Briefing for a descent into computer hell

The chilling story of a deadline-addled writer's disintegration triggered by the seven words no keyboard jockey wants to hear.

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Get into a cab. Right away, you’ve got your doubts: This hack pilot might be a homicidal fool; might be new in town or worse, familiar with every fare-jacking detour on the civic grid. That’s not even considering the taxi itself — for all you know, a posthumous legal windfall awaits your grieving relatives in the not-too-distant future, thanks to a simmering mechanical difficulty about to reveal itself at 70 mph.

Your doubts emerge quickly because, after all, you know the situation. You can drive. You also know, perhaps from personal experience, that a driver’s license doesn’t mean the driver understands the vehicle beyond the functional basics: turn key, press gas, go.

It’s different when you face an operation. Naturally you’re nervous but, if for no other reason than psychological necessity you’re willing to have faith in the doctors. The doctors have gone to school. They have intimate knowledge of their tools and of the human body. They understand complex things that you do not.

And in moments of awful enlightenment, many of us who work on computers make the same sickening realization — we’re not doctors. We’re cab drivers. Bad, foolish, ignorant cab drivers. Our careers depend almost completely on tools that we don’t understand any better than Laika, the Russian space dog, understood Sputnik.

One recent Friday afternoon I came home to discover a significant but localized computer problem: My Internet Explorer was not functioning properly. I could connect to my service provider and get my e-mail, but attempts to browse the Web were greeted by a blank screen. I called the tech support staff at my ISP, explained the problem, and asked for advice. They were very cooperative and spent plenty of time with me. After lengthy consultations with these experts, my localized problem was smoothly transformed into a full-blown catastrophe. It was the famous cinematic scenario with a twist — the terrified flight attendant at the controls of the plane, being gently but firmly guided by the soothing voice from the tower.

Carefully now … follow the glide path … the runway lights are in sight … and speaking personally, ma’am, I never could get the hang of that landing stuff, but hey — best of luck to y’all.

Man, am I glad that shift is over. Hey, wonder where those fire trucks are goin’?



They really did mean well. I was taken through various routines, which I dutifully performed, like a singer learning Spanish standards phonetically, or a helpless patient desperately signing any consent form the doctors place in his hands. (“We’re going to reconfigure your TCP/IP.” “Well, OK. But only if you give me your solemn word that I won’t spend the rest of my life pissing into a bag.”)

Each routine, I was assured, must certainly provide the cure for my problem. None did. And here, even from the depths of my ignorance, the warning began to sound — the first meek little internal protest to the effect that you don’t have to know computers to know the smell of disaster. What I should have paid more attention to was the fact that no one, at any time, ever said, “Oh, right. I know this problem. Happens all the time.” My ISP friends ventured many an educated guess, but they didn’t know for sure. That was fine as long as they stuck to harmless remedies. My own instincts should have kicked in when, having only speculated as to the nature of my trouble, they told me to dump fuel and head in for a landing.

Or, to use their seven dirty little words: “You need to reinstall your operating system.”

This is the less obvious downside of technical ignorance — it leaves you without the confidence to heed your own judgment. How could your intuition possibly be correct, you admonish yourself? You don’t know shit. Then there’s the strong inclination most of us have not to be rude when we’ve asked for favors. I shudder to think of the many teenage hitchhiking trips during which I entrusted my personal safety to any lonely moron willing to give me a lift. Worse, I stayed silent more than once as drunk drivers chauffeured me around blind corners on the wrong side of the stripes, their idiocy surpassed only by that of the passenger who sat there, too polite to ask that they please not commit vehicular manslaughter when guests were present.

There was less at stake this time, thank God, but still, it would be nice to think that I’d learned something over the years. Evidently not. I did as I was told and began reinstalling Windows 95. Halfway through this, my ISP pals got surly and begged off: “We don’t hand-hold through software installation,” one of them grumped. Suddenly I was left to flounder in sweaty isolation. The soothing voice in the tower suddenly realizes that the flight attendant is a scab who doesn’t belong to the pilot’s union — another unforeseen cinematic twist. It was turning into quite a thriller.

Sure as popcorn kernels bust your fillings, disaster struck. My computer began protesting loudly and regularly that certain programs — many, many programs, one after the other — couldn’t be located. My, my, what a fascinating mystery. For the time being, my computer was a desk ornament. The fuel had been dumped. I called the ISP cranks again, begging for help.

And suddenly the voice in the tower gained the confidence it had previously lacked. “The people who sold you the computer screwed you,” I was told. “They loaded a different Windows onto your computer than the one they gave you on disc. They shouldn’t have done that — the two versions of Windows are incompatible. There’s nothing we can do. You need to take it in somewhere for a reinstall and hope they can save your data. Sorry.”

Over and out. We’re prayin’ for ya, son.

This couldn’t be. All my work — past writing and current deadline-hounded projects — was in jeopardy. (No, I did not have back-up discs. Yes, I know. Shut up.) And since the vendor I’d originally purchased the computer from was a continent away and well past any warranty obligations, there wasn’t even anybody I could usefully scream at. So I made do with those at hand. I cursed into the phone. I howled. I pleaded like a terminal patient trying to bargain with God. But at the other end of the phone sat a mere priest, his impressive and obscure incantations finally revealed as empty attempts to decipher the ineffable. “Sorry,” he said. “Good luck.”

It had been an unforeseen problem, certainly. But it’s funny how the sense of doom had been building for hours anyway. What had been growing was the ominous understanding of my complete dependence — the realization that my chosen career as a wrangler of English rests upon another language I don’t even speak. Plus the painful truth that my freelancer’s mastery of deadlines and financial uncertainty were not the marks of unflappability I took them for. An important question of character had been settled. I’m not stoic. I’m panicky. My palms sweat. The inside of my mouth becomes linen. I shake. Given the proper helpless circumstances, my brain turns to mush so that questions on sports or weather or my own name are apt to draw vacant stares, explosions of profanity, and eventually frustrated weeping. I had managed to convince myself that this wasn’t true, so it hurt.

All of which led easily to a companion realization — to return to my point — that may seem painfully obvious, but nonetheless lacks power until it is somehow demonstrated: namely, that from morning till evening and on through the night we are floating upon processes and systems that we don’t understand.

Happily, this particular glitch proved to have minor consequences. My data was indeed rescued — I suffered only two and a half days’ down time and a surprisingly small repair bill. But I live in a zone that, geologists constantly warn, is overdue for a major earthquake. Like my friends and neighbors, I have vaguely dreaded the event for years. Now, just as the plight of the terminal patient comes more readily to mind when you’re bedridden with the flu, I find myself contemplating a complete societal meltdown and wondering how I’d do. I think I know. And I’m glad those Y2K doomsayers are full of shit.

Right?

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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