The internet is full of mischievous gnomes and runs on magic fairy dust

I just fired off that line to someone who I was assisting setting up a new email inbox on a cPanel environment. I first created the new email at a meeting, in person, and we were able to log in — so I sent the URL along and figured, that’s it! Done!

Isn’t that what we all hope with technology? To complete our task, be confident it is done, and then move on. But so many times, we are stymied by the mystery (ok, the complexity) of all the layers which make up our dense web of technology — the technosphere if you will, analogous to how the biosphere is the complex (and yes, still to this day mysterious!) dense web of life.

As it turned out, the person emailed me back shortly and said they couldn’t get in. They had typed in their own password, twice, so I knew it shouldn’t be a password issue. I thought, ah, maybe they didn’t know to enter the full email address as the username, so messaged them back. They responded a day later, saying it still didn’t work, lamenting the fact that “I must have entered the password incorrectly — twice!”. Note how mystery is beginning to enter the dialog. Doubt starts to creep in. Did I really forget that password? Did I really type it incorrectly twice?

So I reset their password and sent them the new one. And only then, as we are all guilty of doing in our hyper-speed times, did I start poking around. Such a simple task, so really shouldn’t be too much that could go wrong. But within 3 minutes, I had it figured out — there were actually two domains attached to the cPanel, a .com and a .org! I had inattentively created a .com address since that was the first option, but the only domain I knew about was the .org as that was the active website. None of us, of course, noticed the discrepancy when looking at the various screens, filling out the creation forms, etc. So 3 minutes later, I said “Aha! And oops.”. Mystery solved, I just created the correct email inbox, and here’s the password.

They responded a day later. “I haven’t been able to load the mail server since yesterday. The connection times out”. Hmm, a new mystery! Was it just a temporary server interruption? Was there a different URL for the inbox associated with the .org vs. the .com? Was the problem just on their end? PEBKAC even? I logged in to cPanel, and from the admin interface was able to “click in” to that email’s inbox automatically. So it is working? This time I logged out for good measure, and then entered the username and password to log back in. I also confirmed the URL was in fact the same URL that I had initially emailed. So I responded, “Well that’s annoying! I just went back in and confirmed I can access. Try again.”

They responded, “Works now! Weird”. Problem solved — but notice the mystery lingers in that final statement, “weird”. Now imagine this quite simple, 48 hour interaction x billions of people on the planet x dozens or hundreds of technology platform interactions per day, some working as expected, some not, some eventually resolved, but others lingering. Wherever the technology does not work as expected, the amount of doubt generated (if we were to measure and quantize it in the way the makers of tech love to do these days) would be staggering even on a daily basis. It all adds up to something we might fairly call mystery, doesn’t it?

Well it just goes to show the internet is full of mischievous gnomes and runs on some amount of magic fairy dust :)

Now I think there’s a lot more here to be teased out of this simple parable. I’m going to go ahead and publish this for now, considering it something I may come back to and develop further. I’d love to hear your own anecdotes about the mischievous gnomes of the internet and technology (increasingly one and the same), as well as your thoughts on this perspective, and what it means to allow for the fact that technology, much like life, remains mysterious despite the fact that it can often be explained.