Computers and conspiracies

Computers and conspiracy theories - a few fun stories

Conspiracy theory: a theory that powerful people have a secret plot for some malevolent goal, or that some event is the result of such a secret plot.

The age of conspiracies

We live in the age of information. That means we also live in the age of disinformation, where fake news is real. Add Covid, and you've probably argued with someone recently about a conspiracy theory.

I have regular Zoom chats with an old friend in North America. We've agreed to disagree on some topics. But I was unhappy to find out she believes in a (non-Covid) theory that I believe is absurd.

This is sensitive stuff. So I'm not going to share the theory, in case you unfriend me. But, just for fun, I will share a few old tech conspiracy theories. I picked one true theory, one silly theory, and one that you can decide on. And I hope we'll still be friends.

True: Microsoft and the art of FUD

"FUD" refers to "fear, uncertainty and doubt". It's a propaganda tactic used in politics, cults and marketing. IBM used enough FUD for the term to become associated with technology.

In the 1990s, Microsoft was the leader in the personal computer industry. Competitors accused Microsoft of sleazy tactics to get and maintain this position. Despite denials, many of these accusations turned out to be true.

First there was the false error message. Microsoft included code in beta versions of Windows 3.1 to generate fake error messages. The purpose: to scare users of a competitor's product into buying Microsoft's product. That led to a very expensive lawsuit.

Next came the Halloween documents - internal memos leaked in October 1998. They described the threat of open-source software, and the planned tactics to fight it.

I'm not surprised when these kinds of theories turn out to be real. We humans are a greedy bunch.

False: Wingdings secret messages

You know Wingdings - it's that weird font with little pictures. It was developed in 1990, and has been the star of its own conspiracy theory.

When you type "NYC" in the Wingdings font, it displays a skull and crossbones, a Star of David, and a thumbs-up icon. The theory claims that this is an encoded anti-Semitic message. (There is a later version that claims a hidden Wingdings message about the 9/11 attack.)

This theory was so annoying that Microsoft took care with the later Webdings font. In Webdings, "NYC" displays the images of an eye, a heart and a city skyline - the message "I love New York".

With 255 characters, it's easy to find a word and claim the sequence of glyphs has a sinister meaning. It's like those Rorschach tests where the patient must interpret the ink blot on the paper. What would be the point of these messages?

And who has the time to play with Wingdings and think this stuff up?

Probable: Planned product obsolescence

This is when a product is designed from the beginning to become obsolete, so that you have to buy a replacement. It's not the same as perceived obsolescence, when we want the new version just because it is new.

Computers keep increasing in power. But that doesn't mean you need a more powerful computer. (Sorry, Charles and Renier.) Unless, of course, the software no longer runs on the old computer. Is that software change necessary, or a way to force an upgrade?

I have two old iOS devices that still work fine - except that there's no software to run on them anymore. Hmmm. I'm inclined to believe that's deliberate.

Any tech conspiracy theories you want to share? 

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