Tech by VICE

The 'Swedish Fish Theory’ Is About More Than Candy

Repair technicians have more empathy for your lost data than you might expect.

by Joseph Neighbor
Jul 25 2016, 12:30pm

Over the course of several weeks, I explored what's known as "The Swedish Fish Theory"–the idea that, in an increasingly impersonal world, a personal gesture goes a long way. In the final part of this editorial series, I spoke with some people on the receiving end of the theory to get their take.

Kelly Chessen's official job title is "Data Crisis Counselor." She works for DriveSavers, one of the largest repair facilities in the country, located just outside of San Francisco. There a good chance that if your hard drive is destroyed, and the local repair shop can't make it right, it will end up here. About 2,000 drives come through a month, and many hundreds of phones. Each has a story. Each contains data of tremendous value to someone.

"We have some very stressed out, upset, worried clients who have just lost their data, everything," Chessen told me in DriveSavers' call center, when I visited recently. She has a degree as psychology, and for years worked as a program coordinator for a suicide prevention hotline. It sounds like an apt training. "Could be their company's email server, or a mom who just lost all her baby pictures and feels like the worst mother in the world because she has no record of her children from birth to age 10. I got a call from a man who was so upset he actually shot his computer with a gun."

Devices are growing ever more central to our lives. It's how many of us make a living. It's where we deposit our memories. Losing that can swiftly and thoroughly plunge us into a personal crisis. It's in this state of acute vulnerability that we come to the repair technicians, in desperate hope they can retrieve what's lost. When they succeed, it quickly establishes a relationship of trust and gratitude.

"They're just so thankful that someone has helped them, because they feel like they've lost half their life on that computer," said Chessen. "Cellphones, tablets, ipads – they're so easy to use, and we don't think about how quick they can fail. So when the data is gone in a second, we feel like a part of us is gone. And when someone gives part of us back, how do you ever repay that?"

The walls of DriveSavers are lined with autographed pictures of famous, gracious customers, like Willy Nelson and Bruce Willis (who also stamped it with a bloody thumbprint). There's a Hall of Fame of glass display cases filled with old gadgets destroyed in the strangest of ways; in each situation, remarkably, the technicians had successfully retrieved the data. One computer had been fetched from the bottom of the Amazon River. Another one had been melted in a house fire. There were stories about phones run over by steamrollers, dropped in Porta Potties, pulled from the wreckage of plane crashes. One of the guys in shipping and receiving said that during his first week they were sent a laptop that had been pried from beneath a decomposing body. They keep a Geiger counter on-hand to measure the radiation level of incoming packages, because that's something they have to worry about.

How must it feel to open one of those boxes and find a bag of candy and a letter saying thank you in advance?

Like surgery, the labor of a data recovery technician demands considerable finesse. Using tiny poking implements they physically manipulate the drive into working, much like a chiropractor pushes here, then there, to slide a wonky vertebra in place. The data from the drives run through wires to exposed motherboards mounted to the wall, and then on to monitors where the technicians, using software that looks incongruously retro, can locate the precise data they're trying to save. 100 hard drives were expected to come in that day. One of the technicians did a little victory dance after a successful recovery. He does it a lot, one of his colleagues told me; he has over 50,000 successful recoveries under his belt.

I was reminded of McGuire's description of his job at Geek Squad: Isolated behind a wall, with 20 feet worth of broken computers in front of him. It made me think of that original data recovery technician in Geek Squad City, Agent XYZ, the anonymous guy in a lab who likes Swedish Fish. His work environment probably resembled the clean room I stood in. It looks like lonely work.

Upstairs, in the call center, scores of customers a day are phoning in a state of crisis. They need their data, and they're never pleased it's still being worked on. I wondered how much of that stress made it down here, to the clean room. Do the engineers hear the stories? Do they even want to know?

"When I first started, I did customer service and engineering," said Mike Cobb, when guiding me through the clean room. He started here on Valentine's Day, 1994; he calls the job his "girlfriend." Now he's the longest-serving employee, and the lead engineer. "I took it very personally at first—but I was young. Then I learned to become the engineer we needed. The way I tell the guys is that I want it to be binary. And what that means is: is it a good recovery, or a null recovery? So no, these guys don't take on that stress. They're looking at the hardware, and the hardware only."

I was a little disappointed. If the technicians—those anonymous figures you seek to reach—don't receive the note or the candy, why send it at all? If each drive or phone is assigned a number, and the technicians are expected to process them in order, as per DriveSavers policy, how can the engineers even reciprocate?

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe the act of saying thank you in advance is simply throwing some niceness out in the dark, hoping it gets to someone who deserves it. If it does, that's great. If it doesn't, oh well—it still feels good for the person making the effort.

Back in Irving, the McGuires and a group of five close friends got together for a night of board games. It's something they do every few weeks. They're all regulars of the local "DFW Nerd night," a monthly event where hundreds of nerds of every stripe and feather meet up to play board games for charity. There's a raffle with prizes donated by local game shops. It's where Josh took Jana on an early date. She won a book of Pokémon cards that day, which everyone agreed was a sweet find.

One of the gamers present was Shawn, an old college buddy of Josh's who served as best man at the McGuire's wedding last September. He also worked with Geek Squad back when the Swedish Fish Theory was born. In fact, after Josh left, Shawn was instrumental in keeping the tradition of that particular store alive, teaching new techs how to explain the Theory to customers.

"Think: random warehouse worker who doesn't do anything but unbox computers and stick them in a queue all day, gets a thing of candy—gonna treat your computer differently," Shawn says. "For some reason, everybody can picture that job that they hate where they're just sitting there doing monotonous tasks."

In the course of researching this article, I've heard, and wrestled with, several critiques of the Swedish Fish Theory. I wanted to bring those qualms to the table, for their consideration. Is it a bribe? After all, Josh and Shawn explicitly told customers that if you send some candy, you'll get your order back faster, maybe even with free stuff.

"It's not supposed to be about getting it back faster," Josh says. "It's supposed to be about being gracious. I've had times when I've sent off two different things to the same company. One time it worked fantastic. One time it did nothing. Doesn't matter. I'm still going to keep doing it."

Another guy at the table, Raylin, chimed in: "There's a human connection when normally there's not one. It's not throwing five bucks. It's giving them something you would want, for something that you never get thanked for."

But what if everyone did it? Would it still mean anything? As a group, they seemed palpably disinterested with the question. It wasn't that they were stubborn, or lacked imagination; it's that the arguments against sending a friendly note were so unpersuasive as to be definitively boring, or downright mean-spirited. I must say, that in playing Devil's Advocate, I felt dumb saying these things out loud.

"Do you hold doors open?" Josh asked me, in response. "Everybody says thank you. You're not doing it for the thank you. You're doing it because it's the nice thing to do. And that's not something you can get too much of."

Everyone at the table agreed. Something that had seemed rife with intellectual dilemmas all of a sudden seemed pretty damn simple.

To learn more about "The Swedish Fish Theory", watch the short documentary here.
Swedish Fish