Do you judge people by the way they look? And does that make you feel reassured or wary? I ask this because the guy who turned up to fix my laptop was a geek. Really. Totally. When he checked in at the front desk I looked up and knew exactly who he was. Pale, glasses, spindle thin, spotty – well, you know. If you lined him up in an identity parade he'd be the first guy you'd pick to fix your laptop. So much so that you’d also be asking yourself, can he actually do it or does he just dress up like someone who can so he gets the gig?
Anyway I had to trust him because he was here now. And I also had to trust him because I’d got him to by-pass our in house IT department. I’d done this because, well, when you say to someone that you think your laptop is answering back you tend to get weird looks. Believe me I did. I said my computer had started having opinions on thing and, well, let’s just say it didn’t go well.
This guy, on the other hand, clearly hit it off among people who whose problems started: “This is going to sound strange, but…” People who had no idea what was wrong or even if something was wrong or if they were wrong and their laptop was meant to do whatever it was doing. Whatever happened this guy seemed to get it and make it all better. He was the guy for me.
I escorted him to my desk to pick up the laptop and then we went together into a side meeting room. No one could know what he was here to do. Otherwise the IT department would purposely throw sticks into the wheels of my finely tuned finance department. I knew what they were like. The fact that the guy looked techie was a bit of an issue, but I was hoping that the battered briefcase he carried would make people think he was a tech salesman rather than tech support.
So. This is going to sound strange, but…
I’d been using this laptop for about a year when, to be frank, it started answering back. Not all the time of course, and not audibly. But there were certain things it was no longer on board for. Stuff it didn’t want to do – like there was a ceiling of disapproval that I’d hit every so often. Tasks which I’d get half way through and then an error message would appear, the likes of which I’d not come across anywhere ever before.
For example, I was mid-way through a spreadsheet. A fairly mundane spreadsheet, with a load of figures relating to company expenses over the last quarter. I was nearly done when a chat-box popped up and in it some text appeared, letter by letter.
“Stop now.” It read. “You owe me.”
“Of course it doesn’t happen every time I use the spreadsheet,” I told geek boy whose name it transpired was rather disappointingly Toby (bit old school, I thought – I was expecting a Mike or a Tim), “Just every now and then. Enough to be irritating and make my job difficult.”
Toby nodded his head as if he understood, which he might well have done. “It’s an intermittent fault,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, liking the sound of that. “An intermittent fault.”
“But,” said Toby. “Technology doesn’t do intermittent faults.”
“No,” I said. “That’s what my IT department tell me.”
“If it’s a fault then whenever you do the same thing the same fault should occur,” said Toby. “That’s how technology works. Same input, same process, same output. So why is it that sometimes despite the same routine you’re putting your computer through does it come out with a different result? Or a non-result?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“What else won’t it do?” he asked. “Intermittently?”
Well now, there was the time when I was trying to put together a graphic to promote a works social evening. We were going to have a karaoke evening at work. Everyone invited. Free drinks for the first couple of hours and a guarantee that one of the directors would do his rendition of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love.
I’d get the graphics sorted and start adding the title. I’d get as far as writing ‘Kara-’, a simple ‘NO’ would appear at the top of the screen and the computer would switch off. This happened five times.
So I tried writing something else. ‘Party’ was fine, ‘Music’ made the screen ripple for a minute flat but then it righted itself and carried on. The word ‘Karaoke’ turned it off. Every time.
And then I was searching for a new dress – yes, I know I shouldn’t in work time, but come on – and it refused to show me any red version of anything I clicked on.
“Doesn’t suit you,” said the chat-box. “Try again.”
“My computer has an opinion on a dress,” I said to Toby. “I mean, it can’t, can it? It’s an intermittent fault, which must mean it’s what – random?”
Toby paused. “Random?” he echoed. “Red dress opinion random? Does it like dungarees?”
“I could ask..?” I offered.
“Don’t worry,” said Toby, “There just might have been a connection.”
“A connection?” I said, jumping on this. “So there could be a pattern or something you’ve seen before?”
“Not if it’s OK with dungarees,” said Toby, sullenly.
“But is there a pattern here that I can’t see but you can?”
Toby looked negative. I shut up.
“There’s no pattern,” he confirmed. “But it’s not random.”
“Look,” I said. “I know this is – whatever – but it’s like it’s become human? Human-like? Makes it’s own decisions. My computer has…. transitioned?”
“I don’t think it’s your computer,” said Toby. “It’s what’s inside it.”
I was tempted to wrap it up there and then.
