Living Life In Compatability Mode

I’ve been using the same copy of Microsoft Office 2003 since I got it with the laptop I bought for myself that year. When I went to college, I would send the papers I wrote on my laptop to library computers to be printed. The library at my college had a much better budget than I did, though, so they had the latest microsoft office version, meaning I got so used to seeing “File Name [compatability mode]” at the top of all my documents that I eventually stopped noticing it unless I wound up editing a file started on the library computers on my personal laptop.

While I no longer transfer files to print them (I just use word 2003 or google drive and never print things), the memory of [compatability mode] being appended to things all the time stuck with me. It has become a useful mental device for thinking about the ways we unconsciously adapt to things in order to make it seem like nothing has changed despite us bringing old habits into new environments or trying to adapt new habits to old environments or relationships. It is an apt metaphor for the ways I’ve learned to deal with mental health issues.

It is also a useful device for illustrating the absolutely bizarre things people do in order to use skills they have or facts they know in completely inappropriate situations. Which does not include people earnestly doing their best in situations they’re not prepared for. In those cases, you do what you can and then move on. What I’m talking about, and what I’m going to be critical of, is when people do something mostly wrong because it means they can accomplish their goal without trying anything new, learning anything, or putting in any real effort (even though it often takes me work). I’ve been guilty of this kind of behavior at times, as I think most people are at points in their life, so I’m only going to highlight the most egregious examples.

For example, this entire post was inspired by a stroll through my company’s building where I spotted a large poster (too big to have been printed by any of the corporate printers, which means they either brought it in from outside the company, taped a bunch of smaller sheets together seamlessly, or involved the marketing department’s printers) zip-tied to a rolled-up projection screen. While I’m sure projectors can be arcane devices if not used frequently, it boggles the mind that there isn’t someone who could have just put the picture up there in much less time and with much less effort than it took to make and hang this poster.

I’m sure there’s a story behind all this, and I’m sure there person who carried it out could explain their decision and actions, but it just boggles my mind that we have a projector and projection screen that is being passed over in favor of a poster that is only large in the context of, say, something you’d put on a door rather than something you’d hang from the ceiling. Which is why this is boggling, since moving the device with the projector screen on it is regulated but opening the projector screen is not. Someone did a lot of work to make this happen.

Personally, the best example from my life is the fact that I have never owned a microwave. I do own a toaster oven, though. Where this becomes compatability mode rather than a decision I made to enjoy non-soggy reheated food, is when I explain that some food doesn’t reheat in a toaster oven or on the stove top easily. Sure, pizza just takes a bit longer in a toaster oven, but mashed potatoes are actually difficult to reheat on the store or in a toaster oven unless you’re okay with burning things. Most leftovers are much easier to handle in a microwave as well, and make much less of a mess. I’ve gone so far as to buy special baking trays and tools to use with the toaster over and stove top to simulate a microwave, so it’s definitely not a money conscious decision. I just refused to buy a microwave. I don’t even have a defense at this point.

I did buy a microwave last week, though. It felt a lot less like living in compatability mode when I was working from home and had the time to slowly reheat stuff on the stove top (and it meant I could justify not buying a microwave by telling myself I wasn’t buying a redundant consumer electronic) and then being back at work just meant leftovers became a lunchtime-only food. Really, though, I was justifying a decision I made for no reason at all and making my life more difficult and time-consuming so I could pretend I hadn’t done something abitrary in order to preserve my identity as the guy without a microwave.

All of which is fairly reasonable when taken step-by-step, but reflects a lack of planning, larger-scale thinking, and pragmatism in service of preserving the idea I started with simply because I started with it. All I can really say in my own defense is that it was very easy to do all of this over the course of what has now been 12 years, more than half of which I had access to other people’s microwaves, so it almost never came up. This example at work, though… took some real active effort to play out the way I did and sometimes it just boggles my mind that this is how people work on a corporate level. These are the decisions that get made and the actions that get carried out as a task is passed between hands or performed by a lone person that no one is willing to question. Just boggling.

(edit before posting: I actually tracked down this example from work, since my department has the only people allowed to use the device with the projector screen on it and I can report that it is just as boggling as I imagined it would be. A dozen people were involved and any one of them could have said “why don’t we use the projector?” at any point and changed the entire path of this little birthday celebration that has yet to be taken down since it is so inconvenient to move the device the projection screen is attached to.)

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