Sympathy for the Blue Screen of Death

It is but the messenger, like a fever, an Object Lesson
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It’s the late ‘90s and something’s wrong. You can’t put your finger on it, but you know, deep down, it’s just not working anymore. Instant Messenger isn’t loading or Napster just crashed. Your computer hangs there, motionless. There might be a guttural ‘thunk’ from your hard drive or, even more terrifying, nothing at all. Then, with no sense of decorum, it arrives: the single horseman of the PC apocalypse, the Blue Screen of Death. Press CTRL+ALT+DEL again to restart your computer. You will lose any unsaved information in all applications. Press any key to continue.

The Blue Screen of Death first appeared in the very early 1990s as a feature of the Windows 3.0 operating system. This error message, which locks users out of the system, is typically summoned by driver glitches or when the software and hardware have trouble communicating. It’s your PC’s way of saying, “Look, I know you can’t see it, but I’m really having a bad time here”—just before a shutdown. If you’ve ever met Blue, you probably hate it. You lost that big paper in college, your music collection went out the window, or maybe something even worse. You sat there, by the dim light of your rebooting system, cursing your luck and the color blue all in one breath.

The biggest misconception about Microsoft’s Blue Screen is that it is itself a glitch or a failure. The truth is that it’s neither. In fact, it is just the opposite: the Blue Screen of Death is a knight we’ve mistaken for a rogue. It’s designed to tell you that a problem has occurred and in so doing to keeps the real errors from spreading. It’s the neighborhood watch that sees a fire and calls 911. It’s a whistle-blower, a concerned citizen. The Blue Screen, as we now know it, is just trying to watch our backs.

There was a time, however, when the Blue Screen of Death wasn’t so civic-minded, when our anger towards it was a little more justified. The Blue Screen with which we are now familiar is actually a remake, an homage to an enigmatic message that occurred when the very first institutions of personal computing were being developed.

By one account, Lattice Inc., a component developer for an early version of the Windows operating system, first documented an insidious blue error screen that would occasionally interrupt their progress. When alerting IBM about this bug, the developers at Lattice reportedly referred to the event as the Blue Screen of Death—a subtle dig at the blue branding of IBM itself. After Windows 2.0 entered the marketplace users began to make similar reports. In the wild, a whole bestiary of error screens even became legend. Beta versions of Windows carried the occasional Red Screen of Death, while Microsoft’s Disk Operating System had a void-like Black Screen which featured an impotent, blinking cursor. All of these outcomes required a reboot at the very least to rectify. Before too long, Microsoft stepped in.

Most bugs can be addressed, remedied, or mitigated, their damage minimized and their effects forgotten. But the complexity of an operating system mated to a variety of different hardware components makes it impossible to account for all possible defects in advance. Microsoft had different plans for these cases: rather than hiding the errors, it would promote them.

What began as an unsanctioned glitch eventually became an official part of the operating system, fully integrated before Windows 3 launched. According to the Microsoft Developer’s Center, “When Microsoft Windows encounters a condition that compromises safe system operation, the system halts. This condition is called a bug check. It is also commonly referred to as a system crash, a kernel error, or a Stop error.” Next comes a series of characters on a blue screen, which allows a technician to look up what errors have occurred and address the problem. “The hexadecimal number following the word ‘STOP’ is called the bug check code or Stop code. This is the most important item on the screen.”

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Basically, Blue has two main jobs. First, it reports a halt to processes going on inside your computer. If your motherboard is overheating, the Blue Screen of Death lets you know. This prevents actual, irreparable, physical damage from occurring. Second, Blue reports what it thinks caused the problem by displaying an error message that the human user can look up. It’s a simple gig: observe and report. But while the job might be simple, it is widely misunderstood.

Despite what those friendly “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercials would have us believe, computers are immensely complex systems. There’s a whole world of interdependencies and functional language that must be called into service every time you want to play Angry Birds. It’s a world that you can’t see and couldn’t interact with even if it were visible. Hidden behind your desktop wallpaper is a universe of hardware and software subsystems that do your work. They decompress your videos, upload your pictures, and render the visible elements of your interface. There are so many of them, in fact, that occasionally on-the-job accidents occur. Such accidents are even more likely—and potentially more impactful—in the anything-goes ecosystem of WinTel personal computing, where manufacturers and users could mate a variety of different hardware and software together in a manner neither Microsoft nor Intel could ever have foreseen.

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Evan Meaney is an assistant professor of new media and gaming at the University of South Carolina. His work concerns ghosts, glitches, and the computationally undead. 

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