PC Be With You

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
August 29, 2000

The reptilian rocket hit the brain of Patrick J. Fee of Germantown as he stared at the blue screen of death on his laptop. Gone. Vanished. Everything. He pounded on the computer, hitting the same key again and again. He cursed so dramatically that his small dog fled.

It was no use. The hard drive was fried, and with it years of work, addresses, phone numbers, overdue projects--"my life," as he put it. With it, too, went the press on Fee's dress shirt as it filled with sweat while his heart pounded.

Fee's reaction was the classic anxiety attack of our new century--a fight-or-flight reaction when you lose control of the machines that have become part of you. It's involuntary. It's not rational. It's the same alarm that goes off when you look over a cliff or somebody drops a snake in your lap. You pant and feel nausea, dizziness and a sense of impending doom.

It starts in a tiny part of your brain called the "locus ceruleus," way down in that very dim bulb at the tip of your spinal cord, the reptilian brain, which is at least 300 million years old.

But something new is going on here.

When Fee finally regained rationality, he felt chagrin. "I know it's only an inanimate object," he now muses. "But there's an intimacy associated with that laptop. I'm on that thing at 2 in the morning. On it are secret things--like surprises for my wife," said the newlywed. "I'm trying to figure out how to deal with two weeks in Ireland on my honeymoon in which I'm not allowed to bring my laptop."

When our computers die, something inside and outside of us dies with them.

Our reptilian brain is recognizing something that is only slowly dawning on our society. We have bonded with these new machines. They have become part of us and we them. We are Borg, as they say on "Star Trek"--cyborgs, enhanced creatures.

Something is different here. We have crossed a line.

Resistance, apparently, is futile.

Soo-Yin Jue felt as if she had "lost her soul."

As she wobbled into an office north of California's Silicon Valley, she trembled, her knees buckled, and she grabbed the table to keep herself from falling. She held her hands up in front of her face, went pale and then lost all expression. She was in shock.

Nine years of her life she had poured into a book about China, crossing the Pacific a dozen times. All of that was embedded on one Mac floppy. She thought she had backed it up on her hard drive. Only when she heard the horrible grinding sound did she discover how wrong she'd been.

The woman who talked Jue down from flash-frozen terror was Nikki Stange, who has a degree in psychology and knows exactly how psychically and emotionally attached we have become to our new machines. She knows the eerie link between collapse of machine and collapse of user. A former suicide prevention counselor, she now has the title "data crisis counselor." She works for DriveSavers, a large data recovery company. She hears the cries for help over the telephone, the animal panic when the nerve endings to our electronic brains are severed.

"You can hear the white knuckles," Stange says. "They are in total despair, and you have to let them know there is hope; there is a reason to live. Personally and professionally, it's like working in the emergency room of a hospital. You know how you hear that when someone is near death, your life flashes before your eyes? I can't tell you how many people tell me about having that sensation when their hard drive crashes. The intensity of emotions is certainly similar."

Stange says something strange is happening between us and our computers.

"I think we are handing over certain mental functions," she says. "Certainly memory. My brain stopped doing math long ago. Where's the calculator?"

Stange wonders if we are voluntarily relocating brain function--displacing parts of our wetware to silicon. She is one of the legions who complain they can't remember phone numbers anymore. "I know hundreds of people. I only have the phone numbers of two of them memorized. The rest are all stored in the speed dialer of the phone, or my Palm, or the computer.

"The terrifying thing about data loss is that it's as if the data goes into thin air, into the ether," she says. "People who go into crisis don't understand what happened, what caused it. It's the complete loss of control. You have no hope to grab onto. You're lost in the ether yourself."

Granted, we humans have always had complex relationships with our machines. If you're in the cockpit of a plane and the ground proximity warning squawks "Pull up! Pull up! Pull up!," reptilian dread will surge. But then, in a plane too close to the ground, your body actually is in danger. Same as if you go out to your car in the middle of the night in an empty parking lot in a blizzard and turn the ignition key and nothing happens. You're not worried about the car. You're worried about dying.

But wait a minute. The Palm Pilot croaks and 300 million years of evolution fires off equally intense juice? As if a velociraptor were leaping toward you? As if you were HAL 9000, the computer that begs not to be switched off in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

As if you had lost your soul?

