Machines with a mind of their own
Why my cellphone keeps calling people on its own and my microwave oven is in revolt.
So there I am, sitting with my wife in a lawyer's office, when the hush of justice is interrupted by the music of – could it be? yes it is – the Dixie Chicks.
Now, normally only the ka-ching of billing hours is heard in these plush surroundings. But this really is one of my favorite songs bouncing off the mahogany walls.
"Nice music. But where are the speakers?" I ask, looking around the room.
My wife points to my pocket. "I believe," she says quietly, "the music is coming from you."
Sighing, I reach in and take out my iPhone and reluctantly turn off the Dixie Chicks. The highest of high-tech apparatus has gone off by itself. Without even asking, it has yet again decided to entertain itself.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. The iPhone seems to believe it is entitled to a life of its own. At various times during our four-month relationship, it has made phone calls to people I haven't spoken to in years. Gone online to bring me weather reports from Cupertino, Calif. Replied to e-mails I didn't know I had. And, most often, broken into song at inappropriate times.
Despite all this, like millions of Apple addicts, I love my iPhone. My devotion to it is like a parent's affection for a not-always-perfect child. You forgive them the occasional annoying behavior because they can be so entertaining. "Oh, that iPhone," you think, and occasionally say out loud, "What a scamp."
What concerns me, though, is that the iPhone's need to rebel may just be the tip of the chip when it comes to high-tech devices. If my iPhone is starting to reject me as its in loco parentis, when will other technically advanced "children" try to leave the nest?
I can envision our universal remote changing channels when it gets tired of watching a "Law and Order" rerun for the 12th time. The GPS unit, frustrated with its "owner" for not following the specified route, may exact revenge by sending us from San Francisco to Los Angeles by way of Toronto.
Microwaves that have endured years of being spattered with lousy frozen dinners could choose to blow up instead of warming that low-cal ersatz turkey meal. I can see a day, and night, when cellphones start text-messaging each other with missives like "WHY CAN'T THESE PEOPLE WRITE A SENTENCE IN ENGLISH? NO MORE 'R U THR?" '
What frightens me the most, though, is the havoc our computers could wreak by going off on their own. They could decide to indulge in more celebrity gossip than we care for. They could insist, unannounced, on going to "ILOVEPARISHILTONANDHERFRIENDS.COM." And what if the smarty-pants machine refuses to let us get away with purposeful misspellings?
Here's another chilling thought: Suppose our beloved computer wants to have a close, even intimate, "relationship" with another computer. Will the machine insist on e-mailing four, five times an hour even though we know they're only going to be bitterly disappointed in the end?
Now, obviously, the solution to all this is easy: Just pull the plug. But we already know we can't do that. Because ultimately we need our gadgets even more than they need us. And, unfortunately, like our children, they know it.
• Chuck Cohen is a writer in Mill Valley, Calif.