“What’s inside my computer is my computer,” I said.
“Sort of,” Toby said, looking uncomfortable.
He shot a load of questions at me. I told him the company had a policy where possible to use reconditioned hardware. Entirely cleaned, reprogrammed and given to us. Good for us, and good for the planet which was awash with discarded tech that went out of date as soon as you tried to recharge the battery.
“I can’t help noticing,” I said eventually, “That you haven’t touched the computer. Aren’t you going to look at the files or something? Reboot it into something and look at the code? That’s what the IT people do.”
“Yeah,” said Toby, “Sure they do. But that doesn’t work.”
There was a slow dawn for me: “You believe me, don’t you? You reckon it’s something else, right? The Rise of the Computers – finally we went too far with AI and they started thinking for themselves.”
“About Karaoke and red dresses?” smiled Toby. “Hardly armageddon, is it?”
He got up and went over to the windows of the side room we were in. He flicked the blinds closed, firstly on the glass panels that separated us from the rest of the office and then on the external windows. This done he picked up his briefcase, opened it and pulled out some kind of folded up headgear. He checked over the laptop and scattered a few adaptors on the desk.
Before too long the headgear was linked to my computer. The last thing that came out of the bag was a normal looking mini tablet screen. This also went on the desk and linked to the headgear through more connector cables.
“Right,” he said. “You’d better step outside.”
“Really?” I said.
“It might get… difficult.”
“That’s a problem” I said. “You’re in our offices and I’m responsible.”
“Ah,” he said. “OK. Do you want to come with me?”
I suspected the second headset he pulled from his briefcase was an older model. It was a little more battered and a lighter colour. He plugged it straight into his own headset.
“What does this do?” I asked, trying to sound casual and unconcerned.
“You’ll see,” he said. “Whatever happens don’t lose sight of me and if I say abort you hit the abort button like your life depends on it.”
“Wait,” I said. “’My life depends on it’?”
He just smiled, counted backwards from three and we put the headgear on.
There was a jolt and a vague sense of sickness as the fuzziness coalesced around me to form a proper image. I was in a library, an old library. Books stacked from floor to ceiling in old wooden shelves as far as the eye could see. Light shone through high windows, picking out dust floating in the air and…
“Is the old school interface OK for you?” asked Toby who suddenly appeared in front of me. “I can get you something more contemporary.”
There was a fuzz and the library shot forward several centuries to a modern interior, glass panels, brushed steel shelves, data files stacked with code numbers showing.
“Whatever works,” I said, bemused.
The images rearranged themselves yet again and this time we seemed to be in a rather mundane library. A bit down at heel, in need of some restoration, care and attention.
“Thanks,” said Toby, “I prefer my home town library. Absolutely silence now.”
“Can I just ask…?”
He could be quiet direct for a geek. This is the thing. Appearance and actuality. You wouldn’t think he’d say boo to a goose, but every now and then I really wouldn’t be backing the goose.
He started off down one of the aisles. The library was pretty huge. But as we walked I realised we were going past the same features over and over again. Same desks, same cheese plants, same windows but different sections sign-posted and different books.
“Are we looking for anything in particular?” I asked. “Sorry to ask,” I added.
“Anything out of place,” said Toby. “Anachronisms. Noises. Disturbances.”
“I can judge it better than you. This is my library. Although it’s your computer.”
“These are your files,” said Toby. “The further we go in, the further back in time we go. Obviously.”
I didn’t reply. I didn’t think it was obvious. When he’d said it, it was obvious then. But then it didn’t count any more.
Toby was staring hard at the tablet in his hand and this seemed to be guiding the crazy hap-hazard path he was choosing. Suddenly he stopped.
“Do you hear it?” he asked.
I had to confess I didn’t, but then I wasn’t certain what he was listening to. I could hear a general hum going on around us, the occasional flutter of book pages, even whispering. But now as I concentrated there seemed to be music, gently wafting towards us.
“Music section?” he asked.
“There shouldn’t be one,” I said. “Works computer, we don’t use these for anything but work. It’s a rule – and one that I entirely support.”
“Right, so why is there music?”
And we were off. Or rather he was off, haring down the aisles again, me trailing him like a lost lunatic.
“Why do you think there’s music?” I asked.
“This is an old machine. You don’t actually know where it’s been or who’s used it. Maybe something’s been left behind."
“It was wiped clean…” I objected.
“Wiped clean!” scoffed Toby. “Will they ever learn? There are some things that won’t wipe clean.”
