March 11, 2008

Rise of the machines

The machine wars are on.

I would not say this if I had no evidence. I like to think that I’m a forgiving person, and I would love to be able to trust—or at least not wage war with—the machines that make my life so much easier. But recent events have made peace a truly unviable option, and it will be better for us humans if we recognize the battle for what it is before the machines get even more of an advantage.

Faced with an impending calculus midterm two weeks ago, I curled up on my bed with my textbook, notes, and computer for a long night of integrated volumes and centers of mass. At some point during the night, my pillows became more tempting than my integrals, and I fell soundly asleep. I awoke in the early hours of the morning and groaned at the crick in my neck and the rising sun; as I began to shuffle my personal effects around, I felt a pang on the underside of my right arm. I looked at my arm and saw that lo and behold, an expanse of three inches of tender, delicate flesh was bright red and blistered, seared with a second-degree burn. I looked at the pattern and realized to my horror that it matched up with the edge of my laptop. I had fallen asleep on the computer—or, perhaps, it had awoken on me.

I tried to find a place to put the blame. Hewlett Packard shouldn’t have built something with the power to burn through the skin of the unsuspecting; they should have issued warnings about the dangers of being unconscious near their products. I couldn’t be the only one this had happened to—maybe I could be the catalyst of a class-action lawsuit!

But Hewlett Packard shouldn’t have to tell me not to sleep on my computer. And I shouldn’t have to worry about doing so, either. The laptop simply shouldn’t have burnt me.

Call it what you will: malfunction, fluke, mistreated fan, smothered vent. But I recognize an act of war when I see it. My personal computer, my 4.5-pound portal to the outside world, burnt a hole in my arm. It waited until I was out cold and utterly defenseless—and then it attacked.

Nor was it the first time that a laptop committed such an act. In August 2006, following the spontaneous combustion and subsequent fireball formed by

an overheating battery in one of its laptops, Dell recalled some 4.1-million battery packs. As recently as June 2007, Gateway was forced to recall 14,000 batteries, following in the footsteps of similar wide-scale recalls by Apple, Lenovo, Toshiba, Sony, and other companies. Each time the manufacturers issued a sweeping mea culpa, each time failing to see that the real culprits lay coiled in boxes like poison-spitting cobras.

It’s not just laptops that are starting to act against us. Blow-dryers convert themselves into flamethrowers with no warning. Dryers steal our socks. Coffee machines selectively deny us caffeine when they think they stand the best chance of weakening our race. Cell phones give us brain cancer. Microwaves radiate our food. Florida voting machines conspire to install quasi-chimps in office in an attempt to overthrow the power structure of the modern world. They’re serious, they’re powerful, they’re everywhere, and they mean war.

And war they shall have. Perhaps they control our technology, transport, communication, and defense, but that won’t be worth a hill of beans if we set our minds to it. We are the children of the Cro-Magnon, the prodigal son of Homo erectus. We may be slower and hairier and smellier and significantly less shiny, but—listen closely, computers—we know what the number two is. Not just two, but three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine, too. They speak binary? Well, we’ve got dibs on denary, and we’re not afraid to use it.

We need to fight back; to unplug before they become more organized, and it’s too late. And lest we forget, they’ve already got a mantra: “I’ll be back.”

Claire McNear is a first-year in the College majoring in international studies and economics.

Not if we’ve got a say in it.

Claire McNear is a first-year in the College majoring in international relations and economics.