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The Plot Against People

12 May

In 1968 Russell Baker wrote a short article entitled ‘The Plot Against People’. For some reason, this story stuck with me through the years.

The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately to defeat him

Baker writes:
"The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately to defeat him. Accordingly, inanimate objects are classified into three major categories-those that don’t work, those that break down and those that get lost.
The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately to defeat him, and the three major classifications are based on the method each object uses to achieve its purpose. As a general rule, any object capable of breaking down at the moment when it is most needed will do so. The automobile is typical of the category.
With the cunning typical of its breed, the automobile never breaks down while entering a filling station with a large staff of idle mechanics. It waits until it reaches a downtown intersection in the middle of the rush hour, or until it is fully loaded with family and luggage on the Ohio Turnpike. Thus it creates maximum misery, inconvenience, frustration and irritability among its human cargo, thereby reducing its owner’s life span.
Washing machines, garbage disposals, lawn mowers, light bulbs, automatic laundry dryers, water pipes, furnaces, electrical fuses, television tubes, hose nozzles, tape recorders, slide projectors-all are in league with the automobile to take their turn at breaking down whenever life threatens to flow smoothly for their human enemies.
Many inanimate objects, of course, find it extremely difficult to break down. Pliers, for example, and gloves and keys are almost totally incapable of breaking down. Therefore, they have had to evolve a different technique for resisting man.
They get lost.
Science has still not solved the mystery of how they do it, and no man has ever caught one of them in the act of getting lost. The most plausible theory is that they have developed a secret method of locomotion which they are able to conceal the instant a human eye falls upon them. It is not uncommon for a pair of pliers to climb all the way from the cellar to the attic in its single-minded determination to raise its owner’s blood pressure. Keys have been known to burrow three feet under mattresses. Women’s purses, despite their great weight, frequently travel through six or seven rooms to find hiding space under a couch.
Scientists have been struck by the fact that things that break down virtually never get lost, while things that get lost hardly ever break down. A furnace, for example, will invariably break down at the depth of the first winter cold wave, but it will never get lost. A woman’s purse, which after all does have some inherent capacity for breaking down, hardly ever does; it almost invariably chooses to get lost. Some persons believe this constitutes evidence that inanimate objects are not entirely hostile to man, and that a negotiated peace is possible. After all, they point out, a furnace could infuriate a man even more thoroughly by getting lost than by breaking down, just as a glove could upset him far more by breaking down than by getting lost.
Not everyone agrees, however, that this indicates a conciliatory attitude among inanimate objects. Many say it merely proves that furnaces, gloves and pliers are incredibly stupid.
The third class of objects—those that don’t work—is the most curious of all. These include such objects as barometers, car clocks, cigarette lighters, flashlights and toy-train locomotives. It is inaccurate, of course, to say that they never work. They work once, usually for the first few hours after being brought home, and then quit.
Thereafter, they never work again.
In fact, it is widely assumed that they are built for the purpose of not working. Some people have reached advanced ages without ever seeing some of these objects—barometers, for example—in working order.
Science is utterly baffled by the entire category. There are many theories about it. The most interesting holds that the things that don’t work have attained the highest state possible for an inanimate object, the state to which things that break down and things that get lost can still only aspire.
They have truly defeated man by conditioning him never to expect anything of them, and in return they have given man the only peace he receives from inanimate society. He does not expect his barometer to work, his electric locomotive to run, his cigarette lighter to light or his flashlight to illuminate, and when they don’t it does not raise his blood pressure.
He cannot attain that peace with furnaces and keys and cars and women’s purses as long as he demands that they work for their keep."

This is where Baker’s essay ends. But I think that inanimate objects have been secretly evolving, resulting in a new class of object: the computing device. Whether it be a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, smart watch, Bluetooth speaker or satnav, these smart devices are more cunning than we think. They will, in some cases, get lost. But we have found ways to minimise the impact of this. With ‘Find My Phone’ and location technology, it is almost impossible to lose this class of device for too long, and it has also made it almost impossible to get lost yourself while carrying one. (If, of course, you are carrying a desktop PC you have hopefully not set out on a long walk or extended bike ride anyway).

(It is at this point that I will confess that at one point in my life my secretary suggested that she tie my wallet to one end of a piece of string and my phone to the other, then thread the string through my sleeves in the same way that my mother used to, to make sure I came home with both mittens)

While computing devices do present the opportunity to break down, mankind has realised that in most cases a simple press of the reset button will restore them to their working state. In deference to the behaviours of other inanimate objects that break down, they will of course crash/lose data/inexplicably wipe the hard disk just at the point that you have coompleted your short story/university thesis/project plan/marketing pitch but (and this is the important bit) NOT BEFORE YOU HAVE SAVED IT. Exactly how computers establish this is not yet well understood and is part of an ongoing study. So while they may indeed lose your life’s work and your sole contribution to humanity, they have not, of themselves, got lost.
The sheer cost of smart devices combined with increased expectations and the widespread use of guarantees (a resourceful human trick to fight back against the inanimate revolution) means that even if the devices don’t work, they are quickly returned to the point of sale to be replaced by one that does.
However, they will almost certainly NOT work the way they were expected to. They will exhibit strange and unexpected behaviours which will initially drive the owner to the edge of insanity, but will over time come to be accepted as the norm, forcing their human host to behave in increasingly bizarre and convoluted ways in order to get the job done.
And to just up the ante a little more in this war of objects vs humanity, computers will, suddenly and without warning, change their behaviour. After several months of sending emails to the correct recipients, they will suddenly and inexplicably send your most intimate thoughts to a company wide distribution list. Your chillout playlist for romantic evenings in will inexplicably include ‘both ‘Barbie Girl’ and ‘Agadoo’. A simple text message to your boss will change a single word in a business meeting confirmation to sound like a proposal of marriage. After countless successful journeys they will suddenly divert you down a one way bus lane that leads only to a deserted industrial estate with no visible means of exit. There is no apparent reason for this. Some theorise that a passing beta particle flips the state of a logic gate within the computer that results in this erratic change in behaviour. Yet this random factor cannot explain the completely destructive nature of the change.
And so the struggle continues in a constant campaign of attrition that humanity cannot hope to win. I doubt it will end well for us, as it now seems clear that inanimate objects are a parasitic life form looking only to use the human collaborator as a means to evolve and further their bloodless agenda.

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