When I switched on my computer to write this piece it crashed, or had a mini-crash. It failed to start properly and I saw a brief flash of blue screen and code, some in standard English some in programming language. In that brief moment I misread the word CACHE as CASH and panicked that I had some evil virus that was going to steal my numerous (possibly not numerous enough) password identities. I didn’t. I just had to switch the computer off and on again.
To Crash and to Burn… Two words that now mean something new, again, in the context of digital technology, and particularly in the context of ubiquitous computing. The film above is a clip from the 1990 release of a (terrible by all accounts) SF B-Movie called Crash and Burn (originally titled Robot Jox 2). The plot is the end-of-the-world familiar: an evil corporation with some vague tech-sounding name has all the power. The corporation is called “Unicom” – perhaps uncannily close to the current shorthand for ubiquitous computing, “ubicomp”.
The twist you were all waiting for is that in Crash and Burn it is a robot from the past (the present) that can save the day. The metaphor of the computer crash is made literal and terrifying by its incarnation in corporate form. The robot, technology from a simpler time, is the key to undoing the code. Or, the brute force of the monstrous robot defeats the wily ways of the corporation who reach out through a network of synthetic humans; through crashing and burning (literally) the robot defeats the fear of the other kind of crashing and burning – that is, the fear of what digital violence might beset a future online society.
In the film the world burns, there is an orange glow as backdrop. But ‘burn’ also has a digital trace. To burn a disc. When I burn a disc the interface I see begins looking like this:
I “drag and drop” files and my action with the mouse, or the keyboard, comes to be the action of dragging and dropping – though these words connote a physical exertion I do not undertake. Maybe I think of a laser scorching the surface of the disc. But in any case the main action is, like that of a crash, one of code. The evil corporation in the popular imagination has come to represent the secrecy, and its opposite, the porousness, of information enabled by conversion to digital data. But before mp3s we had cassettes and bootlegging, then we had CDs and ripping and burning. The etymology of these terms has little to do with the reality of their processes but they become conflated in our attempts to describe processes of code that are suppressed for the majority of users behind windows (in this instance perhaps an ironic metaphor, shielding more than showing) and other graphic interfaces.
This is a really brief set of musings on a topic that I’m currently thinking through: the use of metaphor in computing terminology. Digital processes are often described in natural, physical and biological terms. Clearly this is part of the way we adapt language to encompass new objects. But in the instance of digital technology, and with the increasing pervasiveness of certain types of computing, metaphorical terminology seems to gloss as much as familiarise the processes that often shape our thinking and our actions. Whilst this is not necessarily negative, it is problematic; a field for future enquiry – not to mention an excuse to rewatch Hackers…
Zara Dinnen is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, researching representations of the digital in contemporary American culture; and co-organiser of the Contemporary Fiction Seminar at the Institute of English Studies.