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

November 28, 2001*: The return of the PC.

The AIDS epidemic did a good job of constraining the sexual revolution. Safe sex, on the whole, meant less sex. Computer viruses, especially in their more lethal strains, seem to be doing the same for the idea of collective computing. To put things rather simply, today, people are hesitant to leave their internet connection open. Perhaps it's a case of post-personal computing being an idea whose time has come ... and gone. In one of the offices which I frequent a virus attack seriously disabled the network, and spread rampant paranoia among the technicians. The answer was simple: close off contact with the outside world.

Of course when you're dealing with a group that produces content for the internet and maintains it online, closing off contact is not only counter-productive, it's downright impossible. So the server is still up, and even the mail server - it simply doesn't permit any of the most common activities of any standard mail server. Mail from other domains can't be accessed, for instance. FTPing, however, is out of the question, and if while browsing you find a file you want to download, almost anything with a suffix other than the standard .htm, or Office documents (Microsoft, of course), is off limits.

And things don't stop there. Though my list of active ICQ contacts has dwindled over the years, and I haven't maintained my list from computer to computer as these, along with my places of work, have changed (meaning that to my new list I only add the names I'm still in contact with - and I assume that the same is true for other old friends and acquaintances as well), I still view ICQ, which I first scoffed at, as an invaluable tool. But not in this office. Though I've still left the program on my computer I know that at start-up I'll receive a message telling me that ICQ can't connect to the server. That means that I can't chat with friends while I'm online, something that my bosses might not see as much of a loss. But it also means that I can't get help from, or consult with, those same friends while they or I are working on various tasks. Is that a necessity? Strangely enough, over the years it's become something that I rely on. True, often times being online and connected to ICQ means little more than that I can visit with someone (and in the past it's been a useful method of finding out from my brother how my mother is, for instance). It has also become a means of receiving much more junk that I might have thought possible a few years ago. But occasionally it becomes an essential part of a collective creative process. Via ICQ a couple of people with whom I no longer work but who have remained friends and colleagues, become consultants on projects or advisors to my thinking. Sometimes I help them out in the same way. This is an online extension of my working and thinking space, and one that I find difficult to forego in these more careful times.

What's affected isn't only my ability to work with others while online. As important as that ability sometimes is, of no less importance is the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. For at least the past two years my screen saver at work has been SETI@home. Quite frankly, I hold very limited hope in the possibility of a radio-telescope receiving decipherable information from extra-terrestiral intelligent beings. But even so, each time that I would return to my computer after a lengthy meeting or something similar, I would feel a deep-seated sense of satisfaction in knowing that in my absence my computer had been busy doing something to aid such a search. Now, as a result of the administrators of the network I'm attached to at work having blocked off contact to that program, I find myself alone not only at my computer, but in the entire universe as well.

The well-known saying goes that "it's not paranoia, they really are out to get you". In internet related terms, that means that you really are susceptible to a virus attack. And so I was. But if the truth be told, I encounter this sort of problem at least a few times a week. My mail box gets letters with attachments which are undoubtedly viruses with a distressing frequency. Some of these are from people I know (whom I then inform that they've been infected, though some already know this) while others don't have identifiable return addresses or aren't from people whom I can identify. I've become quite adept at deleting these messages, and though I have to admit that I feel at least slightly uncomfortable upon receiving them, I've learned to live with this situation. If things were to come down to having to destroy the village in order to save it, I think I'd quickly find myself in another profession. Even in these dangerous times, I'm leaving my connection open.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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