Gogol’s Nose and the Ghost in My Machine

Space grey iphone X on textile
Photo by John Su on Unsplash

The first time my iPhone went rogue, it FaceTimed a woman I had just met. Since my phone was on the nightstand at the time, I was shocked to hear it talking to me: “Lad? Is that you? Is there a problem?” When I saw the screen, my shock turned to mortification since staring right at me was a woman with bed-headed hair (it was midnight) and an alarmed expression. It took me a second to recognize her as Lynn, the host of the Airbnb we were renting that week. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to call.”

“It’s okay. I’ve butt dialed people, myself.”

“No, I’ve done that, too, but this wasn’t that.” I could tell from Lynn’s expression I should have gone with her very gracious explanation: “This was different: my phone just, like, called you totally on its own.”

When I told my wife in the morning what happened, she said maybe I had brushed against the phone in my sleep or maybe it happened while my phone was doing an update. I wasn’t convinced, but like everyone who owns an internet router or a car with a “check engine” light, I’ve learned that sometimes we just have to accept the fact that new technologies work — or don’t work — in ways we’ll never understand.

But when my phone suddenly opened Spotify and started a song I had downloaded the day before, I knew something strange was going on. Of course, I tried the usual fixes — turning the phone off and on, checking for software updates, deleting and re-installing the apps in question — and, for a few minutes each time, it seemed like the problem might be solved. But then the phone would take the initiative to check the weather or set my alarm clock or, more alarmingly, send a map with my location to my friend, Peter. Since I’d always been impressed and mystified whenever someone would send me a map with a pin showing where we were supposed to meet up, I was amazed that I — or rather my phone — suddenly knew how to do this.

Figuring I couldn’t have been the first person with this problem, I googled “How to stop iPhone X from opening apps on its own,” but just as the search results appeared, the Google screen disappeared, and Facebook popped open. Quickly going back to Google, I re-entered my search, this time typing faster, and immediately clicking the very first link: “Has your iPhone started responding by itself? It could have happened because of the Ghost Touch Issue On iPhone X! Here I am going to give you the best fix, and reveal how to solve the Ghost Touch. What you have to do is…” But before I could get to that big reveal, my phone shut down Google and opened PayPal.

***

If I were the kind of person who believed in ghosts, that’s definitely where my mind would have gone the next morning when I glanced over at my phone on the coffee table and saw that it had opened my bank account. While I will admit to a second of paranoid panic — was it checking to make sure its PayPal transaction from yesterday had gone through? Converting my IRA to crypto? — I still wasn’t ready to entertain the possibility that my phone was haunted. Then again, I’ve never really entertained the possibility that anything or anyone is haunted. Even in a family of skeptics, I stand out not only for my unshakeable belief in my lack of belief but also for the fact that I’m not even interested in the paranormal in literature or on TV.

The exceptions for me are stories where we discover the paranormal threat isn’t really paranormal — or isn’t only paranormal — but is actually a figment of a character’s imagination or a sign of her madness. And that’s especially true of great literary ghosts. All the best ones — Hamlet’s father, the apparitions that haunt but also sexually excite the governess in The Turn of the Screw, Beloved in Beloved — are meant to be taken as real in the ways they further the plot, but they are realistic in the ways they represent the psychological states of the main characters. What makes Hamlet such a compelling character is that every single thing the ghost of his father tells him — your uncle killed me, you should avenge my death by killing him, you should be disgusted with your mother for marrying him — are things he already subconsciously knew and was trying unsuccessfully to repress.

Since my phone wasn’t suggesting parricide or avunculicide (it’s a real word, look it up) or anything else especially transgressive, I had no reason to believe — at least at that point — that the ghost in my machine was anything other than a very strange software glitch. Still, my phone could have chosen to send that map showing I was in Asheville, North Carolina, to anyone in my Contacts; the fact it chose Peter, the very friend I was supposed to meet back home in Maine the next morning for a coffee date I had forgotten to cancel, did give me pause.

***

Having a broken smartphone is not like having an appliance on the fritz or a broken-down car. If your microwave stops heating up food or your car won’t start, you get frustrated, but you don’t get spooked. But our smartphones are different: they’ve got photo albums of our families; phone numbers of our old friends, therapists, hairdressers, car mechanics; playlists of the music that means the most to us; driving directions to every possible place we’d ever want or need to go; calendars of our upcoming appointments; access to databases that can recognize our fingerprints and eyebrows as belonging uniquely to us. Because they feel like such personal extensions of our selves, it’s deeply destabilizing when they stop working.

