Into the Cyber-Uncanny

A stolen laptop that aids in its own recovery, phantom smartphone vibrations—these and other modern phenomena constitute a species of the uncanny that would’ve been impossible in Freud’s time. And the way things are going we can only expect more of it.

Steven Poole is the author of Trigger Happy (2000) and Unspeak (2006), a book...

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Late one Friday evening, my phone played the codec-out sound from Metal Gear Solid, and an email arrived. My stolen laptop had been taken online, and now, like a resourceful kidnap victim, it was phoning home, unknown to its captor. The laptop was beaming back all the information needed to rescue it. And so began one of the strangest episodes so far of my life with technology.

The laptop had been stolen the previous day. I was working in one of the non-public Reading Rooms of the British Library in London. As usual, I left the laptop at my desk when I went to lunch. But this time, when I got back to my desk, it was empty. Damn and blast. CCTV didn’t identify the malefactor, so I went home and changed all my internet-service passwords. I hadn’t lost any work (thanks to Dropbox), but the machine wasn’t insured, and it still felt like a violation, not just of my own distributed, semi-cyborg self, but of the Library as well.

And this wasn’t just any laptop; it was my laptop. It’s not uncommon for us to see personalities in objects, and many people develop a sentimental attachment to their tools. A cook might speak fondly of a particular battered pot, and reminisce about the pungent stews of goats’ feet or bleeding-edge foams made in it; well, this was the Macbook Air on which I’d angrily hammered out my new book, as well as writing tens of thousands of words of other literary and cultural spleen. We’d been through a lot together. Luckily, nine months ago, I had installed some eldritch security software, the open-source Prey. And that’s how, the evening after its abduction, my laptop began calling for help.

I clicked on the link. The Macbook had taken a photograph with its webcam, unknown to the person using it. I saw a young man in an ordinary-looking apartment, shot from a low angle (he was probably using it on his lap) and smiling to someone off-screen. My laptop also told me that he had bypassed my login and created a new user account. A screenshot showed that he was running Apple Software Update. (You don’t want out-of-date system software running on your stolen laptop. That would just be embarrassing.) Triangulating local WiFi signals, the laptop reported a rough location on a Google map: a street in Stratford, east London. It told me its router’s IP address, and the name of the WiFi network it was connected to. “Friendz.” That just added insult to injury. These clowns nick my laptop, and call their home network “Friendz”? With a Z? Seriously? I might have had some respect for them as criminals if they had called it “Raffles.” Or even “Hamburglar.”

To receive this report was both amazing and deeply odd. Thanks to Prey’s stealth technology, I was now engaged in an amateur police surveillance action, a voyeuristic keyhole-peeping. I forwarded the information to the law-enforcement professionals, the Metropolitan Police, but I couldn’t shake another weird feeling. I knew it was just a machine running instructions, but it felt as though my computer was sentient, and pleading in a faint but very precise voice to be liberated. It was, I decided, uncanny. More than that, it was a uniquely modern species of the uncanny that in Freud’s day simply wasn’t possible: spying in near-real-time on a thief, by means of the stolen object itself, which had, or so it seemed, come to life. Call it the cyber-uncanny.

The next day, detectives from Kentish Town police station visited the Stratford apartment, cleverly having found its exact address by using a WiFi-sniffing app on a smartphone to locate the depressingly named “Friendz.” Once inside, they knew it was the right place because a piece of the ceiling cornicing in the kitchen was missing, just as in the webcam photo. (Old-school detective work.) My laptop wasn’t there, and neither was my secret sharer, the guy who had been using it. But the photo in a passport that the police found in the apartment did closely resemble him. The investigation continued.

You feel a buzz at your thigh, or in a pocket, and you pull out your phone. But there is no new SMS, no missed call. The phone didn’t vibrate after all. So what did you feel? Just a psychosomatic wish-fulfillment. The fervent desire for a new connection resulted in the physical sensation now most associated with it.

