It was the night before Facebook went public. I woke up in the middle of a nightmare, unable to pet my dog. In my dream I sauntered out of my bedroom, just as I usually do, bent down to stroke the chin of my furry friend, and instead of excitedly pawing the air with his forelegs, as he usually does, he gave me that look that says “please enter your password.”
I was confused, because all his life that look has meant “do either of your hands contain anything remotely edible?” Password?
Of course, I could not remember the password. I looked around the room and saw that my surroundings—my desk, the fireplace, the pile of gym clothes on the floor—were exactly as they had been left the night before. Yet I began to fear that I had slept for a very long time, and that I had missed the chapter of human history in which a password was required for doing absolutely everything.
When I had gone to sleep, passwords were required in the virtual world, but my dog—he was real. When I fell asleep it was still the case that the best things in life were free, but apparently that trite truism had been superseded, and no one had sent me an email, or perhaps they had sent it to the wrong account, the one that I can no longer access because, alas, I have lost the password.
Then he gave me that doggie look that says, “forgot password?” Good dog. I had never seen that look on him before. Even coming from such a kind face, the question still sounded like it does on every other site. It’s a polite way of asking, “Are you an idiot?”
I nodded in assent, and in return he gave me that look that says “click here.” When I clicked I was asked a trick question: What is your pet’s name?
Now my pooch is not the most clever dog on earth, but he is smart enough to know his name. This must be part of his new role in the canine cybersphere. When I gave the correct answer he responded with a look that told me that a link to reset my password had been sent to the email account which I had used when I first set up my account for petting the dog.
It could have been smooth sailing from there on out, if only I could remember which account that might have been. In the dim morning light I could make out on my dog’s face that look that says “Forgot User Name?” which of course we all know translates into “just how big an idiot are you?”
Well, I am the user of this animal, and I know my name, but that does not mean I know my user name. Far from it. Maybe, I thought, still hoping to find a work-around that would allow me to pet the damn dog, make some coffee and get in the shower, maybe I should scrap this and just set up a whole new account. I gave that a try, but received an error message. “The dog you are attempting to pet already has an account under that name.” It appeared that I was headed for a very long day, until my wife appeared at the door behind me.
“You’re not going to ask me for a password, are you?” I asked, sounding forlorn.
“Not if you put on the coffee and stop talking to yourself.”
That must have broken the spell, because the next thing I noticed was that the dog, no longer password-protected, was sniffing at my hand and leaning against my leg. I was never so relieved to get slobbered upon in my life.
Now I understand that there are valid uses for passwords. For example, if you work for a hedge fund at JP Morgan Chase and you want to bet $3 billion of someone else’s money on something foolish, you probably should be required to enter a password.
Recently I was reading a book about African American sharecroppers organizing a tenant farmers’ union in the Mississippi Delta. When those poor brave souls met in the darkness of a rural church, no candles lit for fear of alerting the Ku Klux Klan to their whereabouts, each member whispered the password as they entered, so all would know they had not been infiltrated.
About 2,000 years ago the early Christians used to draw the shape of a fish on the ground as a password of sorts, to let fellow believers, fearful of Roman persecution, know that they were among friends, and safe. You’ve seen those fish on bumper stickers. Every once in a while I’ll be at a red light and see one of those bumper stickers with the word “Christ” written in the fish. This, of course, defeats the whole purpose of the password, and I think to myself that in a less forgiving world, that would be one Subaru full of lion food.
Passwords have become ubiquitous today, guarding not just our bank accounts and medical files, but blocking the ever-curious mobs from gaining access to our dating histories, porn-surfing predilections and our top secret Net-flix queue. It is one of the great contradictions of our age that we have hordes of people competing to expose themselves on an ever-expanding array of tawdry reality shows, we have people posting every thought and bodily movement on Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild, and at the same time we have allowed the cyber-geniuses to set up elaborate systems that mostly seem to serve to keep people like me from accessing our own stuff.
There. I said it. Having said that, it’s time to get a cup of coffee, and pet the dog.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.