It wasn’t late that Thursday night when the lights in my house started dancing. I was home alone, just about to finish work and start making dinner, when the lights suddenly turned on. Then they flicked off and on again, cycling from red to green to a cold, harsh blue.
Listen to more tales of spooky technology
This article was inspired by a BBC Radio 4 episode of Digital Human, which is available as a podcast from Monday 31 October. Aleks Krotoski leads an exploration of the ways our machines can haunt us, from video game players experiencing Game Transfer Phenomenon to smart homes going haywire.
Now, I don’t believe in ghosts. But I am particularly susceptible to a good ghost story. I have a terrible fear of the dark that is in stark contrast to my otherwise rational, empirical beliefs. And I can’t help but feel the icy bolt of my autonomic nervous system kicking into action when I think I’m being threatened by the supernatural.
I blame a misspent youth watching psychological thrillers about creatures terrorising sweet young things in their dreams. I also blame a step-brother who was almost as playfully sadistic as the monsters in the films. Not long after Nightmare on Elm Street had come out on VHS, John used his new Walkman to record a bit of Freddy Krueger off the TV. He set up a timer on the tape player, slipped it under my bed with the volume on high, and waited for my 2am wake-up call from the demon himself. John never channeled the occult – to my knowledge – but he liberally applied technology to make it seem like he had.
I didn’t sleep for a week. John was grounded for longer than that.
That same year, Electric Dreams arrived in cinemas. It featured a schlocky love triangle that pitted man against machine for the affections of the woman who lived upstairs. Apart from the magnificent title song that haunts me to this day, what I still find compelling about this otherwise forgettable movie is how much of a period piece it is: Electric Dreams tapped into the uncertainty people felt at the time about what it meant to invite computers into their homes.
John never channeled the occult but he liberally applied technology to make it seem like he had
PCs were the new, weird boxes that everyone was talking about but few people actually understood – and yet we installed them in our private and personal domestic spaces. We trusted our friends, our families and the man on the television that this new thing should be in our lives. No need to know how it works! It brought convenience and seamless living – as we’re told today’s devices do now.
But when computers do things we didn’t expect it’s only natural that we would ask why. “That simple question is so revealing of so many of the problems we have in our relationship with technology,” says Tobias Revel of Haunted Machines, a project exploring stories of myths and magic around technology. “We at once express our lack of technical understanding for how the thing works, but we also put agency and responsibility into the thing. We assume that the thing is somehow responsible for the misfortune you are now experiencing.”
We imply that they know what they’re doing – that they have a preternatural life within them. In short, that they’re possessed: there’s a ghost in the machine. “We expect inanimate objects to remain inanimate,” says Revel. “When they deny what we have mentally constructed as the bounds of that object, that’s when things appear to be haunted.”
We aren’t the first to let ourselves believe that artefacts can be taken over. In 10th century Japan, man-made things were thought to gain spirit once they had been used for 100 years. If the owners had mistreated them, the objects would malevolently haunt them. More recently, the telephone, radio and television entered common use as spiritualism was gaining ground and we wondered what else was being pulled into these boxes that extracted voices out of the air. Spirit guides would connect clients with Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Graham Bell, as well as hosts of relatives who’d already gone to the great telephone exchange in the sky.
“The root of the supernatural and haunting is that there’s no apparent connection between cause and effect,” says Revel. The ghostly images in our television sets as we struggled to tune them, and the computers that say “no” when we know they should say “yes” are tiny little curiosities that interrupt the way we expect the world to be.
It comes down to trust. If a person said one thing and did another, we’d stop believing in them. And if the thing they did was spin their head around in a way that was contrary to the laws of physiology, we’d say there was a haunting going on. If our machines say they’re going to do one thing, but do another, we’re likely to stop trusting them.
But the machines are not under their own control – they don’t have agency – so we really need to look more closely at who’s possessing these objects. When televisions entered our homes, people were worried that they would watch us after we turned off the lights. Now, technology companies have created devices to do just that.
We are increasingly inviting “smart” objects in without truly understanding what’s in their - literal and figurative - black boxes. Because they’re internet-enabled, they’re ripe for possession. “In our rush to put a chip in everything, we’re putting them into a system that’s frail and fragile, and that’s proven to be abused by malevolent individuals,” says Revel. As science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke put it, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Revel offers a twist: “Any sufficiently advanced hacking is indistinguishable from haunting.”
Any sufficiently advanced hacking is indistinguishable from haunting - Tobias Revel
“If a smart home starts to go wrong, that becomes very sinister and dangerous,” he adds. We rely on them to survive.
The night my lights took on a life of their own I sat on the sofa, paralysed with fear. There was no one else in the house except for the cat and the dog. My husband had left a few hours earlier on a work trip. With Ben flying to Norway, my psychological backup was 35,000 feet up.
Ben’s job is to test the future before anyone else has to, so our home is populated by smart devices: a NEST fire alarm that senses smoke and converse with our phones, a robotic hoover that does the dirty work when we’re out of the house, a computer on the wall that automatically turns on when the house’s Skype account is called, several voice-activated machines that connect to the web, and lights that … wait a minute!
My phone pinged. “How’re the lights?” Ben asked. I paused. They continued to flash and change hue. The realisation slowly dawned.
“Disco Party here,” I wrote.
“It works!” he replied.
Ben was manipulating the internet-enabled devices in our house, messing with my personal space from the sky. And with that, the sheet was pulled off the ghost in the machine.
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