Thoughts on life after the PhD
This morning my computer was haunted by multiple ghosts.
One ghost came in the form of a particularly vicious hacker attack. The other ghost was connected to a human body thousands of miles away. I watched, helpless but accommodating, as my cursor moved on its own, opening and closing unfamiliar files, uninstalling and reinstalling software in an attempt to drive out the demon. Those ghost-movements belonged to Rey, my tech support contact in Quezon City, the Philippines, who kept me updated first by phone and then via a chat window as he deftly cut and sutured, trying to stay two steps ahead of the virus that, the way I saw it, threatened to destroy my life.
Reading what I just wrote, I think it’s clear that I need to get a Mac. I know they’re not perfect, but I hear that they at least aren’t as vulnerable to viruses. When it comes to computers, though, I think I may have some masochism issues.
When my computer crashes or is infected by a particularly malevolent virus, as has happened at least twice a year for the past four years, I experience something akin to a near-death experience. Before tech support is even called, adrenaline pumps and I go into crisis mode. I calculate the cost of a new computer. I plan out a scenario in which I will have to be without internet for weeks, not unlike an earthquake survivor trying to figure out how long they could survive on a limited food supply. I make a mental inventory of all the data that I haven’t backed up recently. I promise myself that next time will be different–I will have a different computer (a Mac), I will have an external hard drive, and I will back up every valuable piece of data via email.
And then three hours later the problem is fixed, and I’m like the lapsed Catholic who promised to attend church every Sunday in a moment of crisis–unreformed, unrepentant.
During the agonizing period between discovery of the threat and the fixing of my computer the Dell tech support staff have a kind of power over me that they could never imagine. As far as I’m concerned I’m bleeding to death and they’re world-class surgeons. I don’t care how long I’m kept on hold–once I’m connected with an actual human being in Bangalore or Manila I am as polite as is humanly possible, because these people hold my life in their hands. When a problem that seems utterly unfixable is finally solved, restoring my computer to its former normalcy, I am often moved almost to tears. I thank them so profusely that it probably makes them uncomfortable. Until that problem is fixed they could demand anything of me–large amounts of cash, graphic phone sex, my firstborn child–and I would probably give it to them. This time around Rey in the Philippines told me that my warranty didn’t include software protection, and a year-long software protection contract would cost me $250. I bought it as quickly as I would buy a pack of gum in the grocery store.
In the first few hours after my computer is fixed I am reluctant to leave its side. I push its buttons gingerly, wary of visiting unfamiliar websites that could unleash another viral wave of destruction. I’m afraid to turn it off for fear that it might not come back on again. Mostly, though, I just want to cradle it like a baby, so relieved am I that it’s still intact.
(Yeah, I need a Mac. Or at least better virus protection software.)
In this day and age I know very few people who don’t consider their computers to be an extension of their own bodies. A crash or a virus attack isn’t just an annoyance, it’s a full-on catastrophe. The first questions that come to mind must be similar to those of the dying: what will I lose? What will I be able to salvage? Can I afford to fix this? How will my life be different afterward?
Neuroscientist Sebastian Seung is currently conducting research on what he calls the “connectome,” the map of the connections made by billions of neurons in the human brain which, he claims, are the essence of each individual. If cryogenics is ever to be a reality, it’s the connectome that will have to be preserved. “I am my connectome,” he tells us.
I’m not going to argue with a neuroscientist. But until he finishes that connectome map (he admits it could take hundreds of years), I think I’ll be comfortable with “I am my hard drive.”
Even for those of us who aren’t wealthy or engaged in industrial espionage, our computers have become the equivalent of our underwear drawer, the diary hidden under the mattress. We put our most private things–health information, bills, tax returns, emails, photos–on them without a second thought as to what might happen if they were lost, or fell into the wrong hands. I know that beyond the loss of my login ID’s, passwords, and actual money from my bank account, what really frightens me about a hacker / virus attack is the sense of violation, the idea that total strangers could sift through my most private data.
Enter Dell Tech Support’s “screen sharing” software, which is both brilliant and horrifying.
Screen sharing allows a computer expert thousands of miles away to access your computer screen as if they were seated right next to you, moving the cursor and executing commands while you watch. It’s much less frustrating than having to tell the customer “click here, now type this,” especially when they may not exactly be computer literate. And no matter how many times I do it, it’s always really, really freaky.
In the same moment that watching someone manipulate your computer from afar is creepy and violating, it’s also strangely hypnotic. Sort of like being able to watch someone perform brain surgery on your own brain via an out-of-body experience. All of you is laid bare in data form, naked and vulnerable to the roving digital hands of your tech consultant.
I wonder what the experience must be like for computer users with a huge cache of porn, or other sensitive data. I’m guessing they only call Dell customer support as a last resort. Or they all use Macs.
As Rey from Quezon City clicked through my files I tried to imagine what the experience must be like for him, leafing through the most intimate realms of complete strangers’ data-existences on a daily basis. My desktop background is a tiled image of David Bowie with wolves–does Rey think that’s weird? My MSN Messenger image is of me holding a kitten looking a lot younger–does he think I’m a teenager? Do the Dell tech support staff ever get the urge to abuse their power? Do they secretly pocket photos or documents and have a laugh over them later on?
If they do, I honestly don’t care. I’m just so damn grateful that my computer is fixed.
It is eleven-thirty at night, and I am about to shut my computer down for the first time since Rey fixed it. I am terrified. I say a silent thank-you and prayer to Rey in my head (I may not be religious, but when it comes to my computer, tech support staff can take on transcendental qualities). May the viruses not penetrate my firewall. May I finally follow through and get an external hard drive to back everything up, not just the most important stuff. May I wake to a computer that is only a healthy extension of myself, and not a sick one.
I need a fucking Mac.
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