Ghost in the machine

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In so many ways, “Garbage in, garbage out” is the mantra of the age. The sheer quantity of garbage – whether measured in spam or disposable diapers – is impressive enough, but what makes garbage seem so all-pervasive is our growing inability to separate it from non-garbage. Technology changes so quickly now that planned obsolescence is itself virtually obsolete. I get e-mails that I delete without reading because I don’t know whether they are truly addressed to me. It’s all just electrons anyway, right? Except that every minute spent reading e-mail is another minute closer to the end of this heavy metal-laden box, this mobile Superfund site. The first time I heard back from a mailer-daemon I was amused. Now sometimes viruses disguise themselves as mailer-daemons, just as con artists concoct sob stories about lost fortunes. In both cases there’s a grain of truth. We do things without knowing why they work, even the experts. Here in Plummer’s Hollow, when the wireless connection suddenly starts to cut in and out, I’ve learned by trial and error how to fix it: turn off the main computer, wait five minutes, turn it back on. Yesterday when I did this, a little message popped up in a cartoon speech balloon that led to nobody. It read: “You have unused desktop icons. Use the desktop cleanup wizard to get rid of them. Click on this balloon.” It’s certainly true in religion: an icon or fetish must be cared for on a regular basis: fed, paraded, incensed, whatever. Computer icons need at least to be double-clicked from time to time, it seems. The desktop display is clearly an altar; we are officients, in charge if rarely in control. Electronic familiars proliferate: browsers, anti-virus programs, pop-up blockers, instant messaging systems, spell checkers, feed readers, audio players. Wheels with wheels. Ghosts in the machine. Most of us use a computer the same way we operate a car or a VCR: as extensions of our minds and bodies, and fully as mysterious and prone to inexplicable failures. Only for the high priests of geekdom – guys like my cousin-in-law Jeff – is this more about power than faith. Who’d have foreseen, back when we studied Basic and Fortran in the more forward-thinking high schools, that computing would come to be dominated by those who best understand how the average person thinks? I remember writing that most basic of Basic programs – “10 Go to 10” – and feeling simultaneously pleased and bored out of my mind. Somehow, that feeling has stuck with me. Boredom and frustration remain closely linked, as in the quintessentially modern experience of sitting in a waiting room and wondering when and if one’s number will ever come up. Sometimes I get nostalgic and double-click on the time – not an icon, but the digital readout down in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. A facsimile of an analog clock pops up, and I find that oddly reassuring. I like to think of it in there – somewhere – with hands merrily turning, even when the computer’s off. My first computer couldn’t do this. Every time I shut it off, its clock went back to Day One. I remember the day when the screen finally failed to light up beyond the cursor’s little green mote. It wasn’t winking – that was the telltale sign that rigor mortis had set in. Now this one – my third computer, a hand-me-down like the others – begins to show signs of senility. Two weeks ago a sudden silence befell it, without affecting any of its functions. At first I was overjoyed; it had been very noisy and was slowly driving me nuts – which is not a very long drive, actually. But then I happened to mention this happy occasion to my aforementioned cousin Jeff, who informed me that it meant that one or both fans had given up the ghost. Since it sits on a cold floor in a cold house, it has yet to overheat – but that’s just a matter of time. On his advice, my dad and I took it apart. There were many, many little screws holding this piece of garbage together and we managed not to lose a one of them. But neither fan was spinning. We were able to nudge the processor fan into making a few squeaky revolutions, but that was all. I was astonished by how little was in the box – and by how thickly the dust lay on everything. Gray windrows of dust filled every corner and crack. I blew it out as hard as I could, then took a vacuum cleaner to it. So that’s what happened to all my gray matter, I said.

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Discussion Thread
Chat Transcript

Yajñavalkya: Hi, my name is Yajñavalkya. How may I help you?
Yajñavalkya: Please provide me information to further assist you.
Shakalya: Hello Yajñavalkya.
Yajñavalkya: Go ahead.
Shakalya: What deity have you in this fixed quarter (zenith)?
Yajñavalkya: The deity, fire.
Shakalya: On what is fire supported?
Yajñavalkya: On speech.
Shakalya: On what is speech supported?
Yajñavalkya: On the heart.
Shakalya: On what is the heart supported?
Yajñavalkya: You ghost, that you think it would be elsewhere than in ourselves! For if it were anywhere else than in itself, the dogs would eat it or the birds tear it to pieces.
Shakalya: On what are you and yourself supported?
Yajñavalkya: On the in-breath.
Shakalya: On what is the in-breath supported?
Yajñavalkya: On the out-breath.
Shakalya: On what is the out-breath supported?
Yajñavalkya: On the diffused breath.
Shakalya: And on what is the diffused breath supported?
Yajñavalkya: On the equalizing or middle breath. That self is not this, not this. It is incomprehensible for it is not comprehended.
Yajñavalkya: Are you still there?
Shakalya: Thank you for your assistance.
Yajñavalkya: Do you have other concerns I can help you with?
Shakalya: Yes. When the garbage goes out, where does it go? Is it all the same garbage?
Yajñavalkya: Have a nice day.
Yajñavalkya: disconnected
Shakalya: disconnected

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