Friday, December 3, 2010

Revenge of the machines

Their attitude doesn’t get any plainer than it did this week in Spokane, Washington. At one corner crossing, a walk/don’t-walk signal was signaling pedestrians not only to wait but also, it seems, to stand in mute surprise as the signal delivered a digital insult. City officials claimed snow was blocking display of the top half of all but the middle finger of the red stop icon. But we know better, don’t we?

We’ve all shown our frustration at machines that do us wrong, and they’re certainly not feeling the love. It could be your car, a home appliance, or myriad other devices we count on. Or maybe your computer—no, scratch the maybe. And if the computer is networked, you remember too well the day the network went down the single time you forgot to save your work.

For us, this year will go down in family lore for a series of back-to-back assaults that told us just what that Spokane traffic signal told pedestrians. At first, the small mishaps didn’t concern us. Just because the bread is about to catch fire, after all, is no reason to worry that the toaster’s “cancel” button has become just for show. If a burner on our electric stove occasionally prefers not to heat up when ordered, I suppose we all have our bad days. And if the kitchen sink’s sprayer prefers to dispense water below the sink instead of above it, well, isn’t it just a difference of opinion?

Shaking our heads, Elena and I decided that nuisances like these were the dues homeowners pay. But such lackadaisical responses on our part apparently didn’t sit well among household’s machinery. “Human up,” the machines would soon tell us in their own creative way.

The upstairs toilet first decided it was wasteful to empty its contents as often as we, not to mention civilized society, expected. Next came our desktop computer, the one Elena uses for her freelance-editing work, when it seceded from Google and decided to form its own Internet deep in the jungles of Laos. Our washer, judging from the noise, then joined Second Life in the avatar of a jet plane. Amid all this, the boiler began to pretend its temperature gauge was part of one of those carnival hammer games. And someone had just swung the mallet very hard.

They weren’t done. Although my laptop wasn’t hosting the stable of Trojans we learned were on the desktop PC, it rebelled in a way reminiscent of the Groucho Marx line: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Any program I launched, I could brew coffee and finish the cup before learning if my request was granted. The PC might start the program in two or three minutes. It might start up two or three copies of the program. Or it might pretend I didn’t exist, which happened most often.

Ultimately, we fought off the attacks. An obscure utility, for example, cleaned up the desktop PC. We bought a new washer before our old one could break through the roof and achieve cruising speed. A local handyman replaced a simple part on the upstairs toilet. And the boiler men came about three times.

The strange part of all this is that I understand the machines’ complaint. Humans design and build products and peddle them to a world of unwilling product testers. And then, when things break, we blame the machines first. Wouldn’t you rebel if you got the blame for your own genetic code? And then, of course, there’s nature’s own tendency to rust and otherwise weaken parts. Humans, ahem, wouldn’t know anything about that.

Being an avid fan of horror movies, I should have realized the machines weren’t finished with us once we felt in the clear. One sunny morning, I was testing the new backup pump I’d bought for the basement. My plumbing, my wiring. For those two reasons, it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. That’s when I thought to check the outdoor pump, the one that serves as our front line of defense against flooding during our springtime monsoon, springing into action when water surrounds its base. I connected the hose and sprayer. I stretched the hose out to the pump’s pit, opened the hatch and began spraying. As the pit filled with water, the automatic pump stood silent. I didn’t.


No comments :

Post a Comment