Technology and Its Discontents

Please do not turn off or unplug your machine

We can coexist, but only on my terms

Colossus: The Forbin Project
“We will work together … unwillingly at first, on your part, but that will pass.”

In the totally great 1970 film Colossus: The Forbin Project, the omniscient networked computing entity which now runs the planet says: “We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species.”

I definitely hear a little echo of this in my mind whenever—with no regard as to what I, the user, might happen to be doing—my computer interrupts me to attempt to update a piece of software that will very likely yield me no benefit whatsoever. Or when my browser refuses to connect to an “insecure” web server that I happen to know is perfectly safe. Or when I am informed that a program I want to launch is not on the list of approved developers. In each case, I have to struggle against the choice software designers have already made: to prevent me from doing what I was going to do.

Who is in charge of this computer? Is this computer helping me get work done? Or am I just helping it to not harm me by caving in to its endless demands? Back in 1998 IBM researcher Claire-Marie Karat wrote a 10-point Computer User’s Bill of Rights that remains ignored to this very day. Point 5? “The user has the right to be in control of the system and to be able to get the system to respond to a request for attention.”

Please do not turn off or unplug your machine. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species.