SEÁN MON­CRIEFF

A com­puter go­ing wonky is the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of part of your house burn­ing down

The Irish Times Magazine - - INDEX -

In my house there’s a room that we pre­ten­tiously call The Of­fice. In truth it’s a stor­age hub for coats, crates, jack­ets, shoes, CDs, un­used shelv­ing, paint­brushes and sundry other ob­jects that we don’t know where to put. There are two desks, one that is oc­ca­sion­ally used by daugh­ter No 2 for study/ star­ing at her phone, and mine, which is squeezed in by the back wall. That’s where I keep my type­writer.

It’s a Royal KMM. It dates from the late 1930s, was de­signed by two Ir­ish- Amer­i­cans and was the iPhone of its time. Ten­nessee Wil­liams had one. Rod Ster­ling had one. The pope had a cus­tom- made white one. Dur­ing the war years, the US army brought thou­sands of them to Europe, which is prob­a­bly where mine orig­i­nated. My KMM was a 21st birth­day present from my par­ents. I’d asked for one, or some­thing sim­i­lar, as I’d learned to type on type­writ­ers and wanted a big, sturdy ma­chine. I like to whack the key­board when I type: it’s part- com­po­si­tion, part- at­tack, while I imag­ine that I have a cig­a­rette be­tween my teeth and a half- drunk whiskey bot­tle on my desk. I’ve just re­turned from run­ning bulls or shoot­ing some­one. When it comes to typ­ing, I’m an un­woke di­nosaur.

Mil­lions of words have been writ­ten upon this ma­chine, by me and oth­ers who owned it be­fore me. It’s at least 70 years old and still works. No built- in ob­so­les­cence here. Sit­ting across from my iMac, it looks like a mu­seum piece, yet it will out­last the com­puter. It al­ready has. I love it and will never throw it away, but I have no use for it. I couldn’t write this col­umn on a type­writer. Same for my ra­dio work, or any­thing else I write. I could write the oc­ca­sional let­ter I sup­pose, but that would be do­ing it for the sake of it; fetishis­ing a ma­chine that wants only to be prac­ti­cal.

The com­puter re­placed the type­writer, but so much else too. The rea­son why my “of­fice” is squeezed into the cor­ner of what is ef­fec­tively a large cup­board is be­cause I don’t need that much space. I don’t need fil­ing cab­i­nets be­cause ev­ery­thing is on the com­puter.

So when it went on the blink two days ago, all sorts of im­por­tant doc­u­ments, per­sonal and pro­fes­sional, be­came in­ac­ces­si­ble. ( Yes, most of it was backed up, but still.) A com­puter, a lap­top, even a phone go­ing wonky is the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of part of your house burn­ing down. And to sal­vage those con­tents, you don’t go to a doc­tor or a lawyer or some­one for whom con­fi­den­tial­ity is im­plicit in what they do. You go to a shop where you have to tell some guy in a crum­pled T- shirt that your pass­word is SexDon­key23*, leav­ing him and oth­ers you haven’t even seen in a po­si­tion to rake through many of the most in­ti­mate facts of your life.

When I was a teenager I had a sum­mer job. ( It was in a head­stone fac­tory, but that’s an­other

‘‘ Sit­ting across from my iMac, it looks like a mu­seum piece, yet it will out­last the com­puter

story). Ev­ery­one got paid, legally, in cash. But that prac­tise ended soon after. In a drive to­wards con­ve­nience and se­cu­rity, wages went straight into bank ac­counts. This may have been con­ve­nient, but it also handed enor­mous power to pri­vate busi­nesses: banks. Sud­denly our so­ci­ety can’t func­tion with­out these pri­vate busi­nesses. None of us can op­er­ate with­out bank ac­counts. Other than Ber­tie Ah­ern.

Sim­i­larly, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to func­tion these days with­out an elec­tronic de­vice: even though we know that tech com­pa­nies can spy on us, can sell our data, can treat us as com­modi­ties to be sold on. And in re­turn we get to com­mu­ni­cate: we can talk to any­one in the world to let them know just how pow­er­less we’ve be­come.

* Not my ac­tual pass­word.

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