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Luke Butler, Bridge, 2009
Courtesy the artist and Silverman Gallery

The Ghost in the Machine Is a Jerk

Everyone has computer problems—only a chosen few are driven insane by them. A defense of daily paranoia.

A year into writing her tell-all autobiography, Margot Kidder’s computer contracted a virus that instantly deleted a year’s worth of work.

During the ensuing panic, Kidder—best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman films—accused her ex-husband of masterminding the attack to prevent the release of scathing details about their relationship.

Her theory went further: If her husband was willing to go to such complex lengths to sabotage a book, then there’s no telling what else he might do. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before he would resort to murder. Kidder’s only chance for survival, she decided, was to cut off all of her hair with a razor blade, remove her dental work, fake her death, run away, and start life anew.

Police found her a number of days later, traumatized, homeless, and sleeping in somebody’s garden. Five months later, Kidder told People magazine her meltdown was a symptom of manic depression.

Running away from your life because your computer goes on the fritz is something only the truly distraught would do, but I can empathize. Having worked as a programmer for the last 12 years, I am regularly tempted to abandon everything. When they work properly, computers are fantastic, complex tools of modern technology. When they don’t, they are frustrating, maniacally evil boxes of psychological torment. I envy those who, in the midst of computer failure, can deem a machine “broken.”

For me, a misbehaving device has always been an opportunity to tinker and see how things work. It’s a chance to look behind the curtain and see the bleeping logic that makes the world run. The ability to construct a computer from various circuit boards is an intellectual challenge. The reward for knowing how to hook a modem up to a DOS prompt was to be granted access to a world where people recognized my Star Trek references.

Then there are other times when it doesn’t end well. It’s in those moments, when I’ve invested so much time and anguish into a project and everything is still going wrong, that I assume someone is actively sabotaging my work. There’s just no other possibility.

These incidents of manic accusations are never pretty. It quite often involves sending a semi-crazed email to a systems administrator in the middle of the night that I later regret.

One particular rabbit hole had me claiming that a hosting company was intentionally blocking me, and only me, from accessing my own website. I sent notices in large capital letters asking them to “CEASE AND DESIST YOUR IMPROPRIETY.” A follow-up email, where I accused them of being in cahoots with my co-workers, was never sent, as it surely would have warranted a call to the local sanitarium.

The whole episode probably sounds like a touch of paranoid madness, mainly because it was; yet I find it all quite reasonable in retrospect. As bizarre as it sounds, something actually was blocking me, and only me, from my own website for a full 24 hours. At the time, my mind reeled with conspiracy theories about why anybody might care that much about a website detailing post-modern amusement parks and alternative grammar theories that got zero visitors. Maybe I was getting too close to the truth?

 

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With computers, there are so many possibilities for failure that they breed paranoia. Anything and everything can go wrong: broken software and poorly made software, power surges and power outages, glitches and kernel faults, hardware corruption and bit rot. Ockham’s Razor won’t help when a misconfigured DNS isn’t interacting well with a faulty router while a cron task somebody left running launches a diagnostic script that recursively sends a denial-of-service attack onto your own server. Some pattern-matching detective work and a healthy dose of skepticism is what tells you that it’s not a team of Russian hackers trying to infiltrate the website of a local yoga studio, but rather a cluster of incomprehensible screw-ups.

World War II fighter pilots complained of gremlins sabotaging aeronautical equipment in ways no human could account for.I would tend to believe Hanlon’s Razor in these occasions (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”), but in reality, there are hackers and spammers and spyware and viruses and key-loggers and all other manner of malicious actors. Nothing is completely secure. And it doesn’t help when everybody you work with communicates without facial expressions or tonal inflection through that hive mind of social anxiety disorders and passive aggression called the internet.

So in this environment, where anything can fail from an infinite number of causes, and the mind is frantic to find a reason why, it’s tempting to put some kind of face to these pseudo-random failures and make sense of the world. Margot Kidder had her ex-husband. I like to blame systems administrators.

World War II fighter pilots would complain of gremlins—mythical, mischievous Widgets and pixie-like Fifinellas—sabotaging aeronautical equipment in ways no human could have accounted for. The idea of calling engineering problems “bugs,” which dates back to the 1800s, is essentially a euphemism for laying the blame of systemic problems on insects. At the time, bugs were another literal source of mischief in computer systems. Moths got into vacuum tubes. Ants would lay eggs on electric switches.

An auto mechanic once told me of a prank where he would leave an extra lug nut laying around during an engine overhaul. The mechanic doing the repair would go temporarily mad, assuming the whole process would need to be repeated because of this one missing element, until the other mechanics eventually let him in on the joke. In that situation, without some element of suspicion of my coworkers, I think I would probably spiral into an abyss of self-doubt.

For reasons like that, I cherish my paranoia. It might mean harassing a minimum-wage consumer service representative who is stuck working the graveyard shift with bewildering accusations about throttling connections and psychological manipulation, but, to me, it’s worth it.

Of course, it might be healthy to get some fresh air too.