The Borg Scenario looms. You could see it with Jue. In front of a reporter and a photographer from the San Jose Mercury News, she hugged everyone at DriveSavers after they recovered her book.

'Sort of Alive'

Thomas Lewis, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco who studies how mind and brain link to other beings, agrees. He says that dealing with machines that are more and more a part of us is comparable to dealing with a parallel personality.

"When you look at another person, you are reacting to them and they to you. You are engaged in that kind of synchronous duet or ballet," he says. "It's a novel development to expect that from a machine. With your hand on the mouse, you do something and you expect the machine to do it back. It really bugs people if you interrupt that loop. People are only designed to make that loop with other people. In our mad frenzy to make computers more and more responsive--to our voices, to our facial expressions--we're attempting to duplicate in silicon that kind of reaction duet.

"When tools were much simpler--a hammer, for example--you didn't expect that to happen. The more responsive a gadget gets, the more likely we are to ascribe human traits to it, like a living being. People get emotionally attached to cars, for example, give them nicknames. They get angry at them and kick the tire when they don't work. As if they deliberately are attempting to screw their owners up.

"The pinnacle of this is computers."

William Calvin, the theoretical neurobiologist at the University of Washington who wrote the book "How Brains Think," has had 40 years of experience debugging electronics. He considers ruptured brain helpers simply as computer problems to be solved.

When experienced pilots' engines flame out, Calvin notes, they don't experience the reptilian panic their passengers do. They trim the wings for maximum glide, consider the wind and traffic and start looking for open areas. They're thinking far ahead. That's what pilot training is for.

The line we've crossed in our lives today, Calvin says, is that we are handing over more and more critical brain functions to gear we don't, or can't, understand. "We ascribe a personality to our friendly helpers, and when they fail you, well--praying for rain makes sense if you don't understand physics."

The line is fuzzy, he admits. We started dumping our wetware functions onto our technology 5,000 years ago, when we invented writing.

Further offloading was slow to happen. It awaited the printing press and then the telegraph and telephone. But after World War II, with the first serious computers, the curve started getting steep. Now, with ubiquitous digital everything, and memory so cheap that for $75 you can store more books than you can read in a lifetime, quantitative change has become qualitative.

"Now, when it fails, it's a big loss," Calvin says.

"There's two ways to think about it," says UCSF's Lewis. "Emotionally, people have a general disposition to a bond of affection with their regular companions that help them out. Nowadays, they are distraught if they're separated from their computer, their helpful mechanical friend. They turn to the computer for emotional support, to be entertained by it, to encounter a social presence in the form of online communities and chat groups.

"Out here in Silicon Valley, I have spoken to people who say they consider regular human relationships superfluous and outdated," he says. "That they get everything they need from the computer. They say that and mean it; they're not kidding around.

"And then cognitively, it's become an auxiliary part of your mind. If you lose it, you lose part of your mind."

Calvin thinks the line is crossed even more easily by the young. He admits he's forgotten what to do with a slide rule. But he does remember long division if his calculator fails.

"We should be training children to go a week without their Palm Pilots, without their calculators," he says. "The question is whether you have backups in your wetware.

"People aren't trained that way anymore."

Indeed, Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is struck by the reaction of children to their new electronic companions.

How about 6-year-old Ron, who told her, "Well, the Furby is alive for a Furby. And you know, something this smart should have arms. It might want to pick up something or to hug me."

Or 5-year-old Katherine, who said, "Is it alive? Well, I love it. It's more alive than a Tamagotchi because it sleeps with me. It likes to sleep with me."

Turkle, author of "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit," has been studying human response to "smart machines" for 20 years. She thinks the most important unreported story today is this relationship of the first generation of human kids to machines they describe as "sort of alive."

"A generation of children are learning that some objects require (and promise) emotional nurturance," she writes. "There is every indication that the future will include artifacts that have feelings, life cycles, moods, that reminisce, and have a sense of humor, which say they love us, and expect us to love them back. What will it mean to a person when their primary daily companion is a robotic dog? Or their health care 'worker' is a robotic cat? Or their software program attends to their emotional states and, in turn, has its own? . . . The question is not what the computer will be like in the future, but what will we be like, what kind of people are we becoming?"

