USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘computer’
Folk speech
Narrative

Bugs

In programming, a bug is unintentional/unwanted behavior of a program or algorithm.

The story goes that back when computers were being developed in the 1940’s, computers occupied huge, refrigerated rooms. One day while one of these computers was running, it began to behave sporadically. Perplexed, the engineers began going through all of the hardware to see if they could find a problem. They searched for hours until eventually, they found a bug had been stuck in one of the cable jacks. After removing the bug the computer behaved normally. Ever since, these sporadic errors have been called bugs, and the process of removing them has been called debugging.

 

Its interesting to note that this process has transferred from its supposed origins as a piece of hardware terminology and is now used primarily for problems with software. My informant also told me that there is some controversy over the origin of this story, however despite this he still strongly believes that this is the true version of the tale. He does not recall where he first heard this story, but I have also been told this exact narrative by my father when I first started studying computer science.

Narrative

Occupational FOAF Stories

When the informant worked in a tech support job at the University of Southern California, she heard the two following occupational FOAF stories about ridiculous problems customers had called in to friends of her fellow workers:

The most common story the informant heard was that of the worker who complains, “I broke my cup holder,” not knowing that the so-called “cup holder” is in fact the CD drive on his CPU. The other oft-retold IT question she heard was, “Where’s the ‘any’ key.” This question relates to a common program prompt: “When a program says, ‘Press any key to continue, uh, some individuals—they may not have a full grasp of the English language or of a computer—are looking for an actual key on the keyboard that says, ‘Any key,’ as opposed to just pressing any key on the keyboard.”

The informant considered these two stories to be pure invention until she later encountered them herself as an IT manager: “At first I thought that it was, you know, just kind of a joking thing—ha, that’s funny, who, who would ever actually ask that?—but I did encounter it twice . . . somebody put a cup in the CD drive and the CD drive is not built to hold cups with liquid in it. And it broke.” She recalls her response to the first time she got the “cup holder” question: “I tried to be very—I’m sure I was—maybe chuckled a little bit? But I try to be very professional in my response, saying that’s not a cup holder and that the person had broken their computer and would need to get it repaired.” As for the “any key” question, she now calls it “something that is commonly encountered . . . I’m not kidding.”

Like her former co-workers, the informant now brings out these stories to share with other tech support workers: “I would tell it—I’m sure I would do it in a way if we were doing, uh, pretty much like battle stories from a war . . . but from the front lines of tech support.”

Since the computer problems in these stories actually happen, it is likely that the stories themselves have a polygenetic source—multiple users who have probably never seen anyone else use the CD drive as a cup holder do so of their own accord. Folklore about the personal computer, of course, has a terminus post quem of its invention; tech support for personal computers is a relatively new concept and thus the occupational folklore associated with its practitioners must of necessity also be rather new. However, these two stories do seem to be widespread, appearing in user manuals, technical textbooks, and even fiction books, as a passage from a short story by Carson W. Bryan demonstrates (71).

Source: Bryan, Carson W. Let’s Find Out. New York: Xulon Press, 2010.

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