Essay

Fixing Cindy’s Computer: a Short Play about Personal Development, Act 1

By Duff McDuffee on September 11th, 2009 1

Scene 1—Tuesday, 1:15pm

“BrainSystems Tech Support, this is Jeff. How can I help?”

“Hi Jeff, my name is Cindy. My computer is frozen. It’s been like this all day!”

Jeff: Sounds like you have yourself a hardware problem, Cindy.

Cindy: Really? It was running fine just yesterday.

Jeff: Yea, well, hardware can break at any time, unfortunately.

Cindy: How do you know it’s a hardware problem and not software?

Jeff: Easy. All computer problems exist within the physical computer, right?

Cindy: Yea…

Jeff: …therefore replacing or fixing hardware is the way to fix all computer problems. See?

Cindy: Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Can’t software cause the hardware to crash?

Jeff: That notion is based on a false understanding of computers. Think of it this way. All software is contained within the hardware. You couldn’t run software without hardware, right?

Cindy: I suppose…

Jeff: And where is this “software” really located, anyway? Software is really just circuits, just tiny on-off switches and positive and negative charges on magnetic tape. There isn’t really any software at all—it’s just an epiphenomenon.

Cindy: A what?

Jeff: An epiphenomenon. A name we give to something that doesn’t really exist. What’s real is the physical hardware. What we call “software” is just a convenient fiction. If we start with fiction, we can only solve fictional problems, like trying to cure unicorn leprosy or something. We can only solve your real problem if we work with what is real. Don’t you agree?

Cindy: Um, I guess so. This has been a real problem.  I have not been able to get anything done, and I have so much to do today! So what do you suggest?

Jeff: Well, we’ll need to do some diagnostic tests first, but usually this kind of thing is solved with a regular monthly CPU cleaning. We’ll mail you out a kit and you just open up your system and swab the CPU with some special chemicals. This helps keep things running smoothly. Are you still under warranty?

Cindy: I think so…

Jeff: Ok, then it’s only $47/month for the CPU cleaning kit. Do you want to pay with Visa or Mastercard today?

Cindy: Um…I’ll need to give this some thought and call you back.

Scene 2—Tuesday, 1:45pm

“MindTech Customer Support, this is Nancy. How I can help you today?”

“Hi Nancy, this is Cindy. My computer’s been frozen all day. I can’t get any work done, and I’m really frustrated. I called BrainSystems and they said it was a hardware problem and tried to sell me a $50/month cleaning package, but I thought I’d get a second opinion.”

Nancy: I’m glad you did. BrainSystems is a terrible company.

Cindy: Really? The guy I spoke to seemed nice enough.

Nancy: They don’t understand computers at all. They think all software problems are caused by faulty hardware.

Cindy: Yea, the guy—Jeff was his name—he was saying that software is just an “epiphenomenon.”

Nancy: Well, I don’t know what that means, but I do know they don’t understand computers. Heads up their asses.

Cindy: Well, what would you recommend for me then?

Nancy: Well, first off, you’ll need to clear out all the viruses and malware from your system.

Cindy: W-What’s that?

Nancy: Every computer is filled with negative programs that slow down and can even crash your system. These programs come from the internet, often installed with other beneficial software without you even knowing about it, or even just when you’re browsing around.

Cindy: Oh wow, I had no idea…

Nancy: Some come from corporations that make pop-up ads appear on your screen, trying to get you to buy stuff all the time…

Cindy: Oh yea! I’ve seen those.

Nancy: …others are more nasty and hijack your system to send out spam email, or even search your memory to try and steal your identity. They turn your computer into what we call a “zombie,” totally controlled by someone else, to where it’s not really even your computer anymore.

Cindy: Oh man, that’s terrible. Who would make such awful programs?

Nancy: Hackers who are out to steal your computer and use it for their own evil purposes. The internet is one big battleground between Good and Evil. Sometimes I think of myself as a Jedi Knight. *laughs*

Cindy: Wow, I never thought of it that way.

Nancy: Most people don’t—at least those who don’t work in tech support. Yea, the first thing we always recommend is to clear your system of all these viruses and malware. That will liberate your system from the control of all the hackers and corporations. You’re computer will be fully autonomous and back in your control again. Then you make sure they can’t get back in by continuing to run the anti-malware programs and updating them every week, if not every day. You want to install a firewall too, to keep out all the Potentially Unwanted Programs, or PUPs. And make sure to install only the right programs from then on.

Cindy: PUPs! How cute. How do I know which programs are the right ones?

Nancy: Well, you’ll want to only install programs that are going to maximize the potential of your system, so that it will be as fast and productive as possible, programs that are going to make your computer run successfully. And you need to be constantly updating these programs or they stop working. The internet is getting more and more complex at an exponential rate, and you’ll need to update everything constantly just to keep up, let alone do the really cool leading-edge stuff.

