Broken Code

A piece of software I use frequently suddenly went nuts. I name no names (Quicken), but a typical episode of “Nightmare on Tech Street” ensued.

It began when I logged on to the stuff and a box popped up saying an update to the software was available. “To install, click here.” So I dutifully clicked. I want my gear to be up-to-date, who doesn’t.

Zip, it downloaded. A new box appeared. “You must restart your computer.” I restarted my computer and tried to login to the new and improved software. A box popped up. “You must restart your computer.” After three repeat rides on this merry-go-round, I realized the patch had not improved my life. In fact, it had made my software not better, but inaccessible.

Looking on line I found the news that a patch for my software seemed to be causing some computers running some operating systems to not run the software. In the immortal words of Rick Perry, “Oops.” Chat rooms offered me the choice of following incomprehensible directions including uninstall and then reinstall your software, which was way beyond my pay grade. Or, a call to a derisively named “help line.” Which I did.

After a relaxing 20 minute wait, where I was assured my call was important, I got to spend several hours with a pleasant woman from the Philippines whose English was not always easy to understand, particularly when she spoke Techalog. There were long pauses while she put me on hold to consult higher authority. She halfway took control of my computer so she could use her own mouse pointer to show me where I should click. She had me uninstall and install. No dice.

While the machine loaded or cogitated or did whatever it was doing, we chatted about the weather. Hot there. Hot here. She said she liked my screen saver picture, which I told her was of my daughter in California on a vacation. She told me her sister was in Missouri.

All of this was amiable, except for the creepy fact that someone 9,000 miles away had access to my computer and the software that contains records of my bank account, mortgage debt, IRA holdings and net worth.

Eventually, the solution was found, a click here, a tickle there, Voila, back in business. I should have been livid at the wasted time caused by a defective product, but something like Stockholm Syndrome had taken effect. I was so happy to have been freed from the evil software that had taken me hostage, to be able to get off the phone and resume my life, that I expressed blithering gratitude for all the help to a minion of the corporation that had caused all the trouble in the first place.

Moral of the story? We are all increasingly hostages of the Zeros and Ones of Computerland, a foreign place ruled by an alien race – and I don’t mean ill-paid Filipinos in call centers. I mean coders.

We all know what happened here. Some feral, antisocial nerd boy wrote the code for the patch, and he put a One where a Zero belonged. No one caught it, and thousands, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of hapless users had their day ruined, their trust in a company’s products destroyed and their sense of existential foreboding increased.

We get on planes controlled by the work of fallible coders. Such people are hard at work to bring us roads crowded with speeding, driverless cars. What could possibly go wrong? We have turned over our bodies to robot surgeons that run on code, our nuclear plants to code, our national security to code, our personal security and private records to a cloud of code. The list goes on and terrifyingly on.

It is obvious why we have become reliant on a world run by code. It makes life easy. It is useful. It is labor-saving, though unemployment causing. It is magic. But, as a look at any Silicon Valley mogul reminds us, the default position for coders and geeks is hubris. They think they are oh, so clever, but they endlessly show themselves to be human, all too human. And nothing human is infallible. And this doesn’t even begin to address deliberate malice, as opposed to careless idiocy, among the coderati.

I’m not advocating an embrace of the Full Luddite position, but I am saying a lot more caution is needed. We are turning our lives, our fortunes and what’s left of our civilization over to people we wouldn’t trust with the keys to our car or our daughter’s phone number. This does not compute.

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