Issue 02 (December 2003)
I am writing to you about a cause to which I am deeply committed, and for which I would like to enlist your help. I do not need your money, but if you will suffer me my tale, I will try to make it worth your while.
I am a crusader, I freely admit, against the evils of mindless use of computers in modern society. I am a social scientist by training whose earlier professional life nearly foundered on the rocky digital shores of what is often called "academic computing." I was lured by the song of whirling tape drives, seduced by the power and magic of digital electronics. New words crept into my vocabulary, such as PRIORITIZE, BAUD, and ABEND, and my writing was peppered with /'s and *'s. I composed programs in my sleep at night and awoke exhausted. I began to talk in my sleep about recursion and compatibility modes, thus putting a terrible strain on my marriage.
Then the nightmares began. I would wake up screaming, drenched in sweat, shouting "DISK CRASH," and jump from my bed, rush to the terminal in my study, log-on, and look at my files to quiet my pounding heart. That was when my wife moved to the guest room. I surrounded myself with like-minded people and we would gather daily to exchange esoteric bits of information, share computing experiences, and tell insiders' jokes and tales. I began to invite them home. That's when my wife went to 'visit' her mother.
And so it went. I was living in a separate world and nearly passed into oblivion with so many other kindred souls. But I was luckier than most. A twist of fate, an office with a window, and a squirrel on my keyboard turned me back from the brink just in time. A squirrel looking for food, or a messenger from God, I will never know, stepped on a unique combination of keys evoking a program on the computer designed to reiterate clever sayings, slogans, thoughts of who knows who. To me came the message:
"What good to a man who masters this machine if he loses his own soul."
Since that time I have dedicated my life to telling others of my experience in hopes of saving them from the mistake I nearly made. Each Spring I tour from town to town speaking in colleges, public libraries, high schools, and civic clubs, wherever I can, to spread the word and sound the alarm so that society might defend itself against these insidious machines. My material is anecdotal and I use examples whenever I can.
That brings me to Simion. I first met Simion when I was teaching computer science at Colgate University. He was an unusually gifted undergraduate who did not mix well with other students. He found refuge in our computer center from the social milieu of the college which he found to be alien. He soon became one of our best computer majors and developed a psychic rapport with the machine that was uncanny. He was among those kindred souls who were my companions on that perilous journey into the technological heartland.
At one point, I remember, we discovered that Simion was virtually living in the computer center. He would eat from vending machines, take sponge baths in the men's room, and sleep on the conference table in the library.
He grew seedy and unkempt, and even rank from lack of bathing. His color faded and he began to lose weight. His beard grew unusually bushy for a man his age and gave him a sinister appearance. He was doing so well in his computer courses that his eccentricities were tolerated and we failed to notice that he had stopped going to his other classes. Then one day he was gone. "Flunked out," the other students said, and he disappeared without a good-bye.
It was many years later, shortly after my re-entry into the human race, that Simion came to my door. It was a cold and snowy winter's evening at nearly midnight; I was sitting by the fire having my sherry before retiring, thinking about my ex-wife, when a knock at my door startled me from my reverie. There he was, a ghastly sight, barely coherent, looking lost and abandoned. Helpless and alone, he could not hold a job and he had no family or friends to sustain him. He reached out to me and I took him in, and it was that night that I shouldered the cross of my cause.
Simion was like a child. He occupied the loft over the barn during the following Spring, did chores around the place during the day and diddled with a small home computer at night. He was little trouble, and in fact was an important part of my plan. Simion would accompany me on my speaking tours and as I spoke he would sit at a small table at the edge of the stage with a portable computer and fiddle with the keys doing God knows what. I would point to Simion from time to time in my talk emphasizing the wreck of a man that sat before me and the evils that had brought him to this end. Lest you think me cruel, Simion never heard a word of my unkind remarks. He was incapable of absorbing non-technical concepts that dealt with the values of human beings. He was living proof that my cause was a worthy one.
When I finished my talk, we came to the part of the event that Simion liked best. Curious guests from the audience were invited to come onto the stage and present Simion with challenges to his wondrous computer skill. It was the perfect illustration of my point. They were amazed to see that on the subject of programming, Simion was not only coherent, but positively brilliant. His success at answering their child-like challenges was what he lived for.
All was going well for Simion and me. I raised nearly enough money to fund a chair of psychology for the study of what I have named "Hacker's Disease," when tragedy befell my poor dear Simion. We were lecturing at Penn State, when a freshman aeronautical engineering student asked Simion if he thought it were possible to program a spacecraft on-board navigation computer to do a dynamic contouring map of star density which would take into account the movement of the spacecraft as well as the relative movement of all the heavenly bodies he was trying to map. I tried to distract Simion by shouting as I ran across the stage, but I was not in time. I arrived at his side as the glazed shadow began to fall across his eyes.
For the past month, Simion has been in the loving hands of the Sisters of St. Jude. The doctors say that Simion's mind is in an infinite loop, so to speak, and the prospects for his return to me are unlikely. But I am more determined than ever to continue my work. And that, dear friend, brings me to the point of this letter. I am conducting a nationwide search for another victim of Hacker's Disease to accompany me on my tour. A mutual friend suggested your name and encouraged me to write to you as I have now done. I cannot offer you much in the way of pay, but there is an opportunity to travel, and an endless supply of CPU cycles to satisfy your every need. Won't you please come with me, or at least write to,
Your friend, Gene Ziegler, Ph.D.,Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
By day he writes endless boring memos and reports ad infinitum, ad nauseam. But at night, when he is locked behind tower doors, he becomes Dr. Z, a.k.a. Dr. Zseuss, and writes essays, fiction, poetry, and humor to entertain relatives and friends. Welcome, perfect strangers, to his less than perfect world. Oh, what a tangled web!