Cindy: Oh…ok.

Nancy: We sell a customized Success Program Package here at MindTech for only $147/month. It will put your computer on the fast-track to successful operation for many years to come.

Cindy: Um, ok. That seems pretty expensive, but I guess it sounds right—or least better than BrainSystems’ solution. I have a question though: what happens if my hard drive crashes? Should I go to BrainSystems for that?

Nancy: No need. Our success programs will take care of all hardware failures automatically. As long as you have the right programs installed and updating constantly, you will never have any hardware problems again…

Cindy: Huh? How does that work?

Nancy: …well, I’ll let you in a secret, something that the hackers and corporations don’t want you to know…you see, BrainSystems has it all backwards…hardware doesn’t really exist—everything is software.

Cindy: What do you mean?!?

Nancy: I know it sounds strange, but it is the key to understanding everything about computers. Software is used to design new hardware. And software itself is designed by software. If you trace it all back, it’s all software.

Cindy: That doesn’t make sense though. I mean, I have a physical computer, don’t I?

Nancy: Not exactly. Everything that is on your computer can be transferred to another computer—the operating system, the programs, all the files, everything. Where the data is located is arbitrary. What really matters is the information itself, and your ability to choose that information. Information doesn’t have any location—it is unbounded and totally free from all constraints. Anything is possible with pure information. What your computer really is is this totally free, unbounded software. And you can do or have anything you want when you are free from hardware. The possibilities are unlimited.

Cindy: But Jeff said that all software is just circuits and magnets! I’m so confused.

Nancy: Jeff had it all backwards. You see, all our computer problems are caused by problems in information. I could transfer all of your data to another computer and it would just freeze up all over again. Until you change your programs, you will not change your reality. You have to get rid of all the negative programs and install positive ones, and continually run and update the positive programs. When you do, you will be totally free from all of your computer problems—forever.

Cindy: That sounds like a pretty exaggerated claim. I mean don’t all software programs have bugs?

Nancy: Many people believe that all software has bugs before coming to MindTech, so they don’t believe it is possible to work and live bug-free. But those bugs are actually all the negative programs you have installed that you don’t know about. You absolutely can have a 100% totally and completely bug-free computer.

Cindy: uhh…

Nancy: Cindy, we have people writing and calling in to us every day telling us how wonderful their computers are now that they’ve installed our customized Success Program Package. People are using their computers to make 5, 10, or even 50 thousand dollars more a month after the upgrade. After I upgraded, my life has never been the same. You, like me, want to be successful and live a bug-free life. I know you’re the kind of person who wants that kind of success, Cindy, or you wouldn’t have called MindTech today—isn’t that right? So would you like to pay for the package with Visa or Mastercard?

Cindy: Umm…I’ve gotta go.

*click*

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16 responses to “Fixing Cindy’s Computer: a Short Play about Personal Development, Act 1”

  1. Toby says:

    This is brilliant. And funny too! You've perfectly illustrated the limits of the psychopharmaceutical approach and the new spirituality/personal development scene. But! Is there a part 2 coming to this post? Namely, yes we can agree that the approaches listed above are overapplied and overdetermined. Okay, so then what? Are we left with nothing (which perhaps is one of the reason that folks cling to one of the two approaches listed above despite their failings?) or might you suggest a better route perhaps? Cindy is clearly in pain. So what should she do for her computer now that BrainSystems and MindTech have failed? (-:

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Toby! I was wondering if my metaphors were too obvious or too obscure–I'm glad one person at least was able to easily grasp them.

      As for your questions, you'll have to wait for Act 2!

      • Toby says:

        (-: Yeah it's kinda incredible that these two approaches have gained so much traction in society. The majority of MDs subscribe to the Brainsystems approach and the entire Huffington Post Living Section (not to mention countless magazines at Whole Foods) are devoted to the MindTech (it's all software) approach. Both of these approaches are multi-billion industries at this point even though they don't pass the common sense test. Perhaps it shows how desperate we are to medicate our pain — that'll we'll take or do something that doesn't make sense because at least it's better than nothing!

        So I'm Jonesin for Act 2. Cindy's computer's still broken and so is mine…. (-;

        • "Both of these approaches are multi-billion industries at this point even though they don't pass the common sense test. Perhaps it shows how desperate we are to medicate our pain — that'll we'll take or do something that doesn't make sense because at least it's better than nothing!"

          Well put! That's exactly what I was aiming to capture here.

  2. Constance says:

    I just ready your script Act I, very interesting and creative. It's quite dualistic, I look forward to Act II, where perhaps there are some other options offered. In both situations, there is a not seeing of the interdependent nature of the universe and the inherent suffering from unrealistic outlooks…It is a relief to know that there are coaches out there who are trying to be more honest and less manipulative.

