Friday, 20 May 2016

A mark of our times: the password bane

Have you read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s brilliant, harrowing and entertaining account of his time in the International Brigades in Spain’s Civil War?

At one point, he talks about the tricky problem of passwords.

The difficult passwords which the army was using at this time were a minor source of danger. They were those tiresome double passwords in which one word has to be answered by another. Usually they were of an elevating and revolutionary nature, such as Cultura – progreso, or Seremos – invencibles, and it was often impossible to get illiterate sentries to remember these highfalutin’ words. One night, I remember, the password was Cataluña – heroica, and a moon-face peasant lad named Jaime Domenech approached me, greatly puzzled, and asked me to explain.

Heroica – what does heroica mean?’

I told him that it meant the same as 
valiente. A little while later he was stumbling up the trench in darkness, and the sentry challenged him:

’Alto! Cataluña!’

‘Valiente!’ yelled Jaime, certain that he was saying the right thing.


However, the sentry missed him. In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible.

Passwords are not quite so dangerous these days but, sadly, they are ubiquitous. Far from concerning only the military, they affect us all. And the worst of it is that we have so many. Every card has its own, doesn’t it? And don’t you dare forget it. Have you ever stood at a supermarket till, at the head of a long queue, racking your brain for that number you’d completely memorised and, naturally, never written down, while the display points out you’re on your third and last attempt and the other shoppers are all looking at you with undisguised disdain and impatience?

Nor is it just cards. You have PINs and code for every on-line service, computer, tablet and, of course, phone.

Mobile phones are a wonderfully convenient invention. Now people I don’t want to talk to can catch me more or less anywhere I go. I no longer have to wait to be home to be hassled by somebody trying to sell me insurance I don’t want.

It’s also wonderful that phones will even update their own operating systems, and even do it overnight if you like, so you don’t have to pay any attention to them while they do it.

Unfortunately, that’s when the password curse hits you.

Oh no! What a nightmare.
Because since the phone has restarted, it won’t accept your thumb print any more. So this time you have to remember a passcode you chose, an immensely memorable string of numbers which has now completely slipped your memory and which, naturally, you didn’t write down.

The birth and death year of some historical character you couldn’t forget? No, that was last time. The first eight figures of pi? No, that was the time before. The Avogadro constant? No, you have no idea what that even is.

So you end up staring at a screen that is entirely unmoved by your fury and exasperation but simply keeps dumbly demanding the same lost code. Appalling. Especially as you know there’s no way around it: there’s no one to ask, no help to solve the problem, no escaping the dilemma that you either remember the code eventually or you’re stuck.

It’s not as bad as in Homage to Catalonia, since nobody shoots at you, accurately or inaccurately. But if it’s not that bad, the mobile phone and its humble passcode still provide one of the great banes of our lives today.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Excellent article !
Lucky me, I remembered my Google password to praise this essay...