The day after that, I had a new friend, or rather surveillance target, since he didn’t know yet that we shared an arcane connection. (Information is not necessarily power, but information asymmetry definitely is.) The new parcel of remote intelligence (for I was now moodily starring in my own downbeat spy movie) showed me a man in glasses with a bushy beard. He began using my laptop that morning out in Hounslow in west London. The browser was open to YouTube, showing Devender Pal Singh’s performance on Indian Idol. I wondered if my laptop was enjoying the karaoke, or if it yearned to be used again for writing sarcastic literary criticism. Then at lunchtime the same guy came online again in east London, not far from the first apartment. And the next webcam photo was the money shot. Behind the man’s head were colourful and sparkly women’s dresses, on racks and mannequins, sporting price tags. He was obviously in a shop, as he listened to a local East End radio station over the Internet. Got you, I thought with glee, forwarding it all to the police. They drove down there that afternoon, found the shop, and recovered my laptop for me.

There was no tearful reunion with hugs and declarations of love, the laptop was, after all, just a laptop. And laptops get stolen every day. I would have got over it like everyone else does. Except that, because mine had this under-the-radar stealth-reporting facility, some emotional thread had persisted between us even when it was in enemy hands on the other side of the metropolis. I like to think it’s happy that it’s back home, like a ransomed child or at least a lost dog. But maybe, deep down in the logic board, it still remembers its abduction with a certain wistful excitement. Maybe it was an edgy urban thrill for it to get to know Stratford and Hounslow. It’s not saying.

What other forms does the cyber-uncanny take? Well, apparently there is now something called Phantom Vibration Syndrome. Maybe you have experienced it. You feel a buzz at your thigh, or in a pocket, or from your bag, and you pull out your phone. But there is no new SMS, no email, no missed call. The phone didn’t vibrate after all. So what did you feel? Just a psychosomatic wish-fulfillment. The fervent desire for a new connection resulted in the physical sensation now most associated with it. Cyber-uncanny, too, are those moments when your computer suddenly does something out of keeping with its normal compliant personality. When an Apple computer has a kernel panic (a fatal system crash), it displays a message that begins: “You need to restart your computer.” This always makes me boil with rage. Excuse me? I want to shout at it. I need to restart you? And why would that be? Because you fucked up! It’s like seeing a friend blaming someone else for his own crass act.

The cyber-uncanny is likely to get more and more common, owing to two intertwining phenomena. First, there is our tendency to anthropomorphize objects, as our socially tuned minds perceive agency even where none exists. Probably such overactive pattern-recognition (like seeing the Virgin’s face in a tree) is the underlying cause of another sub-genre of the cyber-uncanny, Electronic Voice Phenomena. Some snippets of electronically recorded sound (static, hums, wind, digital chirrups, general background noise) can sound terribly like human speech: machine-captured ghosts whispering or screaming arcane messages through the dark, into the aficionado’s headphones as he surfs EVP sites late into the night. Or, of course, it might be that, as some allege, EVP really are documents of paranormal communication, the muttering discarnate revenants revealing themselves only via the auspices of our technology, aiming their messages direct to tape or disk.

The second driver of the cyber-uncanny is that some of our anthropomorphized objects can now contain our whole work lives and a substantial shadow of our social lives too. Losing a cellphone ten years ago was an annoyance; losing a smartphone now can be really upsetting. The modern phone is friend, batman, and secretary; its absence plunges people into a wholly unaccustomed info-isolation. (Even those who still have their phones but have upgraded to Apple’s iOS 6 are, literally, lost without Google Maps.) So as we slide into ever more codependent relationships with our cybernetic prostheses, an ambient attitude of techno-panpsychism becomes the norm. The clean edges and engineering logic of consumer technology don’t rid us of superstition; they just create a new arena in which it can flourish. The more machines we depend upon, the more ghosts may lurk inside.