There was a time when people in search of a full and meaningful life were advised to start off each morning by telling themselves: “Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.”
Now, we get up and hear: “Updates are ready for your computer.”
It's depressing to realize that my computer is more bent on self-improvement than I am. At home, my laptop is so ready to update that it can barely be constrained. The other day, I found three different pleas floating around on the screen.
The “Dell Support Center Automatic Upgrade” was the most tempting since it sounded as if the computer wanted to give me a really good seat on a plane.
“Effective now,” the announcement continued, “these valuable messages are part of the new Dell Support Center. Dell needs to upgrade Dell Support without impeding system performance so that messages continue to be received.”
In other words, I need an upgrade so that I will better be able to receive more upgrade requests in the future.
There was a time when I would have responded, but nothing good ever seemed to come of that. The updated computers were never any better at doing the things I wanted to do than the old ones.
I have been permanently traumatized by an experience with my BlackBerry, which started sending me signals that it was unhappy about something. I kept clicking around, looking for a positive response, trying to show it that I was a partner, eager to keep up my end of the relationship. The upshot was that the BlackBerry began refusing to do anything whatsoever except call up the telephone number of former Sen. Trent Lott.
My most benevolent theory about the updating requests is that my computers are just bored. The one I take on the road is always whining about my unused icons, like a hypertidy roommate who follows you around saying, “Gee, I notice you haven't made your bed. Do you want any help with that? I know it must be hard to remember every day, but if you want me to remind you or anything.”
My home computer has begun to flash a Windows Genuine Advantage Notification, urging me to press a button so it can reduce software piracy and “help confirm that the copy of Windows installed on this PC is genuine and properly licensed.” This does not sound as if it's all about me. In fact, the computer has no interest whatsoever in me or my BlackBerry crisis. It just wants a world where all its icons are tidily arranged, software is licensed, upgrade messages flow untrammeled and it feels better every day, in every way.
My darkest suspicion is that my computers are preparing to join their comrades in overthrowing humanity so machines can rule the earth. The signs are everywhere.
The other day, Jim Dwyer reported in The Times about a man in Brooklyn whose oven broiler turns on every time the cell phone rings. Experts think this is caused by electromagnetic interference. However, I believe the oven is ticked off because its owners, in typical New York fashion, use it for storage rather than for actual cooking. And it is in cahoots with the cell phone, which probably is resentful because it is not allowed to spend its time doing the things cell phones really enjoy, like talking to Trent Lott.
The way you respond when your computer asks for an upgrade is a good test of how you relate to technology in general. My nephew Hugh and his friends seem as excited as the computers over the whole concept. “Actually, everyone would be fine with an annual update,” he said, “but that would make people feel like they were out of the loop. Unclean.”
I had a good deal of trouble getting hold of Hugh since he doesn't respond to old-fashioned e-mail. “By the way,” he said delicately when we were finished talking, “if you tell people other than me that you're writing a column on technology but don't know how to text, they might sense, um, a – disconnect.”
Edward Tenner, a visiting scholar at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information and author of “Why Things Bite Back,” told me he actually used to be in the if-it's-not-broke-don't-update camp, until his computer suffered a total meltdown. The tech who fixed it told him that he should have been installing the virus-detecting updates all along. “Don't try to second-guess Microsoft,” he warned.
Truly, words to live by. Every day in every way.