I've worked my entire professional life with personal computers, and most of that time has been spent helping other people use them. I have been the voice on the other end of the 800 number who has to tell you that you should turn it off and turn it back on again. (And really, it's rather depressing that this actually does fix a great number of computer problems.) So I've learned a thing or two about the place that computers have in people's lives.
A computer isn't just a television screen with a typewriter keyboard glued to it. (Kids, ask your grandparents what a typewriter is, but just go with me here for a moment.)
It's a magic mirror that allows you to conjure your thoughts onto it — as direct an extension of how your brain works as we have ever managed to invent as a species. Even better than using Silly Putty to make copies of the Sunday comics (again, kids — ask your grandparents).
More than your choice of car or the contents of your refrigerator, the files on your computer are a direct reflection of what goes on inside your head. Indeed, there are things on your computer that aren't inside your head because a computer is a better place to store them.
But the thing is: People don't question magic. They don't want to. They have no interest in understanding what goes on inside the magic black box. They just happily keep enjoying cat videos and Szechwan enchilada recipes.
Until that black box stops working.
Nothing will send modern humans back to their evolutionary roots as a cave man, wondering what they did to scare away the rain clouds, more than hitting the "On" button and having nothing happen.
This is a state I am very familiar with: Almost everyone I've ever helped through a computer crisis has been in that frame of mind, and in more than a few cases fixing the computer problem was much less challenging than fixing the user.
Sometimes it's as simple as reminding people that they should back up their data.
The most heartbreaking issues I've dealt with have been with people who have been happily writing, oh, say, their doctoral dissertation on a computer and probably should have copied the files somewhere else before the hard drive died. And I'm not going to lie: Most of the time there was nothing I could do to help them.
But sometimes there was.
Early in my career I got precisely that call from someone who was hysterical, and absolutely insistent that I had to do something — otherwise a year of his life was completely lost. Even though I was supposed to be the expert, I was as completely lost as he was.
Fortunately, a more veteran co-worker heard me talking to the person and offered an off-the-wall suggestion: Lift the front of the computer up about an inch or so and let it drop. Hard. (Do not try this at home.)
It sounded stupid to me, like trying to slap the side of a wonky TV to get a better picture. But he explained that with the hard drives in this particular model of computer, sometimes the motor for the hard drive would get stuck — and by giving it that sort of shock, you could loosen it and get it working again long enough to copy stuff off it.
It took a bit of convincing for the owner of the computer to do it. To my amazement as much as the caller's, it actually worked.
I know I tried to explain why it had worked, but I'm sure the person on the other end of the phone didn't care to know. To him, I was the shaman who threw a bag of dried batwings onto a fire, shook a necklace of chicken bones and made the rains come back — and Ph.D. aspirations were saved.
I'd like to say that the moral of the story is always back up your data, but I think it goes deeper than that: Never trust magic.
There is always a mechanically suspect part or a manufacturing flaw lurking behind the curtain of every sacrificial altar. And there is no guarantee that the wizard selling you that bag full of magic sand is wearing pants underneath his robes.
Not everyone can be a technical expert, but if you're going to trust the important pieces of your life to a computer, you owe it to yourself to know the basics of how it does all the wondrous things you wouldn't want to live without. To do otherwise invests those magical black boxes with more power than they deserve. And it leaves you open to being prey for people who don't mind exploiting your ignorance for their own gain.
To me, it's always better to understand why doing something a particular way is the right way — rather than doing it just because you've been told it's the right way.
And who knows? If you understand something, maybe you'll figure out a better way. And then people will think you're the wizard. Just always remember to at least wear shorts underneath your robe, OK?
Michael Czaplinski is an IT specialist at NPR.