Blind update

I was staring at a computer screen, as usual. But instead of a mess of half-read and half-written articles the screen was displaying graphic representations of my wife's labour pains and our soon-to-be born baby's heartbeat. And not just to me: this being a Swedish hospital, the computer was hooked up to a network where these vital signs could be monitored by a whole team of midwives and obstetricians.

Exhilarating, diverting and occasionally useful. I love computer technology.

The feeling's hardly mutual, though. For according to the computer itself, its business of reporting my small family's vital signs was a merely incidental affair. It soon transpired that Microsoft Windows had actually been getting on with the much more pressing business of installing some "very important" security updates. These now successfully installed, the computer would soon be restarting. In 30 seconds. OK? Help!

As luck would have it our midwife came back at that moment and unplugged the monitors because everything was in any case, according to Swedish idiom, "giant well". But where does Windows get off thinking a software update – which probably only consisted of a patch to verify the licences on the computer – is more important than reporting on my health of my family?

I have long suspected that computers are primarily designed for the amusement of those who programme them rather than for the convenience of we who use them. I've lost count of the times my machine's desire to keep up with the latest fashions in software patches has prevented me doing what I want do with it, either by slowing everything down to the speed of glue, or by simply switching itself off for whatever is the silicon equivalent of a Kit Kat. I don't even know why I call it "my" computer anymore.

For some reason we simply accept this situation, doormat-like, as if we didn't have anything better to do with our time. But what if computer programmers designed cars? The road system would be grid-locked with vehicles that have simply stopped because they want to adjust the rear windscreen-wiper or recalibrate the climate control. Instead of telling you where to go, road signs would be crammed full of the same meaningless advice, all ending with "Ctrl-Alt-Delete".

Worst of all, when Ctrl-Alt-Delete failed to work, you'd have to call for roadside assistance. They might fix the car for you but they'd certainly have no qualms about deleting your passengers. "What, you didn't have them backed up?" I've never met an IT support engineer who didn't view the contents of my computer as an unsightly inconvenience, to be erased at all costs in the interests of the proper functioning of the machine.

All this might not matter but for the fact that it has become usual to use computers as metaphors for the human brain. It is axiomatic to cognitive scientists that the brain be thought of in terms of "hardware", "software", "applications", "multi-tasking"; the phrase "hard-wired" has become so embedded in everyday usage that apparently we must be hard-wired to parrot it all day long.

I don't know how many of you have been to see a shrink, but one of the most comforting things about them is that they tend to be so ineffectual. Imagine, though, when the self-fulfilling brain computer prophecy is complete. They'll have no trouble fixing us, of course – but what, you mean to say you didn't have it backed up?

Anyway, we had a baby girl. She's the most beautiful thing in the world. But then I suppose I'd have faulty wiring if I didn't think that.

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