Recovering Ourselves: When Technology Fails

by Angela Doll Carlson April 01, 2015

I dropped my laptop this morning. It made this awful beeping sound while the drive whirred and lights blinked frenetically, followed by what seemed almost like gears grinding, though I am certain there are no gears in there.

So I pressed the power button, hard, and held it there until the computer went to a black screen and finally restarted. I cradled it, like I would a crying child, thinking to myself that somehow this might be the magic ingredient necessary to keep the damage from being permanent. I was thinking that maybe the components would knit themselves together again, heal like fibers of muscles heal, like lungs heal, like the brain heals with time and care and medical attention.

I whispered prayers to the great Wi-Fi backup god I keep on top of my bookcase in the living room. I looked at the time capsule backup winking at me from the dusty top of that bookcase, and I winked back, still cradling the computer. I was trying to remember the last time I had backed up that data, to recall when I’d last seen the spinning icon that appears when the machines are talking to each other. I tried to remember where I had stored the most recent version of my book, the most recent articles I’ve written, the backlog of stored emails I wrote to myself, notes and ideas and passwords and photos and birthday reminders.

I spoke aloud to the “time capsule” on the shelf. I made promises to it to back up more frequently, to double check settings, to dust that top shelf, to protect the data. I was thinking too much ahead then, to the line at the Genius bar at the Apple store, to the long wait and hefty price tag for a repair or a replacement. I panicked a little. I was thinking about all that data, suddenly gone missing after traveling from my brain to my fingers, to the hard drive that might not have been backed up.

With a familiar ping the start up icon graced the screen finally and though the spinning beach ball turned for what felt like an hour, it was probably only three to five minutes. It was still too long. I spoke sweetly to the quieting computer saying, “Where does it hurt, friend?” and “There, there, old pal, stay with me.” I was not yet convinced about the data. In my head I calculated the cost of repair or replacement but the cost of lost data was far more daunting.

It bothers me that I am so concerned with this machine and with this data. It bothers me that I would hold it as I’d held my son last night when, during a wrestling session with his brothers, he fell to the floor and hit his head. I had stroked his head while he cried. I had kissed his cheek until the crying ended and his anger began. I listened to him complain about the rules of the game, about how unfair it was that he was so small compared to his brothers. Even after he recovered himself, I watched for signs of concussion, even waking him up to be sure he would wake up because sometimes injuries go unseen. You never know.

I’m tempted to call this metal box with blinking lights and phantom gears, my “life.” I suppose it is a sort of “life” as it is comprised of the bits and bytes of me that are stored on this machine and on the backup device that rests atop my bookcase and winks at me as I sit on that couch and type away on my laptop. I’m tempted to say this machine holds the best of me, because though it seems an extreme statement, it feels that way sometimes. 

When I leave the house I place the laptop out of sight—under a magazine or a low shelf, under the couch or in a drawer, hiding it from anyone who might look in and see it there on my table. I calculate how quickly it might be snatched up at the check in counter at the airport if I put it down for too long while I sip coffee, find my boarding pass, or take off and place my shoes into the bins at security. All of these things run through my head again today after the drop to the floor, after the whirring and impossible grinding of phantom gears, after the reboot while the spinning beach ball of death courses on and on.

Finally, after some time, the machine recovers itself. There is no beeping, no clicking, no gear grinding and I take that as a good sign as my desktop appears intact. All the documents I’ve been working on make their way forward, dotting the gray background, one file at a time. Panicked thoughts continue to gnaw in my brain:

 “Does it always take this long?”

“Was the background always that shade of gray?”

“Is the type darker than usual, the drive noisier than usual, the data slower than usual?”

Computer forums and discussion boards are the WebMd for machines, so I use search terms based on the symptoms, three beeps, black screen, a plaintive whirring or garish grinding of the hard drive. I search for ways to know if it’s really as all right as it appears to be, if all my files are still there, if my backup was adequate, if the fall might have made a concussion that might later keep my poor unsuspecting computer from waking one day. I read about computers falling, about the tricky repair, the hidden damages that might not show up for days or weeks or months. Sometimes computer injuries go unseen. You never know.

I had three pages open in the browser. I was switching between them, gathering information as though they were buoys in an ocean. I was looking for answers, looking for assurances, downloading and disseminating even as I began to backup the data that lived on that drive already.

I had developed a headache so I closed my eyes and there in the midst of the worry, in the breath holding while the pages were loading, in the desperate fear of “you never know,” while the time capsule was blinking with the backup, there in the waiting for the spinning wheel to stop turning, in the deep ocean of data I saw myself swimming. There were waves washing over me and I was struggling for air. I remembered something my therapist mother taught me as the headache raged, as the anxiety dragged me deeper into the water.

I tapped my sternum, near to my heart, with two fingers, soft. It’s science, a conditioning response, tapping the thalamus and breathing. I whispered words I remembered that were meant to root me to something outside of myself when I was feeling anxious, “Here, here, here…” This was my signal flare at sea. This was my anchoring. This soft tapping, this simple word repeated is meant to remind me that I am not my data. This metal box is only a mirror, a storage unit, a high tech tool.

And I continue to tap and breathe because I don’t fully believe it. I take time through the pounding head and data ocean swimming to take in some air and exhale the words, “Here, here, here” until I feel finally the buoys floating away, the shore coming closer, the anchoring in sight. I am not my data. “Here, here, here,” I whisper, here is my life. Here is my heart. Here is my body breathing.

Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson


Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”

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