Junkware is Elder Abuse and a Menace to Society

15 Nov 2022

The wave of tech workforce layoffs and radicalization continues, including thousands of Twitter content moderation workers and more workers last night who talked back to the boss. So today, we’re re-sharing this Layoff Guide for Twitter Workers, broadly applicable to all workers in and around tech. But to put things in perspective, we’re featuring a story by lifelong software wrangler Danilo Campos about fighting junkware to make computers functional for our elders.

A woman wearing purple floral long-sleeved dress besides 4-layer cake photo

Seniors deserve better than corporate theft of CPU cycles / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By Danilo Campos

I’ve been building and shipping software since I was 19 years old, when I learned to code in Second Life. It was an accident – I was just poking around. Still, that got me on the path a career I was so excited about. What I never counted on was the values mismatch I’d find once I arrived. It’s not always easy to answer whether my industry is actually doing good for the world.

As a consequence, I volunteer helping seniors with their technology issues. A lifetime with everything from dialup modems and selling flip phones, to modern stuff like shipping mobile apps and hacking development boards, means it’s hard for people to stump me with a tech problem. It’s an easy way to give back to my community while learning more about the gaps between what we build and what people actually need. It’s also a small way to atone for the many sins of this business.

Recently, one of my regulars came in with a Lenovo laptop. It still had a retail sticker; I imagine she bought it used, but she still paid over $500. She was baffled:

“I bought this so recently, how is it already so slow?”

“Slow” is a pretty subjective complaint, but I make it a policy to take my clients at their word. It’s often hard for them to work up the will to blame their computer and not themselves.

So I fired up the task manager to get a look at things. She’s right: her CPU capacity was saturated at regular intervals. This laptop was barely usable. Digging into the list of processes, there was all kinds of Lenovo branded crapware running in the background. A quick Google search confirms this is a common issue on these machines. I try to launch Lenovo’s frontend for all of this junk…

And it gets so much worse. All this hideous Lenovo branding in an unnecessary, animated splash screen the computer can barely render, leading to a poorly designed app of zero value to my client. As I was digging around I realized what’s going on: Lenovo wants surveillance turf. They want a “relationship” with the customer that’s a thinly veiled back door into their machine. How often does the trackpad really need a firmware update?

I asked my client for consent to remove it. I know a lot about the tech, and I’d worked with this person before, but this is still their property, their space, their world. I don’t want to do anything surprising or high handed. That’s the whole cultural issue I’m fighting through this volunteer work in the first place.

The challenge is that with this garbage program running in the foreground, the whole machine has truly ground to a halt. It took me five minutes (!) of the limited time in our appointment even to access the Add/Remove Programs window, so slow was this computer running.

After explaining the situation to the client, I purged everything related to this Lenovo branded surveillance garbage from the machine, just as we’re running out of time. Instantly: it was usable again. The CPU graph cooled down, the UI became reliably responsive again.

It just makes me so angry.

This technology is non-negotiable, at this point, even for seniors. They need it to keep in touch with people, to participate in cultural and civic life. These companies are just contaminating the every day experience of using them with incompetently-built surveillance crapware. My client paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of using a machine that had been sabotaged by the greed and incompetence of its manufacturer, and they had no recourse at all.

How are they supposed to figure this out? With what mental models?

It’s funny, working in the industry, how often you can smell some weasel’s little OKR in the inexplicable frustrations of someone who just wants to use their laptop, phone, tablet… but they’re derailed by a popup, unnecessary login or other waste of time. These malignant incentives are an affliction amplified across the scale of any successful technology now.

Maybe the most frustrating thing for me is how often I’m working with people who are apologetic and unsure because of these derailments. They think it’s their fault! They think they’re not capable of doing and learning on their own because they keep getting fucked with by this user-hostile crap at every turn.

I spend a lot of time explaining the same thing over and over again:

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re completely capable of making sense of this machine. It’s just that some asshole got a bonus for trying to confuse you so a little graph would go up.”

A Twitter thread based on this story went pretty viral, and it was clear from others that a version of this conversation happens far too often. So many of us are working hard to restore a sense of confidence and agency to people who are thrown off track by code designed to meet someone else’s goals.

For me, it’s a reminder that we have so much more to do in our work to remind this business that there are real human beings at the other ends of our CI pipelines and deploy scripts. The decisions we make, the code we agree to build, lands in the laps of people just trying to get things done, sometimes with limited understanding of their tools.

That’s a serious burden of responsibility. Crappy algorithms means scalable exploitation. We can’t fix it all overnight, but we can look for our own points of leverage. Technology used to make me excited. I want us all to have the feeling that these tools are working in our interests, amplifying our abilities.

Thank you to TWC for running this story. Talk with your neighbors, coworkers, youth, and elders.