Misplaced Blame: Why We Hate Our Computers

I don’t think I like computers very much.

Maybe that sounds a bit odd. After all, I enjoy playing with and configuring new software, researching how parts of computers and software work, and writing software. I have a job supporting a computer software program. I’m going to major in computer science next fall. I read Slashdot and keep up with the latest trends and news in technology. I’m good at fixing things on computers. So I enjoy spending time on my computer. I like the things I can do with computers.

But if there’s one thing I’ve become convinced of through all this time spent with computers, it’s this: computers never, ever work right. Maybe the software crashes and you have to restart your computer. Or your ISP stops providing Internet access to you and you miss an important deadline. Or somebody convinces you to click a link and suddenly your system is spewing spam at other people. Or you install a “stability update” and the program won’t start anymore. Or maybe your hard drive fails catastrophically and years’ worth of data disappears into the Great Bit Bucket in the Sky.

When these things happen, I invariably get mad (once I’m past being scared if it smells of data loss), and I always get mad at the computer, even if the problem isn’t actually the computer’s fault. I don’t do this when other things don’t do what I expect. If I were to try to mail a letter and found that the outgoing mail box wouldn’t open, I would wonder why it wouldn’t open and maybe get a little bit annoyed that I walked out there and couldn’t mail my letter. I wouldn’t, however, be mad at the box itself, and I probably wouldn’t even be mad at the post office, since I wouldn’t know why the box wasn’t opening or whether it was the post office’s fault that it wasn’t. But if there’s a network issue and the computer won’t send my email, I get angry at the computer, without knowing or caring why it’s not working. Or if my house burned down and all my books were lost, it would really stink, but I wouldn’t get mad at the fire or at nature; at the most, perhaps I would get mad at the fire department for not putting it out faster, or at the person who installed the malfunctioning electrical system that caused the fire. If my computer won’t read my file, though, I get mad at the computer.

I sit here writing my first draft at my desk, on a piece of loose-leaf college-ruled binder paper, with a refillable clear plastic rollerball pen that every few days I fill with green ink from a bottle on my desk. Occasionally the pen leaks ink into the cap. Sometimes it scratches while I write. Sometimes I have to pause to refill the pen or to wipe ink off the tip. Sometimes I get some ink on my fingers when I refill it. But I’ve never gotten upset at the pen when it acts up, even when its misbehavior is in no way my fault. I’ve never thrown the pen or slapped it with my hand or yelled at it angrily when it did something it wasn’t supposed to. But I’ve done all those things to my computer, and when I start typing this into my computer, if the keyboard drops my keystrokes or the computer freezes for ten seconds, I’ll at the least be making an annoyed noise.

Why is the computer different? It obviously is. If my violin is difficult to tune up on a day when it’s really humid, it’s the weather’s fault; if my draft gets rained on and becomes unreadable, it’s my fault for leaving it outside when it was about to rain. It’s not the draft’s fault that it got wet because it was in the rain. But if a computer does even one thing we don’t expect, we always say it’s the computer’s fault – even when it’s evident that it was probably user error, like when we think we’ve clicked in the right place and the computer doesn’t respond until we click again. The pattern is clear: when most things don’t behave as we wish they would, we have several options: blame ourselves for doing something wrong (the draft in the rain), see the problem as a natural part of using that thing and try to find a way to work around it (the pen, the violin), or, when the situation is particularly bad or unusual (the fire, the mailbox), look for the cause and complain loudly about that. But when the computer doesn’t work right, we stop seeking causes right at the computer and get upset at it. We say “The computer hates me,” or “The computer is acting up again.” It’s the computer’s fault – nobody and nothing else’s.

But really, none of the problems are the computer’s fault – the computer as an entity is only a bunch of electronics that execute directions. The problem could be caused by a blip in the electrical current that powers the computer, or by a bug in one of the millions of lines of code that tell it what to do, or by a button the user pressed at the wrong time, or by countless other small differences that are enough to set something off in the amazingly complex system that powers a modern computer. It could possibly be caused by a part of the computer’s hardware malfunctioning, but this is not what we are actually thinking about and directing our anger towards when we get angry at “the computer.” The issue is that these things that actually cause computer problems are not concrete, not evident to us as users; we cannot note the fact that our computers have frozen momentarily and immediately blame the person who wrote line 918 of dosomething.c in Google Chrome, or the person who turned on her air conditioner fifty miles away and caused a momentary change in the power supplied to the computer. So we blame what we do see: the computer. What we can see of the computer is no different than the fire that destroys a house – it’s merely an agent that carries out the instructions or the damage incited by another