Finally, a Phrase to Describe the Agony of Losing Control of Your Gadgets

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 12 2013 3:21 PM

Finally, a Phrase to Describe the Agony of Losing Control of Your Gadgets

What to call a technology-related moment of doom?
What to call a technology-related moment of doom?

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Have you ever been happily typing along and suddenly had your text disappear? Or you’ve launched a program you didn't intend? You told your iPhone to be silent for your daughter's play, but when you sat up before her crucial scene, you somehow launched iTunes. I'm gonna pop some tags, only got 20 dollars in my pocket.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

I've been looking for a phrase that captures this phenomenon. I think it would give me some sense of control over the moment. At some level these episodes are my fault. If there's a phrase for this phenomenon, that means it's a universal occurrence, a mere malapropism that happens to the best of us.

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Also, coming up with a phrase would give me some sense of control, because what's most frustrating about these moments is that they transport you to doom. You spear your hand into your pocket to turn off the iPhone, but in your haste you load the camera app and suddenly you've taken a flash picture of your thigh. Meanwhile the music you were trying to turn off plays a little louder now because the iPhone is no longer cocooned in your pocket. (This is awesome, Macklemore!) It's like those nightmares where you suddenly find yourself naked onstage at your elementary school assembly. How did I get here? It's not my fault!

Mostly, this happens with my HP Folio 13 laptop. It's a wonderful laptop in every way but one. The mouse trackpad is placed in such a way and is of such mercurial sensitivity that when I type, I sometimes create irretrievable mayhem. If my palm hits the mouse while I continue my typing, I can select all text and make it disappear. Usually you hit Ctrl-Z to bring it back, right? Nope. Since this is an unplanned deletion, I am still typing whatever it was I intended to type. You can’t retrace your steps. This has landed me in the middle of obscure Microsoft Word formatting drop-down menus at times. Yesterday, I was writing a story in the back of a cab and deleted all of it. My hands shot out like I'd been driving and the steering wheel had disappeared. Not even Evernote, which doesn't require you to save your work, could tell me where it had gone. This jazz hands affliction is going to get worse. I'm goingto  cancel my mortgage payments unknowingly or sign up to volunteer for something. I imagine this is how a lot of people find they've joined Pinterest.

Recently, though, I think I found a story that accurately captures the phenomenon. A fellow named Dom, who lives in London, had his laptop stolen. He told the police, but they couldn't do much. (Though because they are English, they were very nice about it.) Dom had installed software to track the laptop if it were ever stolen, so if the thief ever turned it back on he'd get a notification. But for a month there had been no signal. One day, though, while he sat in his flat in the middle of London, he got a signal. 

Dom's laptop was in Iran. 

So the next time I mistakenly unregister my kids from camp, I'll be able to tell them, "I was typing and suddenly my laptop was in Iran." They’ll miss camp this summer, but at least they’ll understand what happened. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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