me.

Today I know it is called open sourcing. Technically, my laptop manufacturer does not pay for the operational system. I do not pay for the system. You seemingly give it for free. But in reality, the price at which I use the system is high. And it is getting higher and higher. And it is not only time losses. In the meantime, your mates are Google, Facebook, Amazon, and a couple of others.

So let me sort out what is the daily price of computer use …


In the present world, we are surrounded by sensors and other devices that directly and indirectly collect, process, and transfer data through wired and wireless networks without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. This network is called the internet of things (IoT). Smart transport in a smart city is an example. Variable messaging boards show us real-time bus and tram schedules, free parking slot information, suggest velocities, so we do not stick in a traffic jam. All that thanks to sensors placed all around the public transport infrastructure, even deep in the pavement, GPS in the vehicles, and data injected from other transport IT systems collected automatically yet from other connected devices.

But a couple of days ago, we had a discussion with my professor about the link between the social networks use and the internet of things. He was convinced the IoT is not applying to our social media use as we act on social media ourselves. It is obviously the human-to-computer interaction, thus has nothing to do with the IoT. He knows quite much about the digital economy, but with 65 years of age and no social network profile, some even simple technical links might be difficult to grasp.

For many, the very social network is Facebook or Linkedin for professionals. Still, Google is doing it, as well. Functionalities differ. But on Google, you can also have a profile and be active, not forgetting Youtube that is the other big social network service.  With logins to both services, you can log in to other services, and both are tracing your activities. Google’s advantage over Facebook is its operating system that is an open-source system for most smartphones. Without a Google login, you can’t have apps designed for Android users, including the Facebook app (and many other social network services). So when talking about social media and our activities on the net, we cannot separate them from most apps and smart hardware we use. Tracing our activities by both giants probably overlaps. And to be frank, we do no longer have a full idea, who is tracking us upon our profiles and when. 

Our smartphones are equipped with GPS, so technically, if we are logged in, the social networks may know where we are and match us with the location. Google asks me sometimes automatically of an opinion of a place I am in without me declaring where I am on my profile.

Even if it is denied, our smartphones’ vocal services listen to our conversations without our consent and knowledge. The internet of things applies here as well. For the last month, I asked several groups of students, altogether around 100 people, to carefully analyze why they were shown selected advertisements on social media. Many of them confirm, they did not put any word into a browser about some topics, they did not comment, liked or disliked them using their fingertips. But, they talked about the issues with their fellows in face to face conversations. And the relevant apps appeared. Of last month I can recall one case myself.

Much of our activities in social media are by our own hand. Still, with smartwatches and other intelligent wearables, the line between social media and the internet of things was crossed for good.

Imagine a simple case. You are going out with your friends with your smartwatch on your wrist. You spent the evening in a pub. A couple of times, of course, you have your smartphone in your hands. You come home late, at around 2 am. You should be tired and sleep long. But you are a bit of a drunk. Your sleep is not of good quality. As you wake up in the early afternoon, as well as your party fellows at their homes, are getting a message on social media with some advice on how to quickly cope with a hangover. Impossible? I do not think so. All data needed to identify those with a hangover is easy to collect and process automatically. First, you were in a pub. Your GPS data are automatically matched by Google with the place. With whom you were? The camera on your smartphone was once or twice on, without you even knowing it. All faces were automatically identified and assigned to the matching faces connected with you on social media. Your smartwatch monitors your vital signs. The sleep analysis app matched your sleep problems with the kind of location you spent the evening at (a place where alcohol is served). You were automatically diagnosed with a hangover. Your party fellows with a high probability would also need the recipe. Logical … and possible with a simple algorithm.


Now let us match it all. Computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and smartwatches all connected to our social media profiles. And all of that hardware operating on open source operating systems with all our data accessible to the developers of the latter. Unless you are not connected or use Apple, the data on you introduced to the system by your own hand or by the internet of things automatically is conveyed to the internet giants Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, and no doubt others as well. It is no longer only that what you declared on social media, your place of residence, sex and age, your relationships, and interests. No, today this is all you do in the net, where you are (GPS), all that can be tracked by hardware audio and video apps less or more randomly on (if you still did not cover the cameras), as well as your vital signs if you use a smartwatch or other wearable hardware.

The first cost of any computer and internet use is the loss of privacy. Sounds trivial. Is it not? We could say the posting is free will. If you do not post, you stay private. Simple as that. No, it is not. The world is no longer working like that. Even if you only possess some hardware that makes your life easier and for practical reasons have one or two social media profiles but try to stay private and not post and not reveal details on you to the general public, you are no longer private. The worst is that you even do not know what information on you is available and for whom. And declining cookies is more a daily nuisance than a tool protecting against the loss of privacy. As I have learned in recent months, we barely know anymore what the extent of privacy loss is. Unless we are not connected, we have fewer and fewer rights.

But another outstanding issue is that with all the benefits we get from using the hardware and open-source software, the asymmetry of costs and benefits between users and internet giants is getting bigger and bigger. 

Photos by: Andrew Neel, Burst, Pixabay, Isabella Mendes, Federico Orlandi