Computer Dependency

Had a tough week, y’all. I’ve been fighting allergies and/or an incipient sinus infection – whatever it is, it’s unpleasant and makes me just want to go lie down – and I suddenly got busy at work, which is good for the bank account but bad for my writing. Worst of all, a random, insidious virus infected and literally destroyed every file on my hard drive. It may take years to figure out everything I’ve lost, but it definitely included lots of things that I can never recapture.

We’ve come to rely so much on our devices that, when things go wrong, we’re lost. I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk in front of the computer, and when my computer guy Neal took it away overnight for sanitizing, I felt so at odds, even though I was still “connected” thanks to my old Nokia Lumia AND a new iPhone that was foisted upon me by my employer a week or so ago. (I never had a desire for an iPhone, although my daughter had clamored for – and of course gotten – one, and I’m still very much getting used to it, so I may yet change my mind about its appeal and functionality, but thus far I don’t see what all the fuss is about.) I’m way too computer-dependent – yes, even me, who still writes in my journals in longhand and saves my downloaded iTunes in “mix tape” CD collections.

On a good day, I have an uneasy relationship with technology. For many years, I made my living as a typist and progressed from an electric typewriter (even before there was a correcting key!), to a clunky word processor with a tiny amber screen that I worked at an answering service on weekends to earn the money to buy, to a series of increasingly advanced (and, in my opinion, exorbitantly expensive) desktop computers. After the flood, when I lost my last desktop, I broke down and bought a laptop, which certainly provided portability but I still need a separate QWERTY keyboard because that’s what my fingers are used to (and I’m still a pretty speedy typist – at my fastest, I could type 125 words per minute).

As a part-time, second-shift word processor for the law firm Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte, North Carolina (which was my precursor job to becoming a lawyer, another story for another day), I learned a lot of shortcuts and tricks as we migrated from WordPerfect to Word. Even as a lawyer, I’m reasonably self-sufficient on the computer, able to navigate around documents and the firm’s file management system without relying too much on secretaries or the word processing department (who I always consider my brethren because of where I came from). In the past year or so, I’ve wangled a situation where I am able to work from the “Long Beach Office” (i.e., home) using Citrix, a “desktop virtualization” platform that enables my home computer to function just like my computer at the office, with full access to my email and files. (A side note about Citrix: The inventor of Citrix, Ed Iacobucci, tried a few years ago to parlay his technological creation into a scheduling scheme for an air taxi service. Our firm helped draft the contracts for his fledgling company to purchase a fleet of tiny light-jet aircraft developed by the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer – essentially SUVs with wings – but unfortunately the company was never able to get off the ground [pun intended].)

Working from home using a virtual desktop is not without its technical difficulties, and in no way do I claim to understand the nuts-and-bolts of how computers work or how data interacts within a network. I often call myself a “computer dinosaur”, but I’m probably closer to a computer wooly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger: somewhat more advanced but still prehistoric. On a nearly daily basis there are interruptions and failed connections, especially with my wireless network, but at least I have the firm’s Help Desk to remote-control into my laptop to remedy the problem most of the time.

For my personal computer issues, I have Eric and Neal from Eric’s Computer World [www.ericscomputerworld.com], two enterprising and brave young souls who will come to my house to address my technological ills, often within 24 hours of my call (if not sooner). I usually see Neal, but I’m also eternally grateful to Eric for trying to help me to salvage something – anything – from my drowned and salty hard drive in the dark days after Superstorm Sandy and successfully reverse-downloading all of my iPod music back on to my computer (something I expect we’re going to have to do again; I’m petrified to plug my iPod into my computer now for fear of erasing the songs that are on the iPod, especially where it might be the only version I have left). Every few months, when my computer starts getting glitchy and slow, I call Neil and he cleans me right up. But none of the spams and viruses and Trojan horses or whatever variety of malware that was making its way around the interwebs that I had contracted in the past had been catastrophic – until this week. As soon as Neil saw the devil on my hard drive, his normally cheerful demeanor changed: In a word, I was screwed. He had to erase EVERYTHING; nothing could be saved: photos, writings, music – all poisoned and contagious. And for what? What did anyone gain from this exercise?

This week there were evidently two parallel computer invasions: one where the hackers were demanding a ransom to “unlock” people’s home computer files that they had co-opted, and the one that I encountered, which was even more sinister given that there seemed to be no purpose, no benefit to be derived. My initial reaction was to ask Neal “Why?” because I could not even conceive of someone wanting to destroy the computer of a random, unknown person. The idea that hackers, with their brilliant technical minds, have the wherewithal and the motivation to mess with my computer for no reason whatsoever – no money, no personal gain that I can discern – troubles and mystifies me.

I’m sure this topic will arise again in this blog, because the nature of good and evil and the capacity of humans to be one (good) to the exclusion of the other (evil) is something I think about a lot. But this week’s debacle makes me wonder what drives a person to seek to harm another human being – a stranger, someone with whom the evil-doer has no connection and who has done him no harm – by stealing her memories, her songs, and whatever else has enough value to that person for her to want to save it (presumably forever) on her computer. On the scale of despicability – with the Nazis and ISIS and purveyors of genocide, say, at one end and the people who harm and abandon animals at the other – malicious computer hacking is far from life and death, but it is costly and potentially dangerous. And while it is seemingly purposeless, it is clearly ego-driven: “I screw with people because I can – because it makes me feel vindicated or powerful“ or whatever other negative motivation drives people to do terrible things.

On the other hand – on my hand – it also taught me another lesson about the impermanence of objects that I began learning after Superstorm Sandy, and which was later reinforced when I left my fat (and full) little red notebook and car keys on the LIRR (in two separate incidents) and no one – not a conductor, or a cleaner or a fellow passenger – bothered to take a minute of thought or effort to turn them in to the Lost & Found despite clearly meaning something to somebody. I’ve started not to care about my keepsakes and collections anymore. We all turn to dust in the end, some things just faster than others.

Sorry for the downer, folks. But now it’s a new week, and at least I have the Stanley Cup Playoffs to look forward to! My Rangers, having won the President’s Trophy for the best regular-season record, now have to carry their fine play into the post-season (some would say the “real” season). I have every confidence that Coach Vigneault and the boys can keep the good stuff going.

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