Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I'm going to mix stuff up a little, this evening. Instead of talking about stories, I want to talk about religion. No reason, really. Just been nagging at me lately. S'pose I feel underrepresented, and all that.

To begin with, I'm agnostic. I know the knee-jerk reaction is to do one of two things with that:

1) Assume that's a funny word for atheist.

2) Assume I'm wishy-washy, and simply have yet to choose a side with regard to theism/atheism.

I can't speak for other agnostics - it's sort of a broad brush to paint people with - but I'm neither*, and this is about why.

The whole thing makes a lot of sense through the lens of technical support. See, I used to be a senior rep for a major ISP, ages ago. Got all sorts of stories about it. Heard everything. People threatened to sue me. A family once wisely put their ten year old kid on the line, and we fixed their computer in five minutes. A lady once got indignant with me because I was shocked she hadn't thought to plug her computer into the wall. "We're not all technical," she protested. Oh, I even trained with a guy who got fired for surfing porn websites in the break room in front of everybody.

That job was... well, everything you'd probably imagine, but with smaller, more depressing cubicles. I'm sure there's a joke in there about how phone room work would beat the religion out of anybody.

The thing that really struck me about it, though - the thing that always stayed with me - wasn't about it being an awful experience. The fact is, I actually enjoyed it once I made enough money to live on. I still resent that it got shipped overseas. No, it was that after I'd heroically restored someone's ability to, you know, screw around on the Internet, they almost always asked the same question:

"Why did this happen?"

Oh, they'd ask it sooner than that - a lot of people came at me with it from the first sentence. But once I'd actually fixed the problem, many of them honestly expected a real answer. This wasn't my job, of course. I was supposed to keep my call times down - if their problem was fixed, my official duty was to escape gracefully so I could help the next person without making them feel put off.

However, I was not unsympathetic. It's an understandable question: if you know why something happened, you have a little power over it. You could try to prevent it from happening again. Initially, I made an effort to answer. In fact, sometimes? Sometimes, the whole thing was so obvious that I could simply oblige. For instance, if you let your mailbox fill up so mail starts bouncing, well, that should take a tech about 30 seconds to notice, and another 30 to fix. It's inarguable.

More often than that, though, I had to deal with probable causes. Modem error codes, for instance, are associated with various sorts of problems that might or might not be traceable with a little effort on the customer's end. Like, there's one for 'no dial tone,' which suggests either a hardware failure in the device, line trouble, or someone plain forgetting to plug their line in. No way to know from just the code, but other causes are improbable enough not to worry about initially.

Many problems didn't have an answer at all. "Why'd we need to reinstall TCP/IP on my box?" Well... there's just no way I could know that. After all, I was solving problems without even looking at the computer itself, relying solely on responses from a customer who was almost invariably not trained in how to give the correct responses.

There could've been possums living in their machine, for all I knew.

Worse, even if I'd had access to it, some causes are just too ephemeral to trace. What corrupted a .dll? Which .dll, for that matter? I don't know. I'm not sure I could figure it out with all the resources in the world at my fingertips.

People didn't like hearing that. Most people do not want to be confronted with, "I don't know why something bad happened to you, and I can't figure it out, either. Sorry." It's a good way to leave someone unhappy even if you've helped them.

I didn't want to lie, either. I mean, greater moral concerns aside, fear for my job aside, it's just not how I like to operate.

Instead of doing either, I learned a cheat: I just told them it was gremlins.

Oh, not seriously. I didn't want to get fired. But I made a joke about gremlins, explained it might as well be, and sent them on their way. Most people could accept that: it put a face on their problem, even if it wasn't the real face.

The thing I left unsaid to avoid an argument or a lecture on company time was this: I didn't need to know. I was able to fix the problem even though I was flailing around in the dark sometimes.

More than that, drawing an incorrect conclusion early and sticking to it was death in that line of work: if someone had the aforementioned 'no dial tone' error and I just decided that their modem was broken, I wouldn't have them check their phone cord, or vice versa. Unyielding certainty is bad for troubleshooting.

This is, of course, an analogy for the world at large: everywhere I turn, people are preoccupied with certainty. Being right. The truth about life, the universe and everything is something concrete and knowable, something you can find in a book, hear on the radio. Something that can be circumscribed and understood by anyone, if they'd just look.

Backing down, doubting things, making mistakes? Not only are people supposed to avoid doing them, they're not supposed to admit it if they do. That's all weakness.

I think it's all about fear: the universe is big, we're small. Better to tell each other stories about gremlins than to admit that a lot of things will probably always be beyond our prediction or control.

For me, when I say I'm agnostic, I mean that I've let go of that as best I can. Permanently. It's about my acceptance of the likelihood that we'll never fully understand the world, tempered with the comfort that we don't need to in order to improve our lives.

There's more, but it gets a little abstract.

Anyway, I just wanted to throw that out there. Hope it's of interest to anyone. I'm a little nervous talking about this, but really wanted to put it, well, somewhere. I'll get back to talking about my secret, unpublished books again next time.

* (I'm not an atheist, but I do subscribe to apatheism for philosophical reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog post. It's one of the 'big questions' that doesn't interest me in the slightest, anymore. If anybody's curious, I may try to get into it at some point.)

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