Ghost this bad dog

Editorial Notebook

May 01, 2004|By Robert Benjamin

THE BEIGE BOX in the den isn't working, or rather it seems to be working for everyone else but us. It would be one thing if it were a TV; we'd just waste our time in other ways. But it's our home computer; we think we need it. And for months now it's been in what our expert pals generally have not been shy about calling a death throe of old age. After all, it's almost four years old.

We're still getting e-mail - almost all of it spam, of course - at least on most of our accounts most days. Internet access went out for good some time ago, after maddeningly going in and out for a while. That's trying enough, but now the machine's been invaded by hostile forces ominously known as spyware. It acts like it can't meet a pop-up it won't display; layers and layers crop up, burying whatever we're trying to accomplish. A spyware program, burrowed deep in this box's innards, keeps signing us on to a casino Web site. The only thing that really works is receipt of the whopping bill for cable Internet access, which arrives each month like clockwork.

Hope is disappearing. Everyone is getting cranky. The older teen-ager is trying to finish a big research paper, though saving that work is purely hit or miss. The younger one's instant messaging isn't instant. We're taking work home but not getting it done. We want - need! - a toaster; plug it in, hit the button and the job happens. Instead, we have an unsolvable problem, we're told. Buy a new one - they're "smokin'," it's said. Or - and this is where the expert pals take on a certain condescending edge - learn a whole lot real quick to be our own computer doctors. Thank goodness for credit cards.

Well, the new gray box plugs in like a toaster. But it isn't more than a few minutes before the pop-ups begin piling up, and a deep panic reinfects us. More free advice (in response to now pathetic begging), another trip to the mega-store, more money. It's really very simple. Take the mind of that new box back in time with the click of a newly found button. Disable one route of outside invasion. Bring in a couple of electronic walls and watchdogs. Admonish the teen-agers, whether warranted or not, to restrain wide-ranging clicking. And voila! We've got a smokin' toaster (in a good way), albeit one that's hard to resist obsessively checking every night for incipient signs of aberrations that we just know the world wants us to endure.

But why should there be harmony? That other beige box, the one at work, just as suddenly stops toasting our tasks. Ah, but here help is just a call away - not that this box responds to any of the standard ministrations. Three hours later, that old inner panic has settled back in; we just want some heat out of the darn thing. A real computer doctor arrives, probes, fiddles, sighs, makes a call and slaps a sticky note on it: "Bad dog. Ghost this" - apparently tech talk for take this thing away, clean it out and put it in an obedient frame of mind.

The next morning, that beige box is a good dog - to mix all kinds of metaphors - toasting away. Toasters, dogs - with all due respect for the companionship of dogs - it all boils down to the same thing: obedience. All we want is for these boxes to work on command. We want them to type, store, talk to other boxes, and show what the world has to offer. We don't particularly want to understand them. We don't want to feel bad because we don't. Or be called upon to suddenly educate ourselves in how to fix them. We bet the vast majority of people who sit in front of these boxes feel the same way, though you hardly ever hear anyone admit it out loud. Most of the world just wants a toaster - and if it acts up, someone to come in and declare, "Bad dog. Ghost this."

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