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Diabolus ex Machina

To say that we have been experiencing technical problems in the production and distribution of Online Catholics these past few weeks is a bit like saying the Pope is a Catholic. You know it: we know it. It started with disappearing images, developed into run-away fonts, spawned layouts that looked as though they had not been professionally proof-read (even though they had), and ended in last week’s debacle where many readers could not access articles from the normal “front page” and others who tried to print the edition ended up with all sorts of back issues spewing out onto their laps. It has been annoying for you and frustrating for us. One correspondent in this week’s Letters sums up the situation succinctly: “Fix it or stop pretending to be an online magazine.” He’s quite right.

I could point out that we have had a variety of computer experts working after hours (literally) to iron out the bugs in the programming for over a week. I could say that a thorough re-programming (and re-design) is being planned (and budgeted for). And I could absolve myself from any of the blame by referring to my job description as editor (which is to be a “content manager” – not a technician). But I won’t hide behind any of those defences. You deserve an apology and you shall have one. In the spirit of Mark Byrne’s article in this week’s edition, there are times when it is necessary to say ‘sorry’ and this is one of them: I’m sorry for the inconvenience that you have been caused and for my failure to ensure the reliable delivery of a professional product these past two weeks.

I can’t say, in the words of the old “Act of Contrition” most of us learnt many years ago that I won’t do it again; but I can say, in the variation on those words that a wise priest once taught me, that I will try not to do it again.

These past few weeks, I have been reminded of a comment about technology once made by the American novelist Pearl Buck. “It is difficult not to wonder,” she remarked, “whether that combination of elements which produces a machine for labour does not create also a soul of sorts, a dull resentful metallic will, which can rebel at times.” Certainly when the car won’t start, the fuse blows for no apparent reason, the lawn-mower runs out of petrol even though you know you only filled it up last week, or the computer simply refuses to do what computers are supposed to do, it is easy to think that Buck might have been on to something. But ultimately it is human error that engineers mechanical error just as it is the human capacity for patience, tolerance, ingenuity, and forgiveness, that ultimately gets us out of most of our jams.

That’s not much comfort if you are not reading this because we have had yet another technical hitch this week: in fact, in that case, it is just a thought lost in cyberspace. But before we let it go completely, let’s think of the devil in our machines as actually the divine short-circuit that rescues life from mere gadgetry.

Chris McGillion




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