The Ghost in My Machine

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 September 1998

It looks like I’ll have to throw out my computer. Or at least donate it to some institution I don’t really care for. Maybe if I take it apart and give away the components, the hex on the machine itself will be broken.

For the past six months, I have been unable to access the Internet from my desktop computer. It’s a pretty big machine, too. A Micron Pentium II 266, with 64megs of ram. Not state of the art, but not too shabby, either. Amazingly, about a week after the warrantee expired, my Internet connections began to terminate. I’d download a few emails, and then the connection would just slow down and stop. The silliest thing is that the computer would still think it was connected to the Internet. It just could do anything about it.

Since surrendering to the Great Beast and buying a Windows machine, I have learned a lot more about computers than I ever wanted to. At least this prepared me to diagnose my own problem, if not to repair it. I re-installed Windows 95, then upgraded to Windows 98. No help. I bought a new modem - nothing. I tried different phone lines, different access providers, installed more RAM, and even swapped the entire motherboard - that main circuit board for the machine - and still nothing.

So far, that’s $800. I could have gotten a brand new machine (without monitor, of course) for that. But I can’t bear the thought of throwing out a piece of technology that took so many resources to build. When I see “dead” video recorders in the garbage it just breaks my heart - especially since more than half of them simply need a new $2 rubber belt. But, these days, it’s cheaper to buy new things than fix our old ones. (That’s by design, by the way.)

So, still determined to save my computer, I went for professional help. The psychiatrist said he couldn’t do anything, but suggested I visit a computer repair shop. I went to two different ones, and was asked the same long list of questions. The first repairman kept saying, “but it should work” and “that’s impossible.” The next one agreed to work on the machine.

During the weeks he and his force of highly skilled and certified technicians labored over my Micron, I was forced to make a choice between using my Palm Pilot “PDA” or my old Radio Shack thirty-pound laptop as my main writing and correspondence tool. Since the Palm Pilot actually has more RAM, I ordered a keyboard for it and began working on my “Tandy 1400” in the meantime.

The old machine has no hard drive, I quickly remembered. Just two slots for disks. You pop DOS in the left one, and a word processing program in the right one. (WordPerfect 5.1. Ah, yes.) Then you replace the left one with a disk for your documents and you’re off. Pop in the disk for a simple telnet program and you get on the Internet. I hooked up my old 2400 baud modem – that’s about 23 times slower than today’s 56k - but on this text-only computer, download times don’t mean anything, anyway. I can’t read faster than 2400 baud.

Mere nostalgia does not account for the joy and ease I experienced on that clunky old machine. With less than one-half meg of RAM to my name, I decided not to download my mail, but to read it off the server the old fashioned way. (By the way, if you read your mail like that instead of downloading it your hard drive, you won’t catch any of those nasty new viruses, either!) Instead of saving my documents to a hard drive, I uploaded them for safety to my Internet account.

In short, as a writer, email correspondent, and text-only Web researcher, there was nothing I couldn’t do just as easily on my ancient, 640K pre-Windows machine as on my Windows behemoth. I even managed my mailing list and updated my website. My computer took up less of my life, and though it demanded a bit more physical intervention in the form of disk-swapping, it seemed to impose less on me, too. It was more transparent. Simpler. Quieter. In some ways, faster. Less concerned with its own internal maintenance, and more ready to serve me.

Which is why I had mixed feelings about welcoming my “repaired” computer home again. Yesterday afternoon I wrote a three-hundred-dollar check and picked up the machine. They said it was “fixed,” but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain exactly what they had to do. They installed a new sound card, too.
Last night, I got online again, downloaded a hundred emails - half of which were ads - and poked around the colorful Web. Everything was as it should be, I guess. But this morning, after downloading just three pieces of spam mail, my Internet connection ceased. I smiled.

As a believer in dynamical systems, I’ve decided that somewhere in this complex arrangement of components, there is a strange attractor - an inclination towards Internet rejection that is inexplicable in terms of any individual part. Not a spirit, but a pure systemic propensity.

And if it is a technological conspiracy against me or my machine, it has taught me a lot. First, I was stupid for getting rid of my Mac. Second, I don’t personally need anything that has been added to the personal computer since 1986. Third, it’s time to check out Linux - the modern shareware operating system that, according to its users and advocates, makes computers work as well as they did before they got so damn good.

I’ll keep you posted - if I can get online.