When people wrote science fiction in the past even when they began digging into the cyberpunk dystopias in the 1980s they did no address one of the major downsides to the area in which technology has leapt forward in the past thirty years, i.e. internet communication. Even in the movie 'Blade Runner' (1982), Rick Deckard who is dealing with rogue replicants running around the city does not switch on his computer and have to wait thirty minutes while it installs all the different updates without there actually being any apparent change in how his computer runs. He does not open his email account to find the important messages dumped in Junk and the whole of his inbox filled with stuff advertising drugs to keep his penis erect or ways he can liberate millions in funds in some far away country or even ten advertising emails from the last company he shopped from. When he searches for data he is not sent off to a different search engine which takes only one of his terms and then lists things he can buy rather than the information he wants.
This kind of thing is the reality of using computers and communication devices today. I answer my telephone and I find five times out of six that it is not even a human trying to sell me something, it is simply a recorded message; my text inbox on my mobile phone is filled with messages advertising things. I know I do not know lots of people and in fact my friends tend to write postcards to me, we are that archaic, but stuff I do not want is now sent to me far more often than anything I am interested in. The closest I have seen to all of this in a science fiction novel was the subliminal advertising in 'The Merchants' War' by Frederik Pohl (1984) in which people are bombarded with advertising that they are not even aware of constantly.
I play 'World of Warcraft' and I guess that makes me vulnerable. People want to break into accounts on the game so that they can benefit their own game characters by asset stripping your character and also because game items and game money sell for real money on auction sites. Thus, people use spyware to try to identify my login and password and sometimes they are successful. If something is recording your key strokes then it does not matter how complex the password is they will read it. I have just started a new job and was told my password must not use any words that appear in any dictionaries anywhere in the World. How can I know that? I cite the case of the Commodore computer company who found the title of their machine the Vic and that of their Pet were rude words in France and Germany respectively; the same happened to the pop group Roxette who had to perform as The Rockers in South-East Asia. How do I know that my made up password is not some legitimate word in Thai or Samoan or something? In addition, how am I supposed to remember it? One company I worked for made you change your password every month and you could not repeat a word until 10 months had gone by. Trying to remember the password for that account as opposed to all the company websites I have to log on to in order to buy a train ticket or a book or simply check my bank account means you end up with files of lists of different passwords.
Of course, all this security is necessary as we are under constant attack. My World of Warcraft account was hacked and I could not access it for two weeks. This also seemed to open the gateway for a lot of mal(l)ware (I assume it is 'mall' as in the US shopping centres as it is usually trying to sell me something, but increasingly I see it written as 'mal' which is quite ironice, but perfectly appropriate as in French 'mal' means sick or bad) and spyware. I have McAfee package that I pay for, the free AVG one as backup and now Spyware Doctor to catch the persistent spyware the others seemed unable to get. I have spent over £60 on subscriptions and protection. I have not had my account hacked again (yet), but now whenever I switch on my computer I have to wait ages for updates and scans. I keep on being asked if I want to run additional scans. The systems do (generally) bounce off the spyware but as a result my internet browser keeps on recording failed connections and asks me if I want to restore a whole string of links to those connections every time I want to browse the internet. I know these security systems are important but they are intrusive and keep bugging me to buy an add-on or run a scan when I want to get on with my work or play. I get severely annoyed when battling some difficult monster in Azeroth to have the game minimised so that I can be asked once again if I want to run a scan.
The updating means that it takes about 10-20 minutes once I switch on before I can actually do what I want to do. Ironically I am now reading newspapers far more than I have done for years as I sit at my desk waiting for the download or the check to complete and have nothing to do except pick up the newspaper and read. I do not want to clean up my desktop of items, if I did I would delete them myself. I do not need to be asked two times every time I switch on if I want someone to do it. I am an adult, I can make decisions myself. I know how to write a letter, I do not want to do it in a juvenile, American way, why do I have to keep telling the system that? I disable and I disable, but it seems that constantly I am being bugged to do something the way someone else wants to do it not. Would you drive a car which decided the way it would take you to the shops? To some extent I do, my sat nav comes up with the strangest routes and has been proven to be unable to deal with the narrow backstreets of Exeter without trying to get you to drive through a house at the end of a cul-de-sac (this happened twice last week on different cul-de-sacs).
