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Culture

Nothing like being a tech slave

Fed up groveling before your PC? You should be. Imagine an alternate universe where your TV forced you through the same daily humiliations.

What if turning on a television were as difficult as working with your PC? That would be cyberhell.

Computer scientist-philosopher Michael Dertouzos thought it should be possible--one day. Just imagine if we had to "log on" to our TVs. In fact, let's consider what might qualify as a day in that kind of "life."

Here's what it would look like.

My gear-head cousin suggests I download the latest security patch and I listen. I blew off the last one, so I jump on this one right away. The upshot: some nitwit hacker commandeers my remote control and replaces ESPN with a XXX sex-fest from Sweden.

Needless to say, I have a lot of explaining to do when the wife barges in unexpectedly. "I thought you were supposed to be watching Boston against the Indians!"

So this time around, I vow to play it safe. Famous last words.

How many things can go wrong? Let me count the ways.

How many things can go wrong? Let me count the ways.

The first inkling of impending disaster occurs minutes after installing the download. No matter how many times I try, the system keeps rejecting my password. I turn off the power and try again. Same thing.

Obviously, a fix is going to be beyond my limited understanding. So after waiting on the phone for nearly an hour, I finally get through to "Jack" in tech support. (He is very polite, though truth be told, I have a hard time cutting through his very "un-Jack" accent.)

No matter. Jack assures me this is a "simple matter" of tweaking some internal code that I never knew existed but that he says will do the trick. All I need to do is apply the patch from the company Web site.

A patch to the earlier patch that I downloaded?

Yes, Jack answers.

But I can't get the system to work, so how can I download the patch?

He puzzles over this and asks if he can put me on hold. About 15 minutes later, Jack gets back to me.

"We can send it by mail."

How long will that take?

"Roughly, a week, give or take," he says, depending on the mail.

The other option is to take the system down to the local shop. I thank Jack for his time, disconnect the set and risk a hernia schlepping the set out to the car.

My lucky day. It turns out the support staff at TV-USA stocks the needed drivers, and the system soon responds. That's the good news. Then comes the not-so-good news: the security patch has triggered an unexpected "application issue" that renders all other resident applications incompatible with the "fix." Thus, they no longer work.

Still, my perspicacious techie isn't giving up so easily--not at $75 an hour, he isn't. And so, in short order, he embarks on a careful disassembly of the system. Before long, my television has been reduced to a pile of resistors, capacitors, steering coils, transformers and electrodes--and whatever else he can lay his hands on.

Sucker that I am for a slick sales pitch, I easily agree to upgrade a number of items--upgrades which, they note, are out of date and probably ready to give up the ghost anyway. Besides, the store is holding a sale, so why not?

Why not, indeed? After all, it's only money.

And so I bring home my old-new TV, newly girded with the best state-of-the-art accoutrements a credit card could buy. Easing into my comfy chair with a bag of chips and salsa at my side, I log on and eagerly wait for the ballgame to get underway.

Then the phone rings. It's my cousin.

"Hey, did you hear? That security patch I told you to download? They just announced: It inadvertently introduces a bunch of new vulnerabilities. Whatever you do, stay offline."

D'oh! Where's Walt Mossberg when you need him?