Misc //

The secrets we keep

In collaboration with the New York Times. In ten years time, there will be no passwords. Recently described by their inventor, Ferdando Corbato, as a ‘bit of a nightmare’, they will soon be replaced by more complex systems much like everything else in our lives. For some people that will mean little. They will quickly…

In collaboration with the New York Times.

In ten years time, there will be no passwords.

Recently described by their inventor, Ferdando Corbato, as a ‘bit of a nightmare’, they will soon be replaced by more complex systems much like everything else in our lives.

For some people that will mean little. They will quickly forget their mother’s maiden name, and their six-year-old self will remind them that they never really had a ‘favourite colour’ anyway. Such people will revel in more secure tools to sign-in or open up.

For some of us it will mean more.

There is something very human about the ‘keepsake’ password. These passwords are not the products of random computer generation, or responses to inane security questions – they are reminders.

They are names and places and memories: old streets, past lovers, or lost friends.

We retain such passwords not for their safety, but for our comfort. We keep them in spite of being told not to, and remember them because they are hard to forget.

Passwords were invented in the early 1960s and are now an ingrained part of our lives. According to Bill Gates, they will mean as much to future generations as they meant to those which preceded us.

Our grandchildren will ask us what we used them for. We will tell them ‘everything’, and they will look at us like we look at our own grandparents when they talk about typewriters.

In collaboration with the New York Times, we are participating in an international project to tell the stories behind ‘keepsake’ passwords. If you have a great password story which you would like to share, please do so below in the comments.

This project is about sharing passwords which means something to you. For your safety, please don’t share a password you currently use or, if you would like to, please alter it to avoid possible security breaches.




It looks randomized at a glance. The numbers and sporadic capital letters could be a mere product of the stringent password instructions characteristic of modern life. But the string of letters does carry meaning. It’s a mixture of the word Godot – the omnipresent, yet tragically tardy, namesake of Samuel Beckett’s iconic play Waiting for Godot – and the number 42, presented in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

This story begins with my high school English teacher and ends with a prescription drug addict locked permanently in her own version of Estragon and Vladimir’s existential hell. My teacher – an Irish fellow who I will call Mr O’Reilly – introduced me to Waiting for Godot some years ago, and I immediately fell in love with the absurdist text. Mr O’Reilly led us through the humour and tragedy set down by Beckett with zest, gleefully emphasizing the existentialist aspects of the play to his wide-eyed group of teenage followers. He loved to tell us that our lives had no meaning.

(In a different unit, during a study of Crime and Punishment, Mr O’Reilly assigned as homework that we plan a realistic murder, complete with target, method and – importantly – how we would have gotten away with it. The next morning, he spent fifteen minutes filling us in on a disturbingly meticulous plan to asphyxiate his ailing 86-year-old neighbour, dispose of her body into a pit at the abandoned building site across the road and use lime to ensure its rapid decomposition.)

One day, he told us a story that has long lingered in my mind about the initial stagings of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s. When they first performed the play – for a typical, privileged, theatre audience – it was a flop, said Mr O’Reilly. The audience was left bewildered by the play, in which, famously, “nothing happens”. But in 1957, it was performed in a prison. The inmates laughed, cheered and were left weeping. They were able to emphasise with the despair and the regret locked deep in Beckett’s characters in a way the crème de la crème of 1950s society could not.

I don’t know how much of Mr O’Reilly’s story is true to the letter. It is certainly correct that Godot was received well by the 1,400 inmates at the San Quentin State Prison in 1957 – so well, in fact, that a theatre group was founded at the Californian prison the ensuing year. It is less true that privileged audiences were uniformly unimpressed by the play. While it did flop in some areas, it excelled in others, and has, after all, become a literary classic.

Soon after school finished and I left Mr O’Reilly behind, I got a job in a shop and quickly discovered my boss was a smart, eccentric, and deeply unhappy woman. Although she was reasonably wealthy, family pressure had led her to run the store, and forgo her dreams of becoming an artist. Her addictive personality had led her to a number of substances over the years – some more harmful than others – and the vice of the moment was prescription drugs. She constantly popped these, which relieved her constant headache but left her dreamy, vague and prone to outbursts. She also enlisted her staff in their procurement, sending us out in an informal roster of sorts that included different pharmacies on different days.

I liked her company, and she liked me. But her existence alone was a tragedy, and I began to regard her as a modern-day Estragon and Vladimir. The shop was her withered tree, a distant future as an artist her Godot.  Like them, she was rendered immobile. Like them, she was losing faith her saviour would ever arrive. Like them, she was doomed to wait forever: Godot would never come unless she looked for him.

She said to me often that she would go, toss it all in, start over somewhere else. But after some months, I stopped listening to these declarations. They were her version of the most tragic line and stage direction ever put down on paper – “Let’s go.” They do not move. – and witnessing it in real life was unbearable.

Before meeting her, I thought my satisfactory mark in the relevant essay was enough to prove I understood the play, but I later knew I did not. I knew nothing of suffering, of significant regret, or despair. I was the privileged, bemused theatregoer, unable to grasp the emotions of the play in a way that the prisoners were able to. My boss may have never heard of the play, but I am convinced she would have understood it. I bought her a copy; told her to read it. I’m sure she never did.

I put the word Godot into my password to remind myself of two things. One, Godot doesn’t exist. We are our own Godots, and we ignore this at our peril. And two, there will always be things I think I understand, when actually, I do not.

As for the 42 – well, it’s nowhere near as interesting. I like Douglas Adams, and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is a cracking read. This one’s a reminder that for the most part, none of us have a clue what we’re doing.



Isabelle Comber

I set up my first email address when I was 11 and highly pubescent. Caught at a time in my life when I had DD cup boobs, child bearing hips and absolutely no fucking idea what to do with them – I very much caught up in my ‘unsightly blobby’ phase. Later I would come to sympathise with my hormonal self – but at the time my only vice was pre-prepared cookie dough from a tube and self-loathing.

A constant reminder of this was my very email password – an anagram of ‘chubbyfuck’. Probably the best diet incentive – every time I would log onto MSN I would remind myself that I needed to lay off the nutella. Five angsty Myspace theme changes later and I’d find myself back in the jar, a thick chocolately layer congealing under my fingernails. Funny, in a chunky sad girl way.