Monday, March 16, 2009

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The purpose of this museum is to provide a shelter for strange, unwanted, malformed packets - abandoned and doomed freaks of nature - as we, mere mortals, meet them on the twisted paths of our grand journey called life. Our exhibits - or, if you wish, inhabitants - are often just a shadow of what they used to be before they met a hostile, faulty router. Some of them were born deformed in the depth of a broken IP stack implementation. Others were normal packets, just like all their friends, you or me, but got lost looking for the ultimate meaning of their existence, and arrived in places we should never see them. Every time, we try to find the unique history of their lives, and to make you understand how difficult it is to be a sole messenger in the hostile universe of bits and bytes.
Michal Zalewski, ‘museum of broken packets

One of the upshots of last week’s pronouncement that we’re always waiting for something to load is that sometimes we wait in vain. For a message to arrive, for an application to load, for a link to open in a new page, for a video to start. It is not terribly uncommon, if you think about it, but I would argue that our collective faith in the transformative and all-pervasive power of informatics is largely unaffected by it. At least by comparison to two other spectres that work against the most optimistic narratives of the digital: to wit, permanent loss of data, or virus and malware infection. We began exploring the former with the discussion of Memento and I think you’ll agree that the latter has tremendous psychological and imaginative import - it is, if nothing else, the stuff that cyberpunk is made of, and it'll deserve exhaustive (not to mention possibly exhausting) treatment in future posts.

By comparison, the odd failure to deliver a packet or correctly connect the digital dots gets discounted in favour of the (perfectly reasonable and reality-based) view that things work a lot if not most of the time. Nonetheless, PC users circa 1995 to 2003 or thereabouts will be painfully familiar with this image

The Blue Screen of Death

and could tell you with certainty that the phrase ‘it may be possible to continue normally’ has never once come true in the history of computing. Others whose memories stretch back into the prehistory of DOS have had occasion to ponder the philosophically intriguing triple choice of whether to Abort, Retry or Ignore a stalled procedure, at least until they worked out that retry and ignore always led to the repetition of the question. Lately Microsoft has started tapping into the notion that we are all working for the corporation in the capacity of freelance debuggers without pay, so now when one of their applications crashes you get the extra option of sending an error report to base command, where I imagine it gets swept under a very large rug, figurative or otherwise.

(By the way, do you want to know how I was able to capture the picture above in time for this week’s post? It’s because I can make errors occur at will on several of the applications that run on my computer. Make of that what you will. In this case, I was using the spellchecker on a Word document containing hidden text. The error reporting page dealing with this problem suggests I consider upgrading to a more recent version of Microsoft Office - gee, thanks! And may I say how disinterested of you.)

Notice too the rhetorical shift from the Blue Screen of Death to Microsoft's more recent error dialogs. Firstly, the wording of the blue screen placed the blame squarely on the user. An exception 06 has impersonally occurred, sure, but let's not forget who was using the computer at the time, shall we? Yes, I'm looking at you, and now that I think about it it's only fair that you shall lose any unsaved information in all applications. Exhibit number two, on the other hand, shifts the responsibility to the software ('Microsoft Word encountered an error'), is rather more delicate in breaking the news of the disastrous loss of work you just suffered ('if you were in the middle of something'... 'information might be lost') and offers an apology for the inconvenience. Gone too are the machine addresses indicating where the error occurred that most people couldn't read anyhow, and a laudable effort to assume the existence of a human on the other side of the screen follows thence.

All that said, I for one swear just as loudly and blasphemously nowadays following a system crash as I ever have, attempts to soften me and improve my 'user experience' notwithstanding.

And that begs my earlier question of why the culture's default reaction to the notion of the crashing of software is a whimper or shrug, as opposed to a more existentially pessimistic response with deeper enmeshings in the imaginary. If I'm right, that is: you may well disagree. But I struggle to find examples of this resonance outside of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, whose Orwellian regime is made all the more terrifying by its reliance on a bumbling technology of information which makes its brutal exercise of power not less efficient but rather more arbitrary.

Brazil: The Internet is broken.

Although on closer inspection at the centre of Brazil's plot is an error, not a failure, of transmission (leading to the persecution of a Mr. Buttle in place of Mr. Tuttle), and they're not quite the same thing. I'm thinking then perhaps rather of the fears surrounding Y2K, had they led to anything approaching a coherent and consciously articulated critique of the true faith in informatics.

Why do I think any of this matters? Not because I believe we should all fret needlessly, but rather because the image of the crash could (and should, really) undermine some of the more hyper charged and anti-progressive contemporary narratives that hinge on the faultless operation of the informational infrastructure. Digital immortality, that world of nonsense I tentatively and intermittently began to map in the course of the last few weeks, is one obvious such narrative: for the idea that the application of you could crash, that it could fail to compute, is rightly sobering. But of course the very name of the thing, crash, signifies these days the state of the global economy, and it is hardly a coincidence: for the immaterial, fictive, virtual economy of late-stage capitalism is not only predicated on informatics but is in fact its very articulation. It is an operating system, if you will, running on the communications infrastructure, the densely symbolic systems of financial exchange, a political economy that is synonymous with cybernetics, several more representational layers and finally - but a very distant last - a world of things, the raw materials, the real economy, people at work, us.

Right about now, we're sitting in front of the Blue Screen of Death, some of us still thinking, hoping, that it might be possible to press any key, bail this thing out, and who knows, perhaps

Although I wouldn't bet on it myself.