AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Technology is wonderful when it works. When it doesn't, there's always tech support. Commentator Mike Czaplinski is an NPR IT guy. He's worked his entire professional life with personal computers. He says his job goes beyond mending devices.
MICHAEL CZAPLINSKI, BYLINE: I've been the voice on the other end of the 800 number who has to tell you that you should turn it off and turn it back on again. So I've learned a thing or two about the place that computers have in people's lives. A computer isn't just a television screen with a keyboard glued to it. It's a magic mirror that allows you to conjure your thoughts onto it. It is as direct an extension of how your brain works as we have ever managed to invent as a species.
It's magic. But the thing is people don't question magic. They don't want to. They just happily enjoy cat videos and Szechwan enchilada recipes until that black box stops working. Nothing will send a person back to their evolutionary roots as a caveman wondering what they did to scare away the rain clouds than hitting the on button and having nothing happen. Almost everyone I've ever helped through a computer crisis has been in that frame of mind to some extent.
And in more than a few cases, fixing the computer problem was much less challenging than fixing the user. Sometimes it's as simple as reminding people that they should backup their data. The most heartbreaking issues I've dealt with have been people writing, say, their Ph.D. dissertation on a computer whose hard drive had died and who didn't think to make a copy of the file somewhere else.
Early in my career, I got precisely that call from someone who was hysterical. And they were absolutely insistent that I had to do something otherwise a year of their life was completely lost. Now, I'm not going to lie, most of the times, there was nothing I could do to help. Fortunately, this was not one of those times. I knew that the motors of the hard drive used in that model of computer would get stuck sometimes.
And if you gave them a good shock, they'd start running again. Usually the best way to do this was to lift the front of the computer up about an inch and let it drop hard. So I told the user to do that. It took a bit of convincing, but eventually they did it. To my amazement, as much as to theirs, it actually worked.
I know I tried to explain why it had worked, but I'm sure the person on the other end of the phone didn't care to know. To them, I was the shaman who had thrown a bag of dried bat wings onto a fire, shook a necklace of chicken bones and made the rains come back and their Ph.D. aspirations were saved. You know, I'd like to say the moral of the story is always backup your data, but I think it goes deeper than that. Never trust magic.
There's always a mechanically suspect part or a manufacturing flaw lurking behind every sacrificial altar. And there is no guarantee that the wizard selling you that bag full of magic sand is wearing pants underneath his robes. Not everyone can be a technical expert. But if you're going to trust the important pieces of your life to a computer, you owe it to yourself to know the basics of how it does all those wondrous things that you wouldn't want to live without.
To do otherwise invests those magical black boxes with more power than they deserve, and it leaves you open to being preyed on by people who don't mind exploiting your ignorance for their own gain. To me, it's always better to understand why what you're doing is the right thing, rather than just doing something because you've been told to do it. And - who knows? - if you understand what you're doing, maybe you'll figure out a better way to do it.
And then people will think you're a wizard. Just always remember to at least wear shorts underneath your robe, OK?
CORNISH: NPR IT guy Mike Czaplinski. If you're having a tech-related emotional breakdown, the IT guy can offer advice. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Put the words IT guy in the subject line.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We close this week's All Tech Considered with this note about a new tech tool for drivers in Las Vegas. Some Audi models can now connect wirelessly to traffic lights in the city's old downtown. And the cars can tell you exactly when lights are about to turn green. As we understand it, you can bet on it.
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