Computer Troubles: Columns from the Whitstable Times
1984 and all that
I’m very worried about my computer. It’s been doing some very odd things of late. I tell it to do one thing and it does something else. It’s like a recalcitrant teenager throwing a permanent paddy, stamping its foot and going off in a virtual sulk.
You’ve heard about Artificial Intelligence? My computer already seems to have developed a version of it. Not Artificial Intelligence, exactly, more like Artificial Attitude.
It has a mind of its own, and is showing definite signs of wilful behaviour. I’m expecting to come home any day now to find it hanging out on the street with its mates, wearing a hoody and drinking White Lightning cider while intimidating the old people.
First of all it was a problem with my e-mail. Every time I sent a note to my editor it would come bouncing back to me with a cryptic message attached.
“Host or domain name not found,” it said. “Name service error. Host name does not exist.”
How very peculiar.
It seems that there is no such place as the Whitstable Times . The Whitstable Times does not exist. That, at least, is what my computer appeared to be telling me.
Or, looking at it another way: if the Times’ offices no longer acknowledge my messages and their computer system refuses to respond to me, maybe it’s me who doesn’t exist. Whoever it is sitting on this chair in front of this computer must be an impostor. It’s not really me at all.
My last column was not delivered by e-mail. It was delivered by hand to the Times office in Whitstable, then delivered by courier to Canterbury, and then typed by hand into the computer terminal there: the old-fashioned way.
It’s amazing how fast this technology has developed.
When I first started writing for the newspapers - just over thirteen years ago now - I would write on an old Amstrad, print it off, and then send the printed copy by post a few days before the deadline.
Occasionally I would send a fax.
There may have been internet access at the time, but only a few computer nerds had it. The web did not even exist.
These days many of us spend large portions of our spare time “surfing the net“ and most correspondence is done by e-mail..
No one sends letters any more. I know how few genuine hand-written letters actually travel by post (or by snail-mail, as the computer buffs call it): no more than one in a hundred, I would guess, and most of those are pre-printed Christmas or Birthday cards, in which only a signature and a brief message is required.
Pretty soon we will have forgotten how to write.
This is a very worrying prospect, not least when you discover how dependent we have become on the technology, and how little control we have when things go wrong.
Computers have invaded every aspect of our lives. Even our language has changed. Once upon a time memory was something that human beings had, not machines, applications were for jobs, programmes appeared on TV, cursors used bad language, webs were what spiders wove, a virus meant a week in bed and a hard drive was eight hours behind the wheel.
As for your three inch floppy, that was something best kept to yourself.
Actually I suspect it might be something I’ve been doing. I have a deep visceral suspicion of Google. Every time Google attempts to update itself I refuse it permission. My logic is that I don’t want some company knowing what I am doing all the time, analysing my keystrokes, following my various meanderings around the internet chasing up obscure tracts and then saving them on my computer for future reference.
I told the nice technician down at the local computer shop what I’d been doing.
“But Google are a reputable company,” he said, looking slightly perplexed.
Fair enough. Right now Google might appear to be a reputable company. They are only tracking our every keystroke in order to optimise customer service and performance.
Or so they claim. But what happens next? Will they be taking samples of our DNA in order to customise our computers to anticipate our every need according to our genetic programming? Will they be wanting to plant microchips in our brains to keep a track on our thoughts? Will I wake up one day to find a cloned version of myself sitting at my own computer, while I’m dragged off to the council recycling dump to be turned into Soylent Green?
That nice techie has obviously never read 1984 , or he’d know what will happen when the evil fascist government finally takes over and our computers are used to spy on us. He can’t have seen Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith in the central role on TV and having his head stuck into a cage full of rats in Room 101.
Actually, George Orwell seems to have got a number of things right.
Britain is indeed Airport One for the American Empire, as he predicted: we are permanently at war, the government is adept at double-speak and we have a Ministry of Truth telling us lies and a Ministry of Peace selling us war. And if it’s not exactly Big Brother watching over us, it’s Google, and meanwhile we are all watching Big Brother.
Is this a case of life imitating art or the other way round?
I can’t quite get over the sensation that were now living in the plot of some scary science-fiction TV play from the fifties.
Sitting here in front of my computer all day doesn’t help. Maybe I should get out more.