The most annoying thing is despite all the security I have bought (or perhaps because of it given the fact that anti-viral software now seems to come with its favoured search engine and none of them are the one I prefer) every time I search for a term, such as today, for 'Victorian labour newspaper' I click on one of the results and instead of being taken to the page of Wikipedia or Spartacus or some other general historical resource, I am taken to another search engine which gives me a list of shops in Victoria (Australia) or even a list of employment agencies or just a list of newspapers. These results are always commercially focused not the knowledge-focused answers I was seeking in order to write a story or find out about something. Sometimes my security systems seem able to stop this but sometimes like today they lose the battle and so my searching time is doubled or trebled. In fact if I analyse my work on a computer, probably 20% of my time is disabling or reversing things that the computer, a service I have bought into or even worse some intruder software is trying to get me to do. Far from being the speedy way to get information it is increasingly becoming a very slow way and one filled with frustration. To a great degree internet searching is now censorship as I am told 'you must be interest in buying not learning' and 'even if you want to know something, you must only learn it from one of our sponsoring partners'.
I know we may never rid the world of the thousands of people who want to peddle stupid stuff to us. I would hope though that we could get more of the things we subscribe to, to work in the background and for computers to accept that we can make a choice and if we say we do not want to clean up our desktop or to write a letter our way we are allowed to do that. If we change our minds in the future we will let the computer know. What we have now was never the image of the future. If people selling services knew how resentful you come of something you have subscribed to if you constantly get updates and queries then hopefully they would back off. I do not know when this will end, but for me, it had better do so soon, because battling every day to get my computer to do what I want to do is driving my blood pressure sky high.
P.P. 26/11/2009: Well, mistakenly I thought that things were beginning to be resolved with my computer until I turned on yesterday and found that somehow the machine had 'forgotten' that it has an internet browser. I worked for three hours, and then, the woman in my house, far more expert at ICT, tried for four hours to restore the browser. We stripped away a lot of software, did a system restore, re-loaded Internet Explorer 8 and so on, but still I cannot browse the internet. Client systems such as the World of Warcraft still work fine, but anything that needs a browser in place such as the McAfee anti-virus software will not work and keeps sending alarmed messages.
This is one of those situations in life when people say 'but that's impossible' and say 'but have you tried ...?' only to recommend an approach you did six times three hours ago in the hope that it would just work 'this time'. Then they begin to doubt your competence, 'but you must be doing something wrong', they say and disbelieve you can have such a problem unless you actually show it to them directly. I have had these kind of responses over the years with everything from televisions to telephones to cars and, of course, computers.
If anyone can explain how you can be accessing the internet one day and then the next time you switch on not only has the browser entirely stopped working but it appears impossible to install a new one, despite good internet connection (as proven by the World of Warcraft connection) then I would be interested to know. If you could provide a solution to this situation, I would be extremely happy.
P.P. 2/12/2009: The problem was finally resolved. After seven hours' work from myself and the woman in my house, I paid for two hours' work by a 'computer doctor' (costing £102; make sure you book a 'no fix, no fee' person) to resolve it in my house. He could not do it there so took it away for another day to wire it into his next work and bombard it with anti-viral software. All other software had to be removed though documents, photos, etc. were quarantined and have not been lost. He said that he had read 400,000 people have suffered from this very virulent kind of virus and anti-viral software even stuff you pay a subscription for, generally cannot fight it. I can understand people hacking computers or using spyware to get access to your bank account and to steal money, even (though to a lesser extent) people getting into your computer so they can steal the virtual money and magic items you have in 'World of Warcraft' but in this case I have been told it was simply a question of revenge. Apparently the man who hacked my 'World of Warcraft' account in October was angered by the fact that through friends alerting Blizzard who run the game, he had my account taken from him and given back, so he sent out a virus which 'jammed open' my computer allowing all the nasty stuff viruses, mallware and spyware which is constantly on the internet seeking a chink in the armour, to flow into my machine, as some kind of punishment for me getting my own account back.
I have commented before about the twisted morality of a lot of people active on the internet. Ironically while the internet gives you potential access to millions of people it seems to narrow many people's horizons and makes them feel that their greed is all that matters and to sate it is legitimate. There is a spectrum from bloggers like me who arrogantly think people might be interested in what I am going on about across the vindictive who relish their power in turning people's lives upside down. I almost feel there is more honour in someone who steals money electronically than in someone who behaves in a childish way, hitting back at people because they will not give up their toys to them for free. My key concern is, given the level of anti-viral, spyware and mallware protection I had what is to stop this all happening again next month?