  3. yvonne says:

    Love to laugh, and this does make me laugh, mostly at myself. Thanks, I usually do that myself, it's fun when sombody else does it for me!
    Why do I keep coming back for more Brainsystem or Mindtech support? It's not (only) to medicate my pain, because the more I go to either one support system the more pain I get, and I know it because I feel it. And I don't like more pain, do I?
    Is it just replacing one addiction ("materialism") with another ("oneness and how to get there and once there how to deal with it since we still are materialistic/ 'in the flesh' and also go beyond oneness after that?") and in the meantime have a life with ups and downs and being what you read about and get support for it because I don't realize it at the time. Is that it, more or less? Or didn't I get the support systems right?
    And in doing so, is it just my ego struggling to hold on although I think I 'm better of without it: better off as a no-me. Or is this what it's all about and will I find my true destiny, in the long run of course?
    If I would understand this I, of course, would start an internet business and a coaching practice with a support group and make a whole heap of money. And if I don't it's my own fault I'll go back to either one support system. Is that so? Or not my path? Better ask a better support system. Helloooo ….
    How to stop this circle and still be in it? Can't wait to read part II
    By the way: no irony meant here!

  4. Ian says:

    Love this. It's the old Lucifer/Ahriman problem writ anew for the computer age.

    Also brings to mind Buddha's middle path, as well as magnetic fields. : )

  5. @alexhudish says:

    I just found this blog after you guys followed me on Twitter.
    As a guy working in tech support and exploring the field of personal development – BRAVO.
    You've brilliantly captured what I've been thinking about this subject for a long time now.
    I wonder what's coming in part II.
    Alex

  6. olimay says:

    Duff, your major point is good, but I fear you're using Jeff as a straw man. No competent scientist or engineer would agree that software is epiphenomenal. There are still *de-facto* measurable differences in the charges of microprocessors running different instructions. We conceive in software to enable abstraction and to handle complexity. In the same way, we generally wouldn't build a mathematical model of an Boeing 747 on an atom-by-atom basis without intermediate levels of organization.

    That's all I wanted to say, since I think your point is that popular advice, and perhaps some psychology puts too much emphasis on the wrong level of organization. That is a very good point.

    I *don't* think you're actually trying to posit that the hard problem of consciousness is fundamentally intractable. (If you *are* trying to do so, I'm gonna have to send you over to Eliezer Yudkowsky's Less Wrong Zombies sequence.)

    • "No competent scientist or engineer would agree that software is epiphenomenal."

      Yes, that's exactly why I used this metaphor. One of the prevailing views in the Philosophy of Mind (especially in Neuroscience) is that mind is an epiphenomenon, that all there really is is a brain, that all mental activity is fundamentally just neurons firing. My metaphor highlights the absurdity of this notion by using the popular mind/brain as computer metaphor. It is absurd precisely because no engineer would ever posit such a thing. And following from this absurdity are all sorts of other absurd solutions to human psychological problems, like seeing depression as a disease caused by lack of drugs (drugs can of course be useful in some cases, but seeing the cause as "brain chemistry" entirely misses the point in my opinion).

      Thanks for the other links–I'll have to check those out. I appreciate your understanding of these interesting problems of Cognitive Science!

      • olimay says:

        Who are these neuroscientists who think mind/consciousness is
        epiphenomenal? I don't see that position represented anywhere. The
        hard materialists should say that mind is complex abstraction of
        neural patterns, so thought is as real is neural activity. The
        substance dualists think consciousness is quantum gravity (Penrose) or
        some undiscovered thing, but their claim on the ontological
        distinctness is even stronger than the materialists.

        This makes me curious. Can you point me to any random article that you
        think espouses or advances the view that consciousness is an
        epiphenomenon?

        • Alas, I wish I still had my books from Philosophy of Mind. I learned the term "epiphenomenon" in one of them, a term used by a reductionist materialist to explain that mind is really matter.

          Certainly psychiatry basically holds this view. All of the 700+ categories of the DSM IV are supposedly brain disorders, despite the lack of research to back up this claim.

          • olimay says:

            I agree with the materialist claim that, barring the existence of something like a soul, mind is a interaction pattern between physical components within the central nervous system, and particularly within the brain. I do not see how this would reasonably lead anyone to ignore different levels of organization. The reductionistic perspective doesn't say \”thoughts are not real\”– it just says they are made of smaller components!

            I certainly empathize with criticism of psychiatry's overemphasis on certain kinds of treatment. Psychiatric medicine is a mess, more of a mess than the mess that is medicine in general. (Which, as an industry, does a lot of stuff in a quite unscientific manner.) Perhaps your complaint is medicine, and not about any purported philosophy of mind?

            I'm trying to fish out the actual sources of disagreement. My concern is you're misunderstanding or misrepresenting a certain set of scientific and philosophical beliefs when your real dispute is elsewhere.

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