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Barry Goldman

Is it technology or magic?

My computer stopped working. No Internet, no e-mail. The little picture of a computer that lives at the bottom of my screen and usually has happy computer beams coming out of it lost its beams and showed a red X through its heart. I called customer support.

The automated voice told me the system was experiencing technical difficulties in my area and the anticipated time of restoral was three hours from the time of outage. I have heard this message before. It's as phony as the made-up word "restoral." I pushed on. The voice said I could get answers to most questions by logging on to the system's website. I gritted my teeth and stayed on hold.

Eventually a person came on the line. What was my phone number? My four-digit secret code? My favorite restaurant? When I was able to convince her I was who I said I was, she asked me what she could do to provide me with excellent service. I explained my problem, and she said she could help me.

There is a little gizmo called an adapter that sits on top of my computer tower and communicates with a larger gizmo called a router in another room. She told me to unplug the adapter, wait 10 seconds and plug it back in. I did that, and the little picture of a computer at the bottom of my screen immediately lost its red X and got its happy beams back. The nice lady said if I ever had that problem again, all I had to do was unplug the adapter and plug it back in.

A couple of weeks later, it happened again. Then a few days later, it happened again, and eventually it was happening eight to 10 times a day. I called customer support. The automated voice said the system was experiencing technical difficulties in my area and the anticipated time of restoral was three hours from the time of outage. Then it said they were experiencing unusually high call volume but my call was important to them. Eventually I got a person. She said they were replacing the kind of adapter I had with a better kind and she would send me one.

The adapter arrived a few days later. It came with a CD and a piece of paper. It might as well have been written in Urdu. I put in the CD and, when prompted, pressed whatever option sounded most likely. I unplugged the old adapter and plugged in the new one. I turned off the computer and turned it back on. Nothing worked..

I called customer support. They were experiencing unusually high call volume; they were experiencing technical difficulties in my area but expected the time of restoral to be three hours from the time of outage. My call was important to them.

Eventually I got a person. I explained my problem. She sent me to the room where the router is and had me find a tiny 10-digit number on the bottom of the router. Then she had me come back and click through a series of menus until we came to a screen with an empty box. She told me to type the 10-digit number in the box. I did that, and the red X disappeared. I thanked her and hung up.

I sat in the light of my restoral and thought of two things. One was how the old woman in fairy tales would tell the hero that, if he wanted to end the curse and change the princess back into a princess, he had to get the scale of a dragon and rub it on a white ewe in the light of the full moon and say "gibble gibble gumpling."

The other was Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Then I picked up the old adapter and looked at it. It was a silver-colored plastic rectangle about the size of a playing card and a quarter of an inch thick. It was held together by two small screws. I unscrewed them and looked inside.

For all I understood what I was looking at, I may as well have been a chimpanzee.

Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators." © Los Angeles Times

Is it technology or magic? 05/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 8:17pm]
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