October 14, 2008, 3:45 PM —
People who work in IT have a certain reputation for being logical, rational, and unswayed by the mysterious or supernatural. Many techies would like the outside world to see their fraternity as a band of Mr. Spocks, solving problems with the same dispassionate logic that drives the machines and networks that they tend.
But if that's so, why is there another strand in computer lore, with oft-retold tales of voodoo-powered rubber chickens that can fix a PDP-11, or of magic switches that could crash a computer in defiance of physical laws?
Naomi Kritzer, a sci-fi and fantasy author who's had a chance to observe techies in their native environment, says, "I would love to see someone write a book about animism among computer professionals, because despite the fact that they're supposed to be the dispassionate logical people, they all believe that the computer has a consciousness -- a malevolent consciousness that is doubtless out to get them." And so, to get ready for Halloween, let's examine the superstitions and irrational beliefs that lurk beneath the surface of our seemingly rationalist industry.
From folk magic to the occult
Some IT superstitions are, well, pretty much the same superstitions held by everyone else. "I seem to do a lot of knocking on wood," says Jeffrey Powers of Geekazine.com. "I suppose it's because my desk is made of wood." Reed Carpenter, a software tester for Canon at Microsoft, has a close and somewhat more IT-focused variation: "When I have a system meltdown (bluescreen, etc.) and have to reboot, I always tap my mouse on the desk three times."
Those seem low-impact enough, but some get deeper into atypical analysis. George Nemeth, a service management specialist at Opitem, is in tune with astrology, keeping a particular eye out for Mercury retrograde. "Just before this astrological phenomenon happens, I start getting calls from people with Website and email problems. It's uncanny!" He never really followed astrology much, he said, but "my fiancee pointed out how much busier I got around Mercury retrograde. It became a joke between my co-worker and I on a weekly email newsletter I used to do. Things tended to go awry for no good reason."
When it comes to other systems of belief, techies are willing to go pretty far afield if they're desperate. Michael Robinson says, "Some years ago I directed a small team developing a frame grabber -- a board that would digitize a video signal from a television camera and place it in computer memory. For some reason we just could not get it to work properly. I promised the group I would bring in a demon to help us find the problem."