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.

The Blue Screen of Death may look like a delinquent spray-painting hex-code curse words onto your computer screen, and it may even have started out that way. But there’s another way to understand Blue: as the responsible overseer trying to wrangle so many unwieldy hardware and software systems that don’t always play nicely with one another—the Thin Blue Line of personal computing.

Then in 2012, the Blue Screen got a face-lift. “Your PC ran into a problem that it couldn’t handle, and now it needs to restart,” reads the new Windows 8 Blue Screen of Death. Blue’s updated look even offers a more succinct way to diagnose what’s wrong, asking you to look up a problem with a user-friendly name like “Disk Error” instead of the previous, “STOP 0x0000008E.” Blue is softer now, both in hue and tenor, and it even attempts sympathy with a :( sad face.

But why bother giving the Blue Screen of Death a face? It’s hard to imagine a world where any error screen, no-matter how friendly or well designed, would be met with anything but ire and resentment. Maybe Microsoft hopes that it’s harder to hate something when it has even the most rudimentary of faces—a tacit admission of the success of Apple’s twenty-five year program of hiding technical defects with humanizing iconography. Or maybe by giving the scapegoat virtual features, Windows 8 allows for a more effectively detestable target of our anger. By closing the gap between the exasperated human and the malfunctioning computer, Blue sacrifices itself on behalf of our frustration. Despite the new veneer, the Blue Screen will always be the bearer of bad news.

Wikimedia

This is a story about misunderstandings and reconciliation, about a hero working against our immediate desires in order to preserve the system as a whole. Not just the PC’s system, but everything it makes possible: the working relationship between you and your cyber-organized life. Blue is just the go-between, the messenger. And as with all bearer’s of bad news, it’s easy to blame the messenger. Blue is indifferent, offering little recourse save a reboot. Perhaps its time to forgive poor Blue. If we could put aside our stigmas and appreciate these error messages for what they are, we might then be in a position to learn something that the Blue Screen of the Death has known for a long time: just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean we aren’t part of it.

Many systems are so complex and so markedly different from ourselves that we can’t interact with them directly—we need interpreters. Think about climate change, for example. My body isn’t an accurate detector of specific carbon levels in the atmosphere, but I can understand the phenomenon when I see melting icecaps or when my home is threatened by rising ocean levels. These observations act as messengers, as feedback. They clue me into things that I can’t see but of which I am nevertheless a part. No matter how much I hate to look, seeing those pictures of a sad polar bear adrift a skimpy ice floe reminds me that I hold membership in a larger ecosystem.

The Blue Screen helps reconcile another such divorce between reality and our idea of it. Blue understands that we are preoccupied with the small portion of the computer we can see and touch. It even knows that without us, it’s own world inside the PC would collapse. Ultimately, that’s why Blue’s job is so hard. The Blue Screen of Death has to convince us of the severity of problems we cannot see, but that only we can fix. It reminds us, if only in the abstract, that we are responsible for much more than we think.

Big networks aren’t just pervasive, they are also invasive. Think about all of the ways that your body can tell you that you’re sick. Unpleasant though it may be, a fever is a warning. It translates messages from your white blood cells, trying to keep the whole system from just shutting down forever. Blue is like a fever, and likewise misunderstood. Both fall into that category of objects that protect us from chaos, but cannot themselves be protected from our blame.

We condemn the Blue Screen because condemnation is easier and more convenient than admitting we humans intersect with systems so complex that we need help understanding them. But people don’t like being reminded that we can’t comprehend our world fully, and so we scorn the signals that would give us reason to see it anew. The Blue Screen of Death is a cavalier we’ve mistaken for a pariah. Sometimes the easiest targets of our anger are the least deserving of our CTRL+ALT+DEL.

 


An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things
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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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