We Are Borg

We have invited plenty of Borg into our living rooms over the years. There was Steve Austin ("The $6 Million Man") and Jamie Sommers ("The Bionic Woman") and the Borg Queen who seduced Data in "Star Trek: First Contact," and that blond bundle of confusion Seven of Nine ("Star Trek: Voyager") and the Prince of Darkness himself, Darth Vader.

"There is still good in him," says Luke of Vader in "The Return of the Jedi." Replies Ben: "He's more machine now than man. Twisted and evil."

Yet all of these visions have resided in some comfortably distant future. Could it be that Borg actually walks among us now?

In 1960, two NASA scientists, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, coined the term "cyborg"--cybernetic organism--to describe human bodies that had been altered and augmented with machines. Trust the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to figure that there's nothing better for those long-haul space trips than a better class of human.

Since then, there has been no end to the titanium and plastic stuck into our bodies--pacemakers, hips, knees, heart valves, eye lenses. But these are mechanical and primitive. They don't wire to human consciousness or brain power, much less to emotions.

Until now.

It quickly came to the point that Deanna Kosma banned her husband's new machine from the bedroom. When it vibrated in the middle of the night, skittering across the nightstand, beckoning him--and especially when he responded to it--it was too much.

The apparatus in question is called a BlackBerry. At one level, it is only a Palm on steroids, a hand-held wireless computer that also sends and receives e-mail. But it has widely and quickly become notorious. Everyone from colleagues to lovers use words like "junkies" to describe its users. "It can compete with the children for his attention," she says.

Indeed, Montgomery Kosma, an attorney with Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in the District, talks about the two weeks he took off when his son was born this summer. His BlackBerry was in for repairs. He felt like a part of him had been removed. "I was at home, with no access, forced to rely on ancient technology--voice mail. It was an incredible burden to me. I felt withdrawal."

Kosma is cheerfully defensive about the time he devotes to the machine even when he could be examining the miracle of tiny baby hands. "There are times when the baby's asleep. I'm not interrupting the baby. I deal with it when it's convenient. There's often five minutes of down time. I take it into the bathroom when the kids are washing their hands," he says.

Deanna half-jokes about Montgomery's "addiction behavior." She stresses that she is "married to a very good man. My husband's still pretty human. He doesn't allow it to do his thinking for him. Or his living."

Then she pauses.

"Now, you want to talk about an addict. My son will have withdrawal symptoms with his Game Boy. He will get irritable if you take it away. It's hard enough for him to be away from the Internet or cable TV. But he will get snappy if you take the Game Boy away. Almost like an addict. You can see it in his eyes."

Can this be it? Do cyborgs now walk among us? Some people hardly blink at the notion that an organism attached by fingertips to a brain enhancer is a Borg. MIT's grand old man of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, believes we crossed some line with our creations when we started wearing clothes.

But then, Minsky personally crossed some lines quite a while ago. For example, he declined to have a conversation.

"I find real-time communication too inefficient and inexpressive," he wrote, "whereas e-mail tends to make things more clear. Speech has too many nonrelevant nuances."

He's hardly the only one with a deep bond to machines.

Take John Jenkins. When the computer crashed at his Wilmington, Del., commercial photo studio, he remembers, "Everything else in the periphery just faded away. What I really recall is kind of this tunnel vision. It's all about what's happening on the screen. Like you have some kind of physical relationship with the machine. As if pushing on certain keys harder is going to invoke some kind of response."

Now he's got a Palm.

He says: "The Palm is everything that I'm not. Organized, prioritizing, putting first things first. . . . The dream is that one day all this mess will go away and it will all be in this little thing. . . . It makes you look a little smarter. Sure. And not just a little smarter. If the Palm Pilot was lost and the computer crashed, that would be a disaster," he says.

"Not like the loss of a child. But close to it."

So the next time you jack a CD player into your skull, the next time you can't put down that solitaire game, the next time you talk in the food court to noncorporeal companions rather than the person who is serving you lunch . . .

The next time you pay more attention to your e-mail than to your children, the next time you feel like throwing up when your connection to the noosphere is ruptured, the next time the innermost recesses of your brain recognize a machine as part of you when it dies, remember this:

You have crossed the line. For you, the revolution has occurred. The machines have not only changed you, they have become you.

You have become Borg.

Not metaphorically, but in a way as real and tangible as that keyboard you clutch.

Resistance, apparently, is futile.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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