Beta Structures

I’m pretty much always up for a good beta, getting in on the new features and fixes at the expense of minor annoyances. I’m pretty patient with the broken bits too, knowing that they should get better over time. In the mean time, I just keep filing feedback and work around them for now.

To take a sideways jaunt for a moment, one of the major tensions explored in sociology is the one between agency and structure. Agency can be very loosely defined as our ability to act within society, but structure is more challenging to understand. For that reason, I often explain it to undergrads in terms of computer software. Structures simultaneously enable and limit action, in the way that a computer with no software would be an aesthetic chunk of plastic and silicon but the software on your computer also directs the kinds of actions you can take. Exceptions aside, you don’t use a spreadsheet for making art.

Structures in society exist in our minds collectively. In many cases it’s not that we can’t do something, but that we are aware of the social consequences of the action and so chose not to do it. I could wear pants as a cardigan, but it’s probably best to not if I don’t want to be the recipient of severe side-eye.

Along those lines, recently I’ve come to realize two negative impacts of using beta software. The first, and more minor, is that my patience with ongoing problems means that I can comfortably learn the workaround and I will keep doing the workaround even when the software no longer requires it. I recently found out that on campus there appears to be basically no limit to the size of email attachments we can send, while I’ve been continually using dropbox workarounds for printing requests. I’ve successfully trained myself to live with a structure that doesn’t even exist in this context anymore.

Second, when coping with a beta sometimes you can’t even tell what is broken and what isn’t. Right after I installed the iOS 12 beta on my phone, the music app I use stopped shuffling as it should. At first, the app either refused to acknowledge my shuffle request or outright died before settling into simply shuffling by album instead of song. These kinds of errors aren’t the fault of the developer, so I resigned myself to living with it for now. Then the other morning, I happened to press a little too hard on the shuffle button and activated 3D touch… huh, look at all these options. I had learned to live with a structure that may have never existed in the first place.

It was a good reminder that my assumptions are built up from past experiences but are not necessarily indicative of reality. That I was using an iPhone 6 without 3D touch for years after the feature was introduced meant that I never started thinking of it as reflexive interface, and that my patience with beta software meant that I never thought to stop stepping over what I assumed was a very minor missing step.

These assumptions apply in the big picture of society too. Could I wear those pants as a cardigan? Heh, pretty sure I don’t want to deal with the questions. Are there places where I see limitations on my agency that may not exist? Hm, there’s the question. But when we’re talking about safety issues, we can’t always test our assumptions to see what happens. It’s one thing to dig around for 3D touch options, and another to act in a way that may have real physical danger. Yet at the same time, it has been powerful to remember that my beliefs are only my internalized assumptions, and that I also play a role in creating and maintaining the structures around me.