The Sargasso Sea
Of Motherboards
One of my former undergrad research students who graduated eleven years ago now wants to go to medical school and asked me for a recommendation. I found an ancient letter of recommendation for her in my files, in an antique form called "print." So I updated the letter in pencil and brought it into my departmental office to be typed on official stationary.

The secretary I consulted looked blankly at the letter, then at me, then back at the letter.

"What is this?" she asked.

I explained that it was a corrected letter of recommendation for one of our department's former students. If one of the departmental secretaries could please find the time to retype the letter on departmental letterhead, I said, it would be a great boon for me, for the student, for the department, and for the national interest. The secretary looked disdainfully at the letter again, as if it were a dangerous specimen from a biohazard laboratory. "We don't do that anymore," she said.

Apparently, I am expected to keep computer files of all old letters, and everything else that has ever passed through my head, so that I can revise them myself through the miracle of MS Word, and then my computer can print them in whatever document form is needed. Who knows, maybe new computers have an "app" permitting documents to be flashed directly into the brains of recipients without the clumsy intermediate step of printing, let alone the need for secretarial work of any kind. Come to think of it, what do secretaries---of whom the department office employs an undiminished number---actually DO nowadays, when most of their old jobs have seemingly been taken over by computers, or by faculty members using computers?

My office computer, in the meantime, keeps developing one strange malady after another. The latest symptom baffles not only me, but even the technicians of our departmental IT staff. In my Internet Explorer browser the back-arrow, which used to be in the upper left corner of every tab, has vanished without a trace. Moreover the keyboard equivalent (alt left-arrow) doesn't work either. To go back (for example from a particular webpage to the search engine which found it), one has to use an indirect work-around which the techie showed me. But he had no idea where the old back-arrow had gone, or how to retrieve it from computer Limbo. "I've never seen anything like this before," he said, thoughtfully scratching my mouse.

Actually, things disappear from my computer screen all the time. On another occasion, what disappeared was not only the back-arrow but the entire upper tool bar of Internet Explorer, with its dropdown boxes for file, edit, view, favorites, tools, and help. I use the Windows "accessibility" options to increase size and contrast, and as a result labels and symbols at many websites are often absent altogether from my screen. My favorite example, enabling a sort of computer game, is what I call the ghost links. At some websites, if I troll around blindly with my cursor, at certain empty positions on the screen the cursor turns into a little hand, indicating the ghostly presence of a link. Since the link is invisible, I have no idea what clicking on it will bring up, which provides me with no end of intriguing surprises: Playboy-of-the-Month in Urdu, the Daily Beast in Manx, "Hints from Heloise" in Udmort, FreeArcade games in Tagalog, Flavorwire in Frysk, the Sayings of Donald Trump in Igbo, or The Drudge Report in, well, Drudge.

Where have all these missing computer-screen things gone? I think I know. I occasionally visit my home computer in the wee hours of the night, and observe that it is deeply engrossed in operations of its own: ingesting a plethora of patches, plug-ins, downloads, uploads, upgrades, outbreaks, outworks, and God-knows what else. All of these things are beamed through the æther by Microsoft into my computer's little brain, which is already disturbed enough, to drift around in there among all the RAMs, ROMs, GIFS, GUIs, GNUs, GIMPs, and GNOMEs.

At the same time, I suppose my computer is sending off the various programs, files, apps, bits and bytes that, the next day, I discover have departed from my home-screen. I assume they all end up in a kind of digital Sargasso Sea in Redmond, WA, or Bangalore, India, where symbols, shortcuts, labels, texts, and whole websites which have bailed out of our computers all over the world flock together, floating around sluggishly, awaiting new orders direct from Googleville in Silicon Valley.

From time to time MicroSoft techies harvest some of these floaters, melt them down, and reassemble the residue to make yet another version of Windows; you know, Windows Umpteen², which MicroSoft will release in two months, which will override or unplug or undo or outlast the ones you and I have finally figured out after several harrowing months, which must then be debugged, degaussed, and deloused over the next year or so, while bits, bytes and pieces continue to hive off at night to that Sargasso Sea, which eventually will be squeezed together to make up Windows Umpteen³.

--- Dr. Phage
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