A lesson in humility

So on my first weekend “home” in a month, I have spent the majority of the day pulling my pc apart, putting it back together again and then proceeded on the painful journey of installing software. Now don’t get me wrong – I love getting my hands dirty with my PC (there’s always a rather concerning gleam in my eye, when I fire up my electric screwdriver to attack the tiny screws in my 3.5 inch bays), but the reason for this particular exercise of my geekgrrl technology construction skills was a combination of stupidity (on my part) and rather remarkable skills on the part of the programmer. To explain, upon arriving home from the Brisbane Executive Club’s First Fridays drinks last night, I routinely fired up my desktop and started downloading the day’s 100 or so emails. It’s a laborious task of weeding out the mailing list spam posts I get every day for all the lists I manage, and all the pseudo-spam from the university notices that inevitably find their way through my many filters. So I admit it: occasionally I just click idly through the content of emails and follow the links to papers, ideas and sites recommended, without properly looking at what I’m supposed to be doing.

Don’t try this at home folks. It’s bloody stupid. It certainly was stupid for me last night.

As soon as I’d clicked the website in one message in the long list – whilst being transfixed by the still-downloading messages and catching a name I was keen to read an email from further down the same list – I realised some sort of e-card was opening… and my heart sank.

Another admission: I emitted several colourful expressions as my processor went into overdrive. Immediately I shut down the browser, but the move was too late – my pc was clearly overwriting, processing, scanning, and interrupting pretty much everything I was running. Immediately I downloaded the latest updates to my virus scan software, and managed to save it to the desktop, but of course, when I tried to run the installer, I had “no memory”. I quickly launched Housecall, and got as far as accepting the terms of the agreement before the browser just shut down; first IE, then Firefox. Then in the space of 22 minutes I lost functionality on pretty much every system optimising program I had in my toolkit.

More cursing ensued. By now I was feeling thoroughly miserable because my geek pride had been seriously wounded. I knew better than to click on links in strange emails, risking the launch of trojans. I also knew better than to leave my virus definitions for a month before updating – a task I usually do every weekend, but because I haven’t been home…. Anyway. I picked up my mobile and rang the two people who I thought would castigate me for my geek stupidity but who also would be prepared to help me think through the problem: Kevin and Hamish. I just want to thank you guys for putting up with me last night, whinging on the phone. Thanks to Kev for trying to help – hey the scan ran in Safe Mode, it was just that by then the virus had infiltrated all the scanning systems. And thanks to Hamish for saying “it happens to the best of us”. That line made me feel a little feel less stupid. Thanks babe 🙂

Anyway, after exploring a few options to fix I just figured I’d buy a new hard drive. (There’s nothing like the power of data storage to cheer me up.) So this morning after breakfast with Tracey – thanks for that Trace! – I zoomed off to work, picked up my laptop, and ordered a new hard drive before coming home, pulling my machine apart and installing a new drive. I figure I’ll get the data off the old drive in the next few days. Since then, I’ve been ploughing through the whole installation process and it’s taken hours.

So while installing I’ve been thinking about the virus itself, and more particularly the programmers who created it. This isn’t hackerdom – it’s crackerdom – the pointless and destructive use of technologies to disable others’ (usually worthless) programs and data. So in most respects it’s the ultimate expression of anti-social behaviour – not just because it’s a remote power play to cause distress and damage, but because it effectively shuts off the channel of users of these affected technologies to communicate with the world. Not that I don’t admire the functional elements of the virus; this was a particularly ingenious little series of programs that operated very quickly indeed, and I only found their trail when I accessed some error logs in rather obscure programs on my system. I just feel dismay at the use of this knowledge and geek cred for such stupid purposes. Yes I know, they’re stealing passwords and bank account numbers and so on. So the ‘purpose’, if you like, is to steal. And yes, I also know there are people who are in desperate straits. But these are skills that can earn megabucks. So this isn’t stealing to overcome economic inequity. It’s probably more about attempting – in a rather oxymoronic fashion – to overcome social inequity. If the only way you can assert your identity and power in a world that worships the beautiful, the wealthy and the successful, is to devise a trojan that will temporarily shut down communication systems and spread misery and inequity, then I suppose that’s what you go and do.

I love hackerdom. I regard myself as a hacker and am proud of it. It’s fun. And yes, some of it is clearly illegal. But as Raymond has noted, there is an underlying ethic in the hacker culture which is about breaking systems, hierarchies and hegemonies. It’s not destructive so much as it is metatextual and deconstructive. But crackerdom is just plain destructive. And it’s probably proof that even in the hacker culture, there’s a sickness of social inequity.

This is probably far too long a blog post but I don’t care. I suffer for my art Windows installation, and now it’s your turn. I guess the point I’m making here, is that I intended to spend today reading and writing and constructing. I ended up deconstructing and reconstructing my PC, and philosophising about the characteristics of crackers. So whilst I do come across as a bit of a git – both for being stupid enough to allow a trojan loose on my system, and for being led to this analysis – I still feel I got something out of the day. Now of course, I just need to creatively solve the problem of how to bring about a sense of social equity in the digital sphere, and help prevent the scourge of crackerdom…..

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