A rambling by Tom Knapp,
May 1992

The convenience store clerk waved her "magic wand" over the bar code of a video tape. Presumably, the wand should have inputted the movie's title and rental price into the computer monitor mounted on the counter.

Presumably. But it didn't work. So the clerk waved it again. And again. And again. And ... well, you get the idea.

She glanced up apologetically at the customer, who was in line just ahead of me. Her eyes seemed to lose focus as she glanced at the people queuing up behind me.

She rubbed a finger over the bar code, hoping maybe the problem would smudge away. Then she recommenced waving her wand. Nothing. She seemed confused. This apparently had never happened before.

For several minutes, she alternately rubbed the wand, then her finger, then the wand over the bar code. Nothing stubbornly continued to happen. Finally she put wand and movie on the counter, asked the understanding customer to step aside and waited on the rest of us -- fortunately, we all had simple items that could be purchased with only a finger and cash register.

As I drove away, I pondered the mechanical nature of a world where, when an electronic device falters, the human behind it cannot figure out what to do. For a moment I felt smug -- this could never happen to me, I thought.

The thought went away about 15 seconds later. I realized that, although I could circumvent a computer glitch by writing these words with pen and paper, a system crash would prevent anyone from ever reading them.

What would the world do, I wonder, if electricity ever goes away?

[ by Tom Knapp ]