But here’s the thing: my iPhone hadn’t simply stopped working; it had started working on its own, which is like the difference between coming down in the morning to find your dishwasher has failed to drain and coming down to find it has unloaded and put away the dishes from the night before. The fear of machines gaining sentience and turning on their inventors has long been the stuff of sci-fi and apocalyptic fiction. But now fueled by recent advances in AI, you can find warnings about the threat of rogue supercomputers or bots or paperclips (look that one up, too) in newspapers and even academic journals. As 21st century as this all sounds, people’s fear of having their identity stolen and misused came long before the invention of AI. 19th century literature is full of novels in which the protagonists are haunted by spirits or ghosts or full-on doppelgangers trying to assume their identity and control their behavior.

In some of that literature — Dostoyevsky’s The Double, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example — the alter-ego commits or recommends destructive acts certain to destroy the protagonist’s reputation. But just as often, like in Conrad’s The Secret Sharer or Poe’s “William Wilson,” the double acts as a kind of super-ego, warning against destructive or self-destructive behavior. That’s the uncanny feeling I had when my phone did something useful or prescient like notifying my friend I was out of town or shutting down an Instacart order at the very second I had changed my mind and decided to shop myself. Like the man in the Gogol short story who wakes up to find out that during the night that his nose has left his face and is now out in the world and, remarkably, is having more success moving up the St. Petersburg social ladder than he’s ever had himself, I had to face the unsettling fact that my phone seemed capable of handling certain aspects of my life better than I could myself.

***

All the big reveals and “easy fixes” I found for how to get rid of a ghost from an iPhone — "Force/Restart Your Phone (Hard Reset),” “Restore Factory Settings,” “Enter DFU Mode” — turned out to be resounding failures. After each attempt, my phone would seem fine for a few minutes but just as I’d start to relax, the ghost — like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction rising from the bathtub — would leap up and re-take the controls. Of course, the one obvious, foolproof fix would have been to go buy a new phone. But on my way to the Verizon store, something happened that made my phone problem feel totally trivial: I got a call from my sister-in-law, Beth, telling me that my brother, Joe, was on his way to the ER with symptoms from a subdural hematoma, a collection of blood between his brain and skull. Since my wife and I wanted to help in any way we could, and since we were the only family members within driving distance at the time, we immediately set out for the hospital. From the time we arrived till the time Joe and Beth’s sons could get to the hospital from out of town, I became the middleman texting messages with critical information about Joe’s condition to the rest of the family, then trying to respond to the follow-up texts from my nephews, brothers, sisters-in-law, father, and daughters about what might happen next. What I know now — but absolutely did not know then — was that over the next week my brother’s condition would go from bad to worse to even worse still and that he would end up having multiple brain surgeries before making a full and miraculous recovery. All I knew then was that we were all terrified, that my family was frantically depending on me for updates, and that I was frantically depending on a phone that had a mind of its own.

Most of the rogue actions my phone initiated over the next week — sending photographs from my family album to strangers, checking the weather in my hometown — seemed innocuous and random enough. But every once in a while, it would do something that seemed eerily intentional, as if it had access to desires I had forgotten or repressed. For example, before I had had time to tell my daughters about Joe, the ghost sent them a pinned map letting them know that I was at the ER in the Piedmont Hospital Emergency Room. Was it just trying to be helpful? The next day, during a time I hoped I could use to rush out and buy a new phone, the ghost (in an act of self- preservation?) kept shutting down my Google search of Apple stores in the region.

But the most unsettling thing took place during my brother’s fourth surgery as Beth and I were white knuckling it in the Family Waiting Room. I had received a text from my father asking, first, how Joe was doing — he said he was feeling extremely worried and anxious —and second, how to switch his TV from cable to Roku. I quickly texted back: “Joe’s in surgery. I’ll report back after. Push the ‘Source’ button on your remote to switch the HDMI.” Beth and I then spent the next 15 minutes speculating about what show my father could be so eager to watch, analyzing the way he would always yoyo during a family health crisis between deep despair and apparent denial, and wondering whether we should ever tell Joe about that call.

