It’s December 16, 2023. The clock shows 4pm in the afternoon. After having travelled the day before, I feel the need for some me-time. So I start my computer, launch Steam, and want to play a video game for an hour or two, the only time slot of the day that I actually have. And I am being greeted with a dreaded symbol: I will not be able to launch the game, because there’s an update available.
Frustrated, and fearful of how large the update may be, I perform the only “action” I have at this point, and start the update process. And there it comes: The update will be 10 GB – the entire size of the game itself. I quickly glance at the current bandwidth my monopolistic telecom provider is willing to grant me, and calculate how long I will have to do nothing but wait: Up to three hours.
After quickly cycling through the first four stages of denial, I resign, take my laptop, and walk downstairs to sit in front of my router to get the maximum possible transmission rate without any interference. I quit all other programs that may download data intermittently, and turn my mobile data on so that my phone doesn’t additionally chew on the precious bandwidth that I have.
Sitting on the floor in the dark, waiting for the update to finish, I begin this blog post. The year is 2023.
The Promises of Early Internet
When I first got internet back in 2004, the world was a different one. Facebook was nowhere to be seen and the Dotcom-bubble just barely left our memory. The internet was full of blogs and forums. Back then, shortly after Dial-Up modems have been replaced with the faster ISDN standard, and we didn’t have to choose between calling someone and looking something up on the internet anymore, most of my time consisted of waiting. Internet was abysmally slow, and even though websites were small, you could really see the images loading line by line.
About half a decade later, when my school years were coming to an end, the situation seemed to improve. Internet usage skyrocketed, and so did the bandwidth we had. Despite being served by monopolies who had no interest in simply providing the fastest internet possible, websites loaded quickly, and game publishers began slowly migrating away from CDs and DVDs, and into the internet. But it was fine: Games weren’t all that big, so downloading one did necessitate an entire day of waiting, but we knew this, and could adjust accordingly.
After the game had initially downloaded, we were good to go. Here and there, there were patches, but they were often rather small, and were thus a minor inconvenience. But as the game world moved online and fully-offline games were becoming a rarity, something changed.
Download Anything; Update Everything
A few years ago, during the pandemic, I began to notice a trend. As I wanted to play video games a bit more again (there was nothing else to do), I realized that when I wanted to play a game, I would have to wait for an update to finish. Updates nowadays weren’t small, few-megabyte bug patches anymore. They contained a large amount of the assets of the game; the textures and images that are the actual storage-killers and the major reason why games nowadays regularly take upwards of a 100 GB.
And this trend increased. Soon, I would not only have to plan my day around my work and other commitments, now I had to plan my free time, too. If I wanted to play, I would need to start a few hours early to let any potential updates finish before I could even start.
A single-hour gaming session suddenly took three hours, because for every hour of gameplay, it seemed, I had to perform updates for two. It really seems as if the internet had taken one step forward and two steps back.
Another dent in the practically available bandwidth was when Microsoft decided to make Windows updates mandatory. On the one hand, I can absolutely understand this: Windows is the market leader in operating systems and as such the most susceptible to attacks. Thus, Microsoft needs to push updates more often, and missing one of them can have more detrimental effects than if you are on macOS or Linux.
We have had it coming, after all: We are all notoriously bad at keeping our stuff updated, and with the mounting danger from ransomware groups, it is paramount to keep every piece of software absolutely up to date. In addition, cheating – a common trend back in the old days – has reached new heights, with game publishers having to resort to drastic measurements to curtail cheaters.
However, conveniently Microsoft doesn’t just push security updates regularly. There are also tons of “feature” updates that add software nobody asked for, search functions that nobody asked for, and telemetry that nobody asked for. And these updates frequently are several Gigabytes in size.
A Recipe for Disaster
If you add a typical German home internet connection, mandatory Steam updates, and mandatory Windows updates, you have a recipe for disaster. The only who are somewhat shielded from the detrimental effects of this update mania are people who also work on their gaming computer. When Windows and Steam are running all the time, chances are much slimmer that, if you really want to play, you have to wait for some update to finish. But that would necessitate either that you can actually productively work with Windows, and/or have a gaming laptop that you can carry into the office.
However, when you have a workflow as I do that requires tons of Python, compilers, or in general do anything except standard office work, using Windows slows you down. It requires you to perform a lot of additional work to get your work started, all of which isn’t necessary on any UNIX-like system.
And when you can turn on your computer once every fortnight, Windows and Steam will both greet you with downloading a few Gigabytes of updates before you can do anything meaningful with your computer – both online and offline.
If you are not a heavy gamer, the 2020s aren’t a great decade for you. Except you like updates.