Artificial Unintelligence

September 2, 2011

The other day I went to a news site to read what some critic who’d never watched a single episode of Doctor Who in his life had to say about the upcoming season. Before I could get to the article, though, the screen went black and an ad popped up. This doesn’t bother me. A lot of web-based companies have to make money somehow, and using increasingly brazen ads for crap I’m never going to buy no matter how many times I have to go through it to get to something I want to read/listen to/watch is one way they do it. But then a little gray box popped up in the middle of my screen that said, "You have chosen to download illeatyourdatahaha.exe. Do you wish to continue?" After clicking "no" so many times my mouse now has my fingerprint permanently embedded in it I ran every kind of anti-virus software I had available, called tech support, and, for good measure, dunked my CPU in a bucket of ammonia. It was probably a harmless program, although I don’t know how you can call something that invasive "harmless". Even if it was just a program that would do something like install a new toolbar in my browser that I could uninstall a minute later I’ll be getting my news elsewhere from now on. And at least it was something I knew about, unlike the countless viruses, trojans, worms, and other malware that are no doubt pinging off my computer’s anti-virus programs, or slipping through, all day long.

On the same day I had the experience with the ad I read–on an entirely different website–that public cell phone recharging kiosks can upload malware into smart phones. I was shocked. There are public cell phone recharging kiosks? Obviously it’s been a while since I was in an airport, but I thought even the most newfangled smart phones could be recharged the same way my old standard, which was designed by Alexander Graham Bell, is. I have a long cord with a thing on one end that plugs into the phone and the other end plugs into a wall socket. Now I’m wondering what kind of malicious computer programs are creeping in through my wall sockets, and whether I should be afraid to turn on a lamp. But I have to admit that, as frustrating as they can be, computer viruses do serve a useful purpose: they give people something to do. It used to annoy me that, while computers are quite simply the most amazing technological advance in human history, there’s a whole subculture of hackers out there hell bent on making everyone else’s computers not work. Technically we don’t need hackers to make computers useless. Companies like Microsoft do that every few years by redesigning their operating systems, but that’s another story. It occurred to me that every computer virus, especially if it hits a business environment, is nothing more than another obstacle to be overcome, and businesses are supposed to be about recognizing and overcoming obstacles. Let’s face it: working nominally computers have created ways of being unproductive our ancestors never could have dreamed of. They allow us to do less in more time than any previous generation. If Leonardo Da Vinci had had a computer he never would have designed a helicopter that doesn’t work because he would have been spending all his time playing solitaire.

And let’s not forget how computers have connected us. Forget six degrees of separation. I’m now one mouse-click away from a farmer in rural Laos who can get me a great deal on a bootleg copy of the extended special edition director’s cut of Young Einstein with fifteen alternate endings that I never knew I wanted, although, after finding out about it, I still don’t. But still it occurred to me that viruses have grown into an economic force all their own. Depending on when you got your first email account you may remember getting the same fifteen messages from your grandmother warning you about the "Good Times" virus. This was supposedly a virus that was embedded in an email message that had the subject line "Good Times", and if you opened the email message the virus would immediately destroy your hard drive and also clean out your refrigerator. When I first started getting warnings that this virus was out there–this was 1995–several tech-savvy people I knew reassured me that such a thing didn’t exist. I quickly realized that the real virus was the message warning people about the virus. I’m pretty sure such viruses do exist now, which would explain why the last time I checked the refrigerator there was nothing in there but mayonnaise and a roach, or maybe it’s just because I haven’t been to the store lately. Even the most innocuous forms of computer misuse help drive the global economy by putting some peoples’ whole bank accounts into the hands of Nigerians with laptops, but the most advanced computer malware helps employ a whole industry of anti-virus programmers, tech support people, and computer cleaners. In a way I’m glad for that pop-up ad that almost installed a program, and I think my office tech support people appreciate it too. It gave them something to do. Otherwise they’d just be sitting around reading about the next season of Doctor Who.

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