It took us the full fifteen minutes to realize that my father’s Roku question in the middle of the surgery was no more absurd than our Talmudic study of his Roku question in the middle of the surgery. At any rate, we agreed it had provided us with a few minutes of welcome distraction from our own despair, which seemed like a good thing until I glanced down at my phone and saw that my response to my father was still on the screen but now it was followed by another text just waiting to be sent. It took me a few frantic seconds to realize that this new, long text — it seemingly went on forever — was a transcript of the entire Roku conversation. Like sending a map with a pin, sending a text with an audio message was something I had never known how to do. I tried to delete the message before the phone might send it on, but I couldn’t find any way to “select” or cut the whole thing. And so, as we waited for the surgeon to come out to talk to us, I began the painstaking process of deleting my text as if I were defusing a bomb, one incriminating letter at a time.

Halfway through my defusing operation, Dr. Patil, the neurosurgeon, came into the Family Waiting Room. He explained that the surgery had gone very well, that he had been able to successfully remove the membrane that was causing the compression of the left side of Joe’s brain. “Here: would you like to see for yourselves? I have a video.” And with that, he reached into his breast pocket, pulled out his iPhone, hit “Play,” and began to point to the parts of the brain that control movement, memory, language. “See that?” he asked, tracing a very thin line in the middle of the screen that separated a perfect shaded semicircle on the right from a smaller, unshaded area on the left. Then, suddenly, as we watched, the thin line was lifted out and just as suddenly, the area on the left side expanded so that it now looked as large as the area on the right. Assuring us that all had gone as planned, Dr. Patil slipped my brother’s brain back into his pocket and headed off down the hall.

***

The day after Joe was released from the hospital, I went to Verizon to buy a new phone. Tommy, my 14-year-old-looking salesperson, looked skeptical when I described the problem. “Sounds like a software issue. Have you tried updating your operating system? Mind if I take a quick look?” When the phone began opening and closing apps one after another, his eyes widened as if he’d seen a …. “Woah!” I gotta show this to Adam, my manager.”

Adam came over, smiling, reaching for the phone. “I hear you’ve got an iPhone X with a Ghost Touch issue? We haven’t seen one here yet, but I heard about it at our manager’s meeting last month. It’s a hardware issue with some of the iPhone Xs: faulty display module. Apple will replace it for free if it’s still under warranty or if there are no cracks or other damage. Uh oh, see right here? Your phone has this tiny, little crack.” Adam went on to explain with a dizzying list of numbers he was scribbling on a yellow legal pad how this was actually good news since he could offer me various discounts and a new phone plan that would allow me to get a much more powerful phone without increasing my monthly payments.

“That all sounds fine, but I’ve got a question: if I buy this new phone and I have you transfer everything to it from my old phone – photos, music, contacts, everything – is there any possibility that the Ghost Touch might get transferred, too?”

Adam laughed. “There is absolutely no way that problem could be transferred. This is a hardware problem and you’ll be replacing the hardware.” Sensing my nervousness and not wanting to spook the sale, Adam sweetened the offer. “Here,” he said taking the new phone out of the box. “I’m putting my private number into your new phone. If you have any problems — at all, ever — just text or call me.”

When I got home, I decided I’d send a text to my family and friends telling them I’d replaced my phone and that, finally, all was well:

Talk about getting ghosted! I know that expression usually refers to when someone you desperately want to hear from suddenly disappears without a word of explanation. But as many of you know, what’s happened to me over the past week has been the opposite: there’s been a hardware problem with my iPhone — it’s called a ‘ghost touch” issue — where it’s been doing things on its own. So if you’ve received any strange correspondence from “me” during this time, don’t blame the real me; they were from my ghost!

Scrolling up to proofread what I’d written, I saw something shocking: there, before the line ‘Talk about getting ghosted!”, was part of the recording of my gossipy conversation about my dad’s Roku text.

Closing iMessage, I opened my phone app, clicked on “Adam,” and listened as the phone rang and rang. Finally getting his voicemail, I left a message, which I followed up with a series of texts, explaining my worry that my ghost had been transferred. “There’s no way the Ghost Touch could have been transferred,” Adam said when he finally returned my call, “I think it was probably just a random software glitch.” I wish I could have gone with that, but “random” seemed the wrong word considering that the first thing my new phone did when it went rogue was do the same thing my old phone had tried to do: tell my dad I had made fun of his Roku question.

I was tempted to ask Adam for a refund or at least a more reassuring explanation, but like another guy haunted by ghost and father issues so famously said: sometimes we just have to accept there are things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in our — or in our IT guy’s — philosophy. And so, I ended my call with Adam, took a deep breath, and very carefully slipped my ghost back into my pocket.

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