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AT LARGE: Brain strain

AT LARGE: Brain strain

What follows is true. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a fellow I'd seen buying Y2K diagnostic software from Dick Smith's. Cynical commentator that I am, I believed he could not possibly have any use for this product, and was simply wasting his money. I now believe I was wrong. I now believe that the software was not for his computer at all, but for himself.

Absurd, you say? Possibly. But something happened to me the other evening that made me scratch my head and go "hmmm" in a way I hadn't quite before.

I was chatting with a friend of mine - an industry type, so I shan't name her - who had joined a panel of experts for a conference the night before. As a reward for her appearance, she had been given a box of chocolates (Lindt, I think) and wished to crack them open. Witty banter ensued, regarding the downturn in compensation for expert panelists (at the same event a couple of years ago, she got a very nice bottle of wine, apparently). I joked that the chocolates may, indeed, have been bought on the very cheap indeed, and advised her to check the Use-by date.

The date was written thus:

"05-01-02". Now I'm presuming that the computers over at Lindt headquarters would store that date as "05-02-2002", but for whatever reason (conservation of precious ink resources?) it was abbreviated on the box.

My friend, however, read the date as "Fifth of January Nineteen Oh . . ." and trailed off. One part of her brain simply could not accept that these chocolates were about due for their telegram from Her Majesty, and refused to let her finish the sentence. Another part of her brain was not yet able to let go of saying "Nineteen" at the beginning of a year, especially if it isn't printed there explicitly.

The clash between these two brains was a thing to see. Unsettling. Her eyes glazed over and her lips twitched, as if trying to form words but unable to link with the language subsystems. It was the closest I've come to seeing a human equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death. Thankfully she recovered herself quickly, so I didn't have to work out a human equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Delete (I think I saw it in Star Trek once).

But there was more to it than the words. There was something in the tone, too - a disappointment at discovering the chocolates had indeed been bought on the cheap and had expired in 1902. A slight miff, maybe, at having been compensated for her time with something so worthless (except to a collector - are there such people?). Had she not switched off for a moment, I'm almost sure she would have thrown them away. As I said, unsettling.

Perhaps that is the problem the fellow at Dick Smith was trying to solve. Perhaps he had grown frustrated at the number of boxes of fine chocolate he kept involuntarily discarding.

Computers do that to people. Spend enough time with them and you start to think like them. How many of you have dialled up your ISP and idly hummed along to the sounds the modem made? Do you have any idea what you were saying? Probably not. But there you were, trying to emulate the language, and therefore the thoughts, of your computer. Don't you think that's dangerous?

I had lunch with my mother a few days after the chocolate incident. Just a casual, informal sort of lunch - no special occasion. Every time I reached a decision about the food, though, I was questioned: "are you sure?" I think I'll start with soup - "are you sure?" The beef gorgonzola sounds yummy - "are you sure?" I might not bother with dessert - "are you sure?" At first glance this interrogation may seem just like a mother trying to make sure her son enjoys his lunch as much as possible (although not too much - beef gorgonzola goes straight to your arteries, you know). But it was also strangely reminiscent of the constant barrage of questioning one encounters when trying to interact with a computer. I'm wondering if I should try, somehow, to restrict my mother's use of her Mac.

The computers were meant to behave the way we think. That was the point of graphical interfaces, remember? It didn't work. Humans, in an effort to meet the computers halfway, are starting to think the way computers behave. I'm sure there must be some people, used to hitting the "Start" button in order to shut down, who now require a cup of coffee before they can get to sleep.

Matthew JC. Powell hasn't had a good post-apocalyptic vision since 1999. Reminisce on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au


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