The Technology Fails Essay

August 27, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 4 3 min read

One morning at work, I tried to sign on to my email account and had a door slammed in my face. Google interpreted something in my emailing activities as a possible security risk, and decided to lock me out of my Gmail account for 24 hours. Naturally, I panicked, then opened a Microsoft Word document and began to write this.

A subgenre of confessional personal essay has grown from the seed of technical disasters just like mine: the Technology Fails Essay. (In my own essay, right now, I’d be talking about my frantic attempts to access the account by restarting my computer, as if I could trick the internet that way.) Most of these essays appear in online literary magazines, and they are probably so prevalent because the writers no longer have Twitter or Facebook or Gmail to distract them from writing. The essays aren’t shallow, though, because the immediate reaction to technological failure is a deeply emotional one, whether the emotion is desperation, anxiety, fear, or despair.

(In my essay, I’d be writing about my frantic Twitter posts and Facebook status updates, chronicling my Gmail woes and instructing all my friends and followers to email me on my work email account for the rest of the day.)

During these terrifying technical blackouts, writers sometimes look inward, to comment on their own addiction to all the bright, shiny technology. (Once my most important email account was unreachable, I realized that I had five other email accounts, each for a specialized type of correspondence. My email-account-creation-behavior is obsessive compulsive and has gotten completely out of hand. I must make changes in my lifestyle.) These writers treat technology like low art – we love it, but know that it’s not “good,” but we can’t easily explain how it’s not “good,” so we spend pages and hours and thousands of words trying to explain ourselves, when all we really want to do is curl up around a Nicolas Sparks novel (not me, but I’ve heard they sell well) or re-watch Bring It On (this example is taken from personal experience).

Sometimes in these blackout-essays, the writer takes a broader look at our world’s dependence on technology to function. Sometimes, they write a personal history story about their relationship with their tech. (I remember my first blackout, back in ’03, when Livejournal was inaccessible for a whole day and my entire high school freaked out.) Sometimes the writer uses blackout essays as a metaphor for distance or being cut-off from the world.

Why are these stories compelling? Is it because they give shape to a shared experience? Does a Tweeter who was frantic during a Twitter blackout want to read about another frantic Tweeter because it makes them feel less alone in this isolated world of Internet socialization? We’ve all been there: our phones have broken and all of our contacts lost forever, our computers have crashed, our Gmail accounts have been temporarily closed to guard our security when it didn’t need guarding. Maybe reading about other people with the same problems makes each of us feel like a citizen of the world behind our keyboards.

Personally, I’m starting to find this kind of essay tiresome, but I don’t understand why. I can read four blogs from four different television critics breaking the same news story in four nearly-identical ways – and I keep going back to all four writers day after day after day. I can empathize with the writers bemoaning their technologic issues; I should feel more with every new essay, not less.

(The next morning, I logged on to my Gmail, good as new. I hadn’t received any urgent messages during the time I was shut-out of the account, so I didn’t even explain my problem when I was writing responses. Now that the email account was restored, I felt even more like writing and contextualizing my experience, but I didn’t know where to begin. Not being able to access my email made me stressed out for 24 hours, and if it had happened to anyone else, they would’ve been stressed out too. But it wasn’t a shot heard round the world, it barely echoed. The pain and stress of the problem was all inside of me, and the world couldn’t grasp it, couldn’t empathize, because they were logging on and sending off emails so easily, while I waited for Google to give that back to me.)

When my technology fails, the lack of it consumes me. When someone else’s technology fails them, I am vaguely sympathetic, but I’m losing my ability to feel anything in response. Their problems wash over me, because it’s so simple to put contacts back into a cell phone, and if they were smart they would’ve backed up their computer files, and what are you bitching about anyway, your email will be back in 24 hours, just wait it out, it’s not that big of a deal.

’s debut novel The Ghost Network was published by Melville House in May 2015. She’s written criticism and commentary for This Recording, Full Stop, and The Rumpus, and her short fiction was featured on Joyland. After growing up in Chicago and graduating from Oberlin College, she now lives in Los Angeles.

4 comments:

  1. Creepily (I feel outed!), I JUST posted on my blog about a series of tech failures this past weekend — this one focused on managing digital clutter and archives, but I’m sure just as irritating to the writer here.

    It’s a little like early-stage romance, I suppose — entrusting so much to a (electronic) being you don’t quite trust. I wonder if there is an age/generation pattern to these essays, i.e. I find that I am of the in-between generation: yes, my life completely depends on technology, but I am not quite youthful enough to have zippy mastery of all the gadgets and remedies.

  2. Ditto. My wifi messed up about 5 days ago and I realised just how addicted I am to this thing. Doesn’t even take a wire! Just a signal. All’s well today after fiddling with those cables. I blogged about it at:
    http://janwhitaker.com/jansblog/?p=107

    Not fun at all.

    And this wasn’t an attempt at advertising, just commiseration.

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