From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 30, 2004*: Fort PC

Connectivity and computers go hand in hand. If years (it seems like generations) ago even the idea of purchasing a modem was considered a novelty, today it's hard to imagine a computer that doesn't connect to the internet. I don't have any statistics on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if more people use their browser than their word processor (and the browser, if we're dealing with Microsoft, of course, is bundled with the operating system). There are those who claim that the internet is little more than a new-and-improved means of disseminating information, but there should be little doubt that what really makes the internet truly interesting is the fact that information and communication mingle into a viable whole. Before the internet we were, perhaps, obsessed with relationships, but with the internet it becomes a question of connections. When we turn on our computers, we connect to the world.

It's probably not much of an exaggeration to suggest that, in the same way that we have instant and continual access to electricity, to hot and cold running water, to a telephone that can, and often does, ring throughout the day and night, we also want an information line running through our homes, a line that permits us instant access to whatever information we might seek. And of course the logical source of that information is through an internet connection to our computers.

Computers are, however, expensive pieces of equipment. I don't know of anyone who purposefully leaves his or her computer running during a thunderstorm, taking a chance on the computer being fried by a bolt of lightning. We may want continual access, but that desire doesn't have to be fool hearty. And there are numerous dangers that lurk even closer, dangers that are seemingly rather benign. Regardless of the particular circumstances, we've got to protect our investment. But of course there's being protective, and there's being over-protective. Ultimately, the safest way to make sure that nothing happens to our computer is not to take it out of the box, or not to turn it on. But surely this is a case of over-exaggeration, even though it's been known to happen. Even when people take a chance and do turn on the computer (and yes, I'm happy to report that they definitely do this) many users are so fearful of causing some sort of harm to their machines that they restrict themselves to the primary uses they learned when they first received the computer. As a result, instead of being an all-purpose machine that performs a myriad of functions, one person will only access the word processor, another will only play games, while yet another will only check his or her e-mail.

These musings were generated by a rather distressing article that I recently read - an article that came with a flowing recommendation from an online columnist with whom I usually find reason to agree. Essentially, the gist of the article was that if we want our computers to be secure - from viruses, from being spied upon, from having information stolen from us and the like - what we should do is keep the computer off except when we desperately need it. Which brings us, I guess to the problem of defining desperate. Half a year ago I confessed that my cellular phone is almost always open. Do I desperately need it to be? Undoubtedly not. But there seems always to be someone who wants to reach me, and because we've created the possibility of reaching me now, we've also created the expectation that that should happen. It's even become a need.

We want/need the connectivity that our computers promise, and we take our chances in order to make sure it's available to us. If we want the computer to serve us well, we have little choice. Perhaps it's a matter of "how sick can you get?". Perhaps sometimes the answer is "very sick", but often that shouldn't stop us from doing something we want/need to do. We all know at least one person who's had a hard drive crash, and someone else who's lost lots of important information to a virus, and we're all inundated with spam in our e-mail to the extent that it clearly influences our productivity. But we still use the computer. Hopefully we've also learned to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from these situations. Running frequent virus checks and backing up important information aren't paranoid behaviors - they're logical and advisable security measures. But we've hopefully also learned to distinguish between different levels of protection. More often than not, the benefits of cookies greatly outweigh their possible dangers. Spyware may be a nuisance (and can sometimes be terribly distressing) but some spyware may not bother us at all. Perhaps it's not even a case of taking our chances, but instead of living normal lives.

And of course the definition of normal is in continual flux. At one time so-called normal people couldn't understand why anyone would want to communicate with another person via a computer. When we read about online gaming, many of us probably still think that the people we read about are maladjusted, perhaps uncomfortable in more regular social settings. But with time the novelty seems to wear off, and recent articles on the subject present us with portraits of people who might be our neighbors. These gamers certainly can't shut their computers off except when gaming, since they're gaming during pretty much all of their free time.

Our family hasn't yet entered a stage at which one of us maintains an online cyberdentity that demands leaving the computer, and the internet connection, open all the time, but I doubt that day is far off. In the meantime, Eitan wants me to leave ICQ open, and he's always happy to try and download some music. And at the moment Nadav and Hila seem to be playing more games online than off. These aren't role-playing games (yet?) but only enjoyable arcade type games. The quality of these games is continually improving such that some of them offer as much challenge and enjoyment as a good arcade game that we might purchase. Frankly, I can't complain. Having these games available online means that our hard drive has more room for materials that I want to keep on it, and I don't have to answer to constant requests to install a new game.

Have things changed so much since I wrote many of these same things three years ago? The main difference between then and now seems to be that back then I saw this as a "server-side" problem. I wrote about how the administrators of our servers were significantly limiting our access to the internet, and how this affected our ability to effectively use the internet. This time around it seems that the culprit isn't an overly zealous system administrator responsible for our general security, but, in well-known Pogo fashion, the simple user who, in the quest for computer safety, chooses to put his or her computer behind a wall, who decides to shut him or herself off from much of what a connected computer has to offer.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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