My computer, my friend

How many times have you talked to your computer? It seems these beige boxes may have personalities of their own...

I should warn everybody reading this before I begin that I am unashamedly geeky. It's in the core of my bones, and it's not something I shy away from. Call me every name in the book -- and there's very few I haven't had hurled my way -- and it'll just come across as just another day in my book. Are we all clear?

I was quite elated to read the other day on another Web site (you know, that one with the open-source advocacy position and strange karma system) that there's an updated version of Paranoia on the way. Paranoia, if you're not familiar with it (and chances are you're not) is a dark and humorous role-playing game (think Dungeons & Dragons) first published some 20 years ago that depicts a futuristic society run by an entirely insane computer with a paranoid fear of communism. Think of what would happen if you welded HAL's AI onto a Speak 'N' Spell that was somehow concurrently running Windows 3.11 and Windows ME, and then somehow managed to get the whole mess possessed by the spirit of Joe McCarthy, and you'll get a good idea of how insane the computer was. One of my favourite edicts direct from Paranoia would fit very nicely into a Windows error box:

"You are in error. No-one is screaming."

I'd be surprised if it wasn't in the recently leaked Windows code, not that I'm willing to risk Microsoft's ire by actually checking it -- anyone want to let me know?

At the time it was released, Paranoia was primarily satire against the crumbling Soviet Union, mixed in with just a smidge of science fiction parody. The new version promises a more modern slant on the proceedings, and with a much wider uptake of computers in the intervening period, promises more of interest to the IT crowd. Needless to say, I'm keen to get hold of a copy.

I found it interesting thinking about a game originally published 20 years ago where people didn't trust computers, compared to the world we live in today, where people ... don't trust computers.

I think computers in general have become a really easy target for the ire of most people, and in an interesting way that no other mechanical or electrical device does. I fairly consistently mutter and groan at my work machine when it's a bit sluggish or a touch prone to sudden lockups, but I'd never think of complaining at, say, my fridge or television set. In those cases, I'd check things like the batteries in the remote, or whether the seal in the fridge has been eaten away by ants or some such.

Computers, however, are given a personality by pretty much every user out there. A new machine in the hands of a computing geek, for example, is about as close to love as you can get, while a receptionist working on a seriously archaic PC is one deliberately spilled cup of coffee away from a divorce. We stare in awe at our systems when new capabilities are unlocked, and vent steam when they're naughty children.

The closest comparative item I can think of that people give personality to in the same way as computers is cars. Now, I may be a geek, but I'm no petrolhead, by a long shot. I do, however, know people who love cars in every sense of the word except the one that could lead to serious personal scalding. That's at the extreme edge, however, and like most extremes it's not terribly representative of the majority.

I guess I'm on the other edge of the blade; I know how to get my car from A to B, and anything beyond that I'm happy to leave in the hands of my mechanic. Computers, however, differ in this area, as I've lost track of the number of people I know who wouldn't even go near a computer out of fear. Sure, it's not fear in the Paranoia sense, where the errant computer would happily reduce a fictional player into his or her component atoms, leaving only a smoking set of boots behind, but it's still fear nonetheless. Very, very few people are as scared of cars in the same way.

There's all sorts of potential reasons for this particular quirk. Some people think they're "too old" for computing, some people are put off by geeks exactly like me, while others are scared of the implications of what will happen when something goes wrong. That's probably in balance to the number of people who blithely jump in and make exactly those things go wrong, which is probably karmic balance. The same people who are scared that things will go wrong, however, seem to have no compunctions when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a shiny 4WD and careening all over the road like a drunken and demented gibbon. Not that I see that every day, oh no. I see it at least five times every day.

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