My journey into the heart of darkness

Two hours after I started looking for a new computer, I was standing in a shop, bellowing like an angry bull
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The Independent Online

It was a momentous and, in many ways, painful decision. We had been together over five years. There had been some bad times, a few misunderstandings along the line, but mostly we had been there for each other. In fact, the rougher life on the outside has been, the greater comfort our relationship offered. Like many writers, I have become unhealthily close to my computer. Over time, this little plastic box has begun to seem more than just a record of all my work, a memory more reliable than the real one. It feels like a sort of extension of me, an outer soul. Laptop: even the name sounds intimate.

It was a momentous and, in many ways, painful decision. We had been together over five years. There had been some bad times, a few misunderstandings along the line, but mostly we had been there for each other. In fact, the rougher life on the outside has been, the greater comfort our relationship offered. Like many writers, I have become unhealthily close to my computer. Over time, this little plastic box has begun to seem more than just a record of all my work, a memory more reliable than the real one. It feels like a sort of extension of me, an outer soul. Laptop: even the name sounds intimate.

Sophisticated computer types upgrade regularly, but I have resisted change, finding reassurance in my laptop's little habits. Like me, it sometimes needs to have a lengthy think before it commits, goes through an uncertain, throat-clearing process before moving to the next stage. Sometimes, again like its owner, it simply finds the speed and pressure of life too much, figuratively throws up its hands and closes down. When in a really bad mood, it has an unattractive habit of hysterical over- exaggeration, claiming that a "permanent fatal error" has occurred when the truth is, it is simply in a bad mood.

Unfortunately, its fallibility has become more pronounced of late. It has begun to show signs of succumbing to a real permanent fatal error – one which will wipe out my past and, more seriously, my present. They say its brain is too small, that its memory is inadequate for the complexity of modern things. I understood how it felt, but I had to find a new soul.

Upgrading is a personal and painful business. The first time I moved beyond simple word-processing, I turned to a fellow writer who had a computer business. As he set me up, he would make snippy, uncharitable remarks about my books, content in the knowledge that, for the moment at least, he had complete power over me.

My present machine was bought from one of those huge computer warehouses where the staff were hopeless and the prices high. This time, I decided that I was worldly and grown up enough to enter the heart of darkness where the hottest computer deals in London are made, Tottenham Court Road.

Only someone who has roamed the half mile or so north of Oxford Street, where a bewildering variety of state-of-the-art, high-tech equipment is available, can appreciate the full terror and hellishness of the experience. The products are there in all their dazzling variety but, because this is essentially a market place, prices differ wildly. The smart way to shop is to find what you want, look around for the cheapest price and return with the evidence. Hundreds of pounds can be knocked off a price with a shrug of the shoulder.

I had bought a television here but nothing prepared me for what happened when, with my old computer over my shoulder, I went looking for a laptop.

Generally speaking, there are two basic modes of selling: the Moroccan (full-on and aggressive) and the British (weary and faintly contemptuous). Those who work on Tottenham Court Road seem to combine the worst of the two methods. Technology is used to confuse rather than enlighten, so that the basic sales technique is to embarrass and bully the customer into buying something with the minimum effort on the salesperson's part.

Of course, I was in a vulnerable state, about to trade in my old soul for a new one, but on the whole I was pleased to be spending money, to be getting an entirely new memory and to be generally speeding up my life. The fact that, two hours after I started looking for a new computer, I was standing in the middle of a shop bellowing like an enraged bull – not something I can recall ever doing before – is still something of mystery.

It is best to gloss over the events of that afternoon. Suffice to say, in the first shop I visited, I was saved from making a disastrous purchase by a fellow customer, a graduate trainee journalist, who happened to overhear the salesman's patter. "That's not actually true, is it?" he said mildly, and then pointed out that the facility I wanted need not be bought separately, as was being proposed, but was sold as part of other models. Moodily, the salesman agreed. Thank you, Ed Howker.

Elsewhere, I discovered that, while salespeople can talk technological cobblers in their bored monotones, any relatively simple question – how to transfer a dictionary from your old computer to the new one – will get a shrugged "I'm not a technician". I found that there is a sort of casual inefficiency, an attitude towards customers that amounts to contempt. Maybe that is what happens when you deal in other people's souls.

I am writing this on my old friend while the glistening new thing sits in the corner. Our relationship has not started well.

terblacker@aol.com

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