No! It’s NOT OK!

Lately, Bill Gates has been giving away millions to some very worthy causes. If Bill really wants the world to see his compassionate side, I have an idea for him. How about revising those error messages that appear all too frequently? There must be a gentler way to discover that the sexual encounter we’ve been counting on all week/month/year has been canceled, and we’ll be spending the night recreating a lost annual report. Computers sense when we’re heading for a little "me" time, and they choose that particular moment to lose their virtual minds. On top of this, Bill has graduates of the Roseanne Barr School of Social Appropriateness writing the messages that tell us we’ve just been cyber-screwed.

A dialog box appears that reads: "This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down." What does this mean? Should I check my front porch for a posse of jack-booted commando geeks. This seems so harsh. What about the program’s childhood? Chances are it had Internet-addicted parents. Doesn’t it deserve a second chance, some rehabilitation? Let’s try: "Hey there, spreadsheet, I know crunching all those numbers can be a little stressful, but you need to consider the impact of exceeding your memory heap on those around you." Sure it takes another line in the dialog box, but it’s worth it to restore compassion to our workday.

Other times, the messages poke fun at those of us wedged into excruciatingly ergonomic chairs before our personal radiation generators. For example: "The application has unexpectedly quit. Some data may be lost." Wouldn’t it be nice if when you felt overwhelmed, when you were given too many tasks at one time, you could just walk into your boss’s office and hold up a sign saying you were going home for the day? It would be even better if all she could do in response was point to a spot on your sign that read: OK.

We need an alternative to that damned OK button. Some data may be lost? No! It’s NOT OK! We wouldn’t put up with this in a relationship. Oprah wouldn’t stand for it. "Hey Honey, is that your heart? Can I wrench it out of your chest and play handball with it?" And all we can do is click OK? Hardly! I want a button that reads: "Not so fast, you dirty son-of-a-bitch."

Considering the portion of our lives spent with computers, we ought to have as good a relationship with them as we do with our life partners. We can’t
accomplish this when hitting ctrl-alt-delete to get the computer’s attention results in: "The program has stopped responding." Nothing new to those of us in long-term relationships. But in this case you can’t stand in front of the television until the offender realizes he can’t see the football game. With a computer you can either click Wait (now that does sound like a relationship), End Task (the nag button: you click it all day and nothing changes), or you can force the computer to restart (the electronic equivalent of slapping it upside the head). In my experience, none of these responses does a spouse or a computer much good.

If we’re going to improve our interactions with each other, we need kinder, gentler error messages to show us the way. Couldn’t Bill Gates say he’s sorry when half of a novel disappears into the void? A little empathy would go a long way. Something like: "I know this hurts. There’s no good way to say this . . ." We’ll figure out the rest.

Kris Christensen teaches creative writing at the Corbin Art Center. She and her computer are temporarily reconciled and have sought counseling.

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