Cloudy, Chance of Rage

29 Jun

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Without wanting to give away too much about my age, I remember computers before Windows. If you don’t remember that, it’s hard to even imagine it. I know that there are all sorts of interfaces now, and many people are critical of Windows as an inferior system, but whenever people complain about I wish I could sit them down in front of a black screen with a green flashing > and say to them, “Go on, make it work. Oh, you don’t know the commands? TOUGH!”

Now, I’m not in the pay of Microsoft, and I don’t know a huge amount about computers. I just “mmm” vaguely when people talk about the superiority of Linux, because I really wouldn’t know (although I’m very much not a fan of Apple, albeit for reasons that generally don’t have much to do with their software). The point I’m trying to make, though, is how amazing the modern interface is. You click on the wordprocessing icon with your mouse, the word processor opens on your screen, you click somewhere in the text and start typing. Let’s break that down a little:

You use your mouse to move an arrow that isn’t really there (it’s just different pixels on the screen changing colour giving the impression of movement). You use it to click on an icon that is also just some differently coloured pixels on a screen. From this your computer is able to tell which program you are trying to open, even if you moved that icon halfway across the screen only seconds before. When you open the menu (which conveniently has little words like “open” instead of requiring you to input the computing commands you don’t know) and request a file it will trawl its digital depths to retrieve reams of data which it then presents on-screen in the form of a typed document. But it’s not a typed document, it’s lots of incomprehensible binary data just pretending to be a sheet of paper and some ink. Then, when you move your non-existent cursor over the imaginary document it is able to tell where amongst the words that are not really there you have selected, and when you type it updates its confusing string of data in such a way that more pictures of typed letters appear on the screen exactly where you want them. 

I do it every day – I’m doing it now – but when I stop to think about it, it’s still amazing.

However, all this not-really-there-ness has a downside. You can lose a paper document, of course. You can rip it, spill coffee on it, accidentally set fire to it. The ink may even fade over time until it’s impossible to read. But it won’t disappear in a puff of smoke. That’s exactly what can happen to digital files, though, and it happened to me today.

Now before anyone starts to wag a finger at me and talk about backing things up, I did, and that was what caused the problem. I backed up the completed manuscript of my children’s biography of St Augustine in a cloud-based storage facility. That takes not-really-there-ness to a whole new level. I can open files on my computer now, that not only aren’t really words on paper, but aren’t even complicated data on my computer pretending to be words, because they’re not on my computer at all, they’re only hovering there in an insubstantial, wraith-like way, while the actual data is on a server far, far away. Too far away to kick when it manages to eat the last hour of work you’ve produced.

All was not lost, however, as I eventually managed to restore a “conflicted” file that turned out to be the proper file, but there was much ranting and raging up to that point. It makes you feel so helpless. I searched for different versions of the file, I searched for words that I knew were only in the completed version, but the computer kept telling me it did not exist. It also makes you question your sanity. “But I saw it!” I kept saying to the computer. “It was there! I typed it! I did!” If it hadn’t been for the presence of a friend who saw the finished version, I might have started to doubt it myself. After all, there’s no evidence, no inky marks on your thumb, no impression of the words on a writing surface or another piece of paper. There’s just the computer telling you that the collection of data you spent hours tapping away at does not exist. And if it says so, it’s right, because these things only exist by the grace of the computer. I may have made this point before, but digital documents are not real. It takes you right back to that feeling of helplessness facing the flashing green > without the proper commands.

At some point in the next six months, that errant electronic manuscript will become a real, paper-and-ink book, and then it will be a lot harder to make it vanish. Until then, perhaps I should just try the form of paper-based storage known as printing.

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