We stopped again and Toby held up his hand for silence. There was a definite tune in the air. Perhaps a little melancholy and certainly a bit distorted. A melody forced through a series of zeros and ones. Satisfied Toby headed off in a new direction.
“Do you have a solution?” I asked.
“I have a hunch,” he said, “which is even better,” and he stopped by some larger shelves piled with graphic novels and audio discs.
“Ask something,” said Toby.
“Anything. Does it like your dress?”
“I’m wearing jeans.”
“See if it notices.”
“Do you like my dress?” I asked into the building.
“Louder,” said Toby.
“Do you like my dress?” I asked again, louder.
So I did. And as the echo of my voice fizzed in the digital library the following silence was suddenly ripped apart by a rush of air heading towards us. Looking down one of the aisles there was some kind of visual disturbance heading our way. Papers and files were being scooped up and thrown around as a whirlwind approached.
"This might sound stupid," said Toby, "But stand still."
And then we were surrounded. Utter chaos. As if the building was being scrambled or put through a blender to create library smoothie, with us in the middle. Along with the washing machine visuals the noise was incredible. An electric guitar being played backwards at volume 11, plus several hundred cats being dragged backwards through a hedge.
I looked across to where Toby was. He was standing stock still, tablet in hand and saying something. Quite what I couldn't tell. Every now and then he'd disappear as the swirling mess of library covered him and subsided.
"Is this what's meant to happen?" I screamed at him.
He didn't seem to acknowledge me but suddenly I heard his voice in my head "Abort! Get out of here! Abort!"
I didn't need telling twice. I hit the abort key in front of me and with a digital crunch slammed back into the office chair in the side room. The headset limp but still buzzing on the desk in front of me.
Next to me sat Toby, headset on, apparently passed out. There was saliva trickling down the corner of his mouth and his body was slumped back in the chair.
"What now?" I said to him, even though it was fairly certain he couldn't hear me. "What do I do?"
It was a fair enough question. Here I was in the office with some guy I'd found on the Internet apparently unresponsive but somehow connected to my computer. No amount of back story would square this with the IT department.
And then a message appeared on the screen of the laptop.
‘Turn it off. And back on again.’
I looked at Toby and wondered if this was really wise.
‘Seriously. Do it.’
Came a second message.
So I did.
I don't know how long it took to reboot the damned thing but it was the longest and quietest time of my life. Just watching the load bar crawl across the screen. Just hoping it reached its conclusion before someone needed the room for another meeting.
Finally the welcome screen brought me back to this Thursday morning and regaled me with my to-do list. Nothing on there even hinted at what I'd actually done.
Toby was still passed out. And as I wondered about taking his headgear off his tablet sprang to life. A video appeared. It was a wedding scene. On stage, inside a large pavilion tent, a guitarist was singing Chris Rea's Lady in Red. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't great. And he was glitching – he'd get to the end of the line about never seeing her looking as gorgeous as she did tonight and then he’d jump back to the beginning, over and over again. I stared at it, wondering what the hell...
"That was your problem," said Toby's voice.
It was like he'd been rebooted too. Turned himself off and on again. He immediately started packing up his gear, as matter of factory as if he'd just tightened a couple of screws.
"All done," he said. "I'll send you an invoice."
"What the..? Who..?" I managed.
"Deep cleans don't get rid of everything," said Toby.
"A rogue file?" I asked.
"Not exactly," said Toby. “Sometimes we spend so long with technology we leave stuff behind. Everyone thinks it's just a machine but that doesn't mean we don't put our heart and, well, soul into it. Given the right circumstances."
"What happened to him?"
Toby flicked the tablet off and the singer disappeared.
“He didn't get paid for that gig,” he said. "Frustrated singer songwriter, trying to get by. Sometimes they went well, sometimes his audience wasn’t with him. This lot decided not to pay him. You’d want to stick around and make a fuss if it were you.”
“And this was his computer?”
“Probably,” said Toby. “Or he might have got caught online somewhere else and moved around until he found this and felt at home. You might have been throwing him the occasional life-line without noticing it. Money, music, dresses. Encouraging him to stay.”
“But he’s not there anymore?"
The tablet went into his case.
"I'll make sure he gets where he needs to go."
We shook hands, pulled up the blinds and I took him to sign out at the front desk.
"I'll recommend you to my friends," I said, trying to sound normal and lighthearted. "They're always having tech problems."
"Please don't," said Toby, handing over his visitor's badge. "I'm not a techie kind of guy."
"So what are you?" I asked.
"I'm an exorcist," he said.