Pushed

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PointCast was one of those Internet services that was far ahead of its time. At its root, it was a lot like the news readers we use on our smartphones and tablets today, pushing information to computers during off-peak Internet usage, and its screensaver was far more useful and engaging than those shipping with Windows 98 at the time (or those shipping with Windows 10 today). In an age where 56k dial-up modems were the height of speed for most Internet users, though, PointCast was a huge resource hog, and it wound up being banned by many businesses before it died a quiet and relatively unnoticed death. If it had come out five years later, as broadband Internet became the norm in large and medium-sized cities across America, PointCast probably would have seen much more success, and apps that duplicated a lot of PointCast’s features remain popular on Internet-enabled devices to this day.

Before so much of that news-and-weather information moved to our smart devices, services like Konfabulator (later Yahoo! Widgets) and Google Desktop helped bring back the pushing of that information to our desktops. I was never interested in the more entertainment-based widgets these applications had, but keeping a steady stream of useful information on the right side of my monitor appealed to me a lot. Even after I got my first smartphone, having all that stuff always visible in my primary workspace was just very convenient for me, and the shutdown of these widget services several years ago really disappointed me.

When I got my first Chromecast shortly after that, two of the first apps I downloaded for it performed pretty much the same information-pushing to my television. Especially with the possibilities opened up by app-controlled displays, I wondered if I could get my television as useful and as visually appealing as something like Marriott’s GoBoard screens. I haven’t had a television in eyeshot of my desktop screen since 2006, though, and not only did I not end up using my Chromecast for this purpose very much, but the apps I first downloaded were eventually delisted from Google Play Store, and I can’t find anything like them any longer.

I kind of understand why these kinds of screens aren’t so appealing to people any longer. Even at a small campus like mine, most of our buildings are equipped with televisions spitting out a steady stream of campus information, complete with downloaded news headlines and weather forecasts and the like. I hardly ever notice them, though, even when things I’m involved in are being advertised. My students say that these screens are largely background noise to them as well, and with all the information relevant to us that we can pull out of our pockets at a moment’s notice, it kind of feels like these ubiquitous information screens are an artifact of generations like mine that grew up on early cyberpunk, watching the images of “screens everywhere” in movies and anime, longing to live in that kind of future. Now that the technology is here for that, though, the screens seem irrelevant at best, if not annoying and distracting.

When Microsoft pushed out the Windows 10 update a few months ago that included a news-and-weather widget in the taskbar, though, I was kind of hoping that I could recapture some of that aura of the older days of PointCast screen savers and desktop widgets. Seeing basic weather information at a glance whenever I pulled my taskbar up was definitely useful, and when the basic weather information was replaced at some points by air quality ratings during the worst of the wildfire smoke days this past summer, I hoped that Microsoft had come up with something I could make good use of, something that would prove there was a real audience, and market, for something like those old tools I still remembered with more than a little fondness.

This past Friday, though, I opened my taskbar to find that the usual weather information there had been replaced with warnings about how much the major stock market indices had dropped. These were serious drops, but certainly nothing historical, and while these drops were tied to something of serious importance to us all (concerns about the newly-discovered omicron strain of COVID-19), I’m far more interested in the human toll of the virus than how it’s affecting a bunch of stocks. With the weather here being incredibly topsy-turvy in recent days, I was even more interested in the current conditions I was used to seeing in my taskbar than red text highlighting the drop in the S&P 500.

You can disable the news-and-weather taskbar tool in Windows 10, or you can reduce it to a simple icon (a pictogram of current weather conditions, a line on a graph going up or down, and so on), but you can’t configure it to display only weather, or only news, or anything other than what it thinks you want to notice at any given moment. I have no idea why Microsoft wouldn’t include this functionality, especially since if they’ve done any tracking of my Internet habits over the past twenty years, then they should know that my interest in financial matters is virtually nonexistent. Worse yet, even after the drops in stock market indices made news last Friday, I’ve kept noticing my usual weather information sometimes be replaced by information about those indices, even when the markets weren’t open.

Maybe this is just another example of how computer algorithms still haven’t perfected how to push the right information to each individual user of an application like this, but I can’t believe that including a little “don’t send me financial news” tick box would be that difficult to implement in this new taskbar thing Microsoft dumped on all of us a few months ago. As things stand right now, as much as I enjoyed that little helper at the bottom of my taskbar, I may disable it if I can’t get it to shut up about what stock indices are doing. The purpose of these applications and services is to provide useful information to the end-user. Without the most basic of tools for end-users to customize that information, then it becomes so infuriating that the struggle to deal with the technology’s imperfections becomes, for lack of a better word, pointless.

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