A Virus:
Remembering the language I speak

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

When I recently logged onto America Online and decided to check an old e-mail account there for the first time in months, I found a message from an internet friend from whom I hadn't heard in nearly a year.

I was curious when my friend's mail said that he was sending some pictures of himself with his family on their vacation. He wrote that he'd compressed five photos into a zip file. I opened the file and, to my irritation, there were no pictures.

You can guess the rest of the story. Within an hour my computer was disabled. I had downloaded a virus - not the infamous Love Bug, but a similar one. Soon, one problem after another developed. The only real hope, I was told, was to copy all my files, then completely wipe my hard drive clean and start over. This took the better part of two days - and I still lost a huge amount of material.

The effort was exhausting. I broke into tears several times. Such an experience makes anyone older than 35 painfully aware of how different the world is from the one of our youth. Computers were not part of day-to-day life. For me, the computer was a silly fantasy that belonged in a Jerry Lewis movie. Or, later, it was the sinister voice of Hal in 2001. Computers were light bulb-blinking machines on the verge of erupting into smoke and fire in air-conditioned rooms sequestered in IBM buildings.

This was part of our general mistrust of technology - a mistrust that haunted me since the original John Glenn space shot. As it happens, one of my uncles - a man who liked to drive a vintage fire engine around his property -- was a certified electronics genius. He helped engineer Glenn's space shot. I watched the historic event with my cousin Cameron. Because we had been privy to his father's anxieties, we were shocked when a weird-science disaster did not occur.

Not long afterward, Cameron and I were dispatched to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for a class in electronics. We had both been pegged as being pretty smart and we were the only children in a class otherwise full of adults. This was a time when I had been threatened with being made to "skip" two grades and, soon afterward, was put in one of the nation's first classes in "new math," if you ever heard of that disaster.

Cameron and I had radically different experiences of the electronics class. Whereas he was fascinated by the abstract science, I most enjoyed the adventure of taking a train alone into Philly. It aggravated me to sit in a classroom and listen to lectures about electricity when the weird world of the big city - including museum artifacts of dinosaur bones and Egyptian temples -- was just beyond the door.

And what most captivated me about the class was electricity's invisibility -- the way it could only be described in metaphors and effects. I remember trying to talk to Cameron about how I was always distracted because I was fascinated with why, say, the teacher chose to symbolize electrons as ping pong balls instead of as some other round object. When I tried to talk to my teachers about the same thing they mainly told me I was missing the point.

It wasn't until the following year, as a "gifted" guinea pig in another city, I had a teacher who explained that I had been responding to the "poetics" and language of the experience. She told me that this was a valid, if unappreciated, way of perceiving the world. This was a moment for me - a moment, perhaps, when I glimpsed my nature, my destiny. It is a very odd experience to have grown up being told you are exceptionally bright but to also be aware that your intelligence isn't of the valued sort that imagines building computers, businesses or space stations.

You will understand, then, how when my computer crashed, it was rather like the fulfillment of that childhood expectation that John Glenn's little space capsule would erupt into weird disaster.

But the real horror was being thrown back into the modern version of that classroom at the Franklin Institute. At least, computer technology was a relative abstraction in the hands of geniuses then. Now, of course, the minions of a technocracy handle it. I particularly mean the "technical support" people whose job it is to make people like me feel like idiots. I am an idiot for downloading the virus. I am an idiot for asking silly questions. I am an idiot for failing to back up all my files in expectation of a crash - which wouldn't occur if I weren't an idiot. At the least, I should know I'm an idiot and act cautiously.

The potentially elegant vocabulary of science, with its interesting metaphors, is completely lost at this level. One encounters instead the ass-covering double-speak of people whose real agenda is to get you off their phones. (I particularly cite the fiction-speaking technocrats of Media One who took three months and this crash to get a cable modem working at my house.)

The difference between the adult me and the child who couldn't make his fascination at the Franklin Institute known is some trust in my own intelligence. I can hear the language and know that it points to something more than pure information - specifically the authentic failures of technology and the anxiety they produce. I think it would be a fine thing for the world's "technical support" people to begin looking at their language and vocabulary of symbols. In the same way my uncle rode around his property in a fire engine and my cousin and I kept our fingers crossed during the momentous space shot, language expresses something deeper than the immediate meaning.

An emergency is not always a sign of stupidity!

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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