Burning in cyber hell? The last thing you need is Help

Thomas Sutcliffe on home computing
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The Independent Online
I bought a new home computer the other day, finally responding to a growing sensation - like the pressure on one's eardrums in an ascending aircraft - that the conditions of life were changing in some fundamental way. I pretended it was for the children, naturally. They have such marvellous educational software these days... all linked in to the national curriculum, you know... quite unforgivable to bring them up as cyber-bumpkins... they are, after all, citizens of the new information order.

Unfortunately my children are not yet quite old enough to get the machine up and running, which means that I have spent the past three or four weeks in the purgatorial wasteland of Setup - an infernal region of lost souls, beating their bare breasts with computer manuals and cruelly tormented by the digital imps of this alternative universe.

What comes to mind most frequently is Dr Johnson's famous rebuke to Lord Chesterfield, who had snubbed him in the early days of his work on the dictionary but became fulsome on the eve of publication, perhaps hoping that the work would be dedicated to him. Johnson sent him a letter, weighing up with icy precision the exact balance of his indebtedness. "Is not a Patron, my Lord", he wrote, "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?"

I don't think I had ever really understood the full burden of rage in those last four words until I encountered "Help", the feature on almost every software programme to which you turn for assistance when the water is lapping at your chin and a sob is gathering in your sternum. Frankly Dr Johnson had it easy - it suited him to craft that final remark as a paradox, but what Lord Chesterfield had so belatedly done was not, in truth, an encumbrance. "Help", on the other hand, often feels as if it is actively malevolent - an act of secret revenge on the part of software programmers who were teased at school.

The most common experience is to be taken on a great loop of explanation which returns you, enervated by hope, to the precise point at which you began. You have advanced not a step but you have wasted a quarter of an hour doing it. (It is a peculiar feature of computers that you need awesome amounts of free time to take advantage of their time-saving features.)

The ultimate expression of this Iago-like solicitude is the Office Assistant, a small animated sprite that forms part of Microsoft's latest word processing package. The Office Assistant is a kind of pixellated genie which springs up, not when you ask for help but when it thinks you need it. When you genuinely need it, on the other hand, it turns dumb and repetitive. It is difficult to convey how infuriating this is; and the offence is aggravated by the perky impudence of the animated figure that appears on your screen - in my case a cartoon paperclip with hooded eyes and eyebrows which it arches occasionally in what I take to be amused contempt at my incompetence. Sometimes it actually winks - usually the cue for me to get up from the desk and walk around until I stop hyperventilating. What I most want to do with the Office Assistant is punch it in the face until it understands that it must never appear again, but when I type an enquiry about how I might do this it simply ignores it. Now I know, of course, that there must be some way of disabling this uniquely repulsive device but to find out what it is I would have to descend to an even deeper circle of the inferno - the customer help-line.

I don't want to dismiss these out of hand - on several occasions recently the fraying thread of my sanity has been preserved by some disembodied voice which calmly explained the arcane secrets of a particular piece of software. But Johnson's "encumbers with help" is pertinent here, too. Before summoning what is laughably called "support" you have to prepare yourself well - a full range of identifying serial numbers (including mother's birthdate and maiden name), pencil and paper, thermos flask of coffee and survival rations. You also need vast reserves of patience, a commodity which is by definition almost exhausted, because if it wasn't you wouldn't voluntarily be exposing yourself to this torment.

You brace yourself and ring. A computerised voice informs you that you will be connected as soon as possible and that the company has won many awards for the quality of its after-sales care. A real person comes on the line but you only make it half-way through your wail of distress before you are switched back to music again. Ten minutes pass.

A voice comes on the line but your moan of relief is brutally cut off by the realisation that this is another recording; two employees have been made to act out an unconvinced dialogue about the depth of the company's commitment to its customers and the extraordinary range of its services ("If you get put through to Finn", one says with exquisite cruelty, "don't forget to congratulate him on being named employee of the month." All you hear is that ominous "if".)

Van Morrison returns. Another recorded voice gives a telephone number where you can leave your comments about the support services. You wonder at the penalties for obscene telephone calls. Then, just as you are about to beat the handset on the edge of your desk until it is a flail of wires and shattered plastic, a human turns up. He can't answer your question and cordially sends you back to the switchboard where the whole thing starts again.

There's no alternative to this, of course, barring the employment of a personal computer expert. But somehow the affliction of using these services wouldn't be as great if they didn't add benign mendacity to their aggravations; if, in other words, they were called anything but "Help".