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A Thing about Machines

A Thing about Machines

by Charles Bey

     “For as long as I have lived, I have never been able to operate machines.”  These words, uttered by food critic Bartlett Finchley in the Twilight Zone episode “A Thing about Machines,” turn out to be the character’s epitaph.  The story’s plot focuses on Finchley’s ongoing “mortal combat” with his machines.  A TV repairman, completing the latest of innumerable jobs at the Finchley home, reminds the critic that his anti-machine rap sheet includes kicking in a TV screen and throwing a radio down a staircase.  These offenses against the machine population are in addition to his destruction of a chime clock whose chiming drove Finchley over yet another edge.  He declares that “there is a conspiracy in this house” meaning that the machines are out to get him.  After losing his secretary over an argument about the efficiency of her electric typewriter, Finchley enters the climax in which every machine he owns orders him out of the house.  The electric typewriter pecks out the words “Get out of here, Finchley,” while the television and the disconnected phone echo the sentiment. Even his electric razor, when Finchley tries to run upstairs, blocks his way with a menacing buzz.  Finally, Finchley’s Rolls Royce runs him down, or rather runs him into a neighbor’s swimming pool in which he apparently drowns.  And so ends another tale of the bizarre from that shadowy realm “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

     But wait a minute!  Let us not dismiss poor Mr. Finchley so easily.  It’s simple enough to write him off as a technology-hating nut who finally gets his comeuppance.  Before we do that however, let’s ask ourselves some questions.  Question one: Do you own and use a computer?  If the answer is yes, think about some of the experiences you’ve had with it.  Still think Finchley was crazy? I am willing to go on record stating that computers are naturally endowed with independent (and often malevolent) intelligence.  Their intelligence is supposed to be artificial; they are not supposed to be able to do anything they are not programmed to do.  Their builders and their owners are allegedly their masters. Perhaps many of us comfort ourselves with this pleasant self-deception.  If you really think about what you’ve experienced though, you know this is about as true as the proposition that a person is only as old as he or she feels.

     The computer owner will experience far less frustration with his or her “machine” if all operations are executed under the proposition that the computer is inhabited by a surly personality that sometimes tolerates requests and other times irrationally rejects them.  Is there any other explanation for a document easily saving to the desired depository one day and then shooting into an undesignated slot the next?  And what about those weird things that happen when an errant finger inadvertently glides lightly over a random key, somehow causing the entire screen to turn into a psychedelic kaleidoscope?! Don’t they always tell you that you should never worry because you “can’t break it”?  Try telling that to someone who’s been laboring on a document for hours and then witnesses it exploding inexplicably into an unintelligible jungle of chaotic fragments!  Or what about the way the menu screen can morph into a fun house mirror with the wrong touch? Has your computer ever refused to open a saved document for no particular reason (example: Microsoft is not responding)?  You know it has. You are forced to wait until your computer is in a better mood.  

     The other day, I showed a friend a problem I was having with my computer.  It was refusing to allow more than one Word document to be open at one time.  My friend calmly suggested that I click to minimize the dominating document, and when I did, the second one magically appeared.  But the moment he was gone, minimizing did nothing, and I have been unable to open more than one document at a time since! Bartlett Finchley at least received the mercy of conducting his battle with technology at a time when computers were room-sized boxes attended solely by bespectacled men attired in white lab coats!  Imagine how a single laptop might have shortened his life. 

     But computers are not the only mechanical entities possessed with the power of self-direction.  Let’s not forget that the late Mr. Finchley’s car tried to run him over.  Haven’t there been real-life accounts of self-accelerating cars?  Yes, there have.  And there are other ways cars torment their owners.  Have you ever taken your car in for a problem that disappears while the mechanics have it and instantly reappears when you’re driving it home?

    Cars have ample assistance in their quest to aggravate and wear down.   Their powerful ally is GPS.  How many times have you programmed one of these devices to find a large hotel, and instead found your personal corner of The Twilight Zone?  What about those occasions when you program it for a destination that it then claims does not exist?  The most disturbing aspect of this is the insistence of GPS owners that the obvious passive-aggressive behavior is acceptable. 

     They’re afraid to admit what they know in their hearts: every GPS has a mind (and yes, it’s a dark mind) of its own.  How else can we explain the exasperated voice tone in which it expels the word  “Recalculating” when we ignore its instructions at any point? No other explanation makes sense, right Mr. Finchley?       

     Recently, I visited someone in the hospital who was on a breathing machine.  Every now and then the machine emitted an ear-piercing flurry of beeps.  After we had undergone probable hearing damage, a nurse came in to check it.  The high pitch of the deafening sound had made its way all the way out to her station.  She explained that the beeping is designed to take place when the patient’s breathing becomes uneven in any way.  But when we asked her what the irregularity was in this case, she admitted there was none.  Apparently, she revealed, the machine has certain quirks, causing it sometimes to beep without cause, just because it feels like it.  See what I mean?   

     Wasn’t it Jefferson who warned of government being a dangerous servant and a fearful master?  Let’s join Bartlett Finchley in applying those words to the brambly world of modern technology. Our world is more peril-fraught than his. Technology no longer even pretends to serve us; it now owns us.

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