Tate Williams

How my computer crisis was like a predator attack

Tate Williams October 3, 2012

Having never experienced a true computer emergency, it’s been easy to consider myself immune from them. It’s like how I had never missed a flight until I was almost 30, and thought I had some kind of superpower. But once I did, both miss a flight and have a computer emergency, it was the closest thing I think I’ve ever been to a survival situation. Which isn’t to demean people who face true physical danger in the world, but a statement to how my digital self has become a part of my identity to the point that a threat to my computer is a threat to myself.

Earlier in the week, I packed up the corpse of my three-year-old MacBook and took it to the Apple Store in Back Bay around noon. I wrapped my external hard drive, which had everything I have in life, digitally speaking, backed up on it, in an old t-shirt. I entered a three-level store that looks like Spielberg’s Minority Report. All transparent or frosted plastic and glass. Brushed aluminum.

I walked up two flights of clear, spiraling stairs up through the core of the massive Apple store to the top floor where the Genius Bar lives. I checked in with a friendly young man who complimented the smell of my coffee, and another young blond girl who told me to have a seat and I’ll be helped soon. It was like a doctor’s appointment, or more like a science fiction doctor’s office that serves domestic droids. I waited my turn and a nice, soft-spoken man named Ray invited me to the bar.

The Genius Bar was populated on the serving side with unfazed young men and women (mostly men) behind it, and on the other side a series of people who have seen better days. They were upset within varying levels of impatience, a little sweaty and shaken. An old woman to my right had an ancient white plastic laptop. Something was wrong with it. She doesn’t want to upgrade to the new operating system. Her son used to help her with this kind of thing but for some reason he can’t now. She had never seen an iPad before. Two seats down a pretty bookish girl was having some sort of problem similar to mine. I wondered why there’s never been an indie rock song I Met Her at the Genius Bar. Another young woman to my left was more frustrated than most, at repeated problems with her computer. But you could tell from her voice and her words that she was calmer than she had intended to be when she walked in. The technician helped her pick out a pricey external hard drive. She submitted, as we all do.

For my part, Ray was very calm and direct. “To be honest, from what you describe the chances are probably pretty slim that we can even access the drive. I’ll do my best, but just be prepared.” He jacked it into some sort of Apple mega-brain that seeped its smarts into my computer, reanimating it like a spirit entering a body in a seance. He did some pretty simple things that seemed unsuccessful, but then, suddenly, we were both looking at the icon of my computer’s hard drive on the Apple-brain’s desktop.

“Ok. We can see it. Now what you want to do is go in and drag and drop files onto your external hard drive. You’re going to be tempted to grab big chunks of stuff, don’t. A lot of people go right for the music. I would strongly suggest you go for files you can’t replace instead. You can buy music again, you can’t buy work you’ve done.” I nodded understanding. “The way I describe this to people, it’s like you’re now inside a house that’s on fire. You can’t save everything, so get in there and grab the things you can’t live without. And get out.”

When I saw the drive and my files sitting there on the desktop, I said “holy shit” without meaning to, and almost immediately started trembling a little and got a dry mouth. Ray said he was going to give me a few minutes. He stepped away, and I, one by one, started plucking files out, immediately going for my recently finished budget and taxes. Then I went for work files. Then personal documents. Stories, blog posts, diaries. I backed up almost three weeks ago, so I had to get everything I could remember that had been changed since then. The fire was burning, and my arms were full. I was looking around frantically but methodically for anything I would regret in an hour when it was all gone forever. I started grabbing bigger chunks of files. I told Ray I thought I had it all.

“Alright when you’re ready, I’m going to clear the hard drive, and reinstall Lion. Then, what you want to do is restore from Time Machine to your most recent backup and upgrade to Mountain Lion.” Ok. “Okay.” I can’t thank you enough. You’ve saved me. “Well these aren’t all happy endings, so I’m glad to hear it.” Was I lucky? “Yeah you were pretty lucky.”

I walked to a cafe on Newbury to get lunch, where I figured I’d fire it up to make sure it was working alright while I was nearby. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it, but the restoration started out with a two-hour timer, and shortly grew to more than 8 hours. And there I was sitting at a coffee shop a train and a bus from home. What was I thinking? Had I really come so close to disaster, and now here I was making frantic decisions that put it all in danger? Was this some kind of suicidal streak? I waited for about another hour or so, and came to terms with what I had to do. I made sure the battery was fully charged, bent the clamshell halfway closed, and gently rested the external hard drive, which was plugged into the USB on the side, into the “V” made by the half-closed computer. And steadily, like I had an IV hooked up and was carrying the life support system in my hands, I walked to the train, laptop in hands. I boarded the orange line and rode all seven stops to the station. I walked it to the cabstand and took a car home. And exhaled. Home safe.

During that time, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desperately connected to owned technology. Something about coddling the computer to my chest while walking for a solid half mile in Back Bay and then riding the train. People giving me odd looks as I clutched the USB cable and external drive close to me, saying tiny quiet prayers. It’s a strange feeling, getting a sense of motherhood for a piece of technology. Or more like it’s a mangled limb. But it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s well established that the brain maps its perception of the body beyond the skin, a hint of scientific explanation for near-touch therapy like Reiki. It’s not surprising there would be a sense of physical embodiment of our technology. If you can mentally embody a car, ducking your head while going into an underpass, why not a computer? Then if you consider your Internet persona as a part of your identity, from Facebook to Match.com, the computer is basically your tiny little village, a pocket version of your life. And when that’s in danger, it’s terrifying.

So just like a menacing email triggers the physiological response that the human body feels at an approaching bear, so the death or near death of a computer feels like a a mortal loss. The question remains whether this a good thing. I know many people would say it’s sad and pathetic. Go outside they would say. Get a life, talk to some humans. But these are the people who would falsely suggest that television is a detriment to education. Frankly, a life where one’s safety is restricted to actual bodily harm might be an easier, purer one. But I’m not sure it’s better. My computer is healthy as a horse now. And it feels great.

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