A very geeky Christmas

Fixing the family computer is all part of the festive fun

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and all around the country geeks are packing USB keys full of diagnostic tools and free software to take home to their loved ones in preparation for the great debugging season. For some, it may be a convenient excuse to get out of doing the washing up. But for many, being plunged into the family's home-tech problems before the flames atop the Christmas pudding have even gone out is an unwelcome return to the world of work at the height of the holiday period. And that's if they're not carrying a pager letting them know the processor cycles of their servers back at the office. Time and Trojans wait for no man.

In the office that I share with around a hundred programmers and systems administrators, I am treated to a daily array of geek T-shirt slogans, my favourite of which is the simple, but punchy "No, I will not fix your computer". The mantra of the tech-support office in The IT Crowd is similarly direct: "Have you tried switching it off and on again?" Disdain for the lay computer user and the trouble he can cause a helpful geek through inattentive or uneducated use of his machine is summarised in the acronym Pebkac, as in: "Ah, I think I have identified the problem - it appears to be a Pebkac issue." The grateful layman will be so relieved that he won't think to ask what a Pebkac issue is: the moniker stands for "Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair".

What to do if all you want is to sit through It's a Wonderful Life uninterrupted? The bold geek may be tempted to claim he has been infected with the ILOVEYOU virus, and is under medical advice not to go near a PC for four weeks or risk communication of the disease. My in-house tech support has a novel strategy for dealing with requests for guidance from my friends and relatives - he offers free support for life, so long as the lay user agrees to ditch his old operating system in favour of the open-source Linux. That usually sends them to the PC World help desk come Boxing Day.

Dealing with the family's ailments is something that doctors have had to put up with for decades, regardless of whether they'd prefer not to hear about Great-Uncle Max's bunions directly after dessert. But for many a geek, being asked to fix an aged instal of Windows ME with no firewall, no anti-virus software and at least one user (Dad? Little Freddie? . . . Mum?) with a penchant for free pornography is like being stuck in the corner with 50-fags-a-day Aunt Freda suggesting cures for her persistent cough.

Of course, filial piety will eventually win out. As the family geek discards his paper hat and trundles upstairs to the converted home office that was once his bedroom, he can content himself that at least now his mother is glad he's in there, and not out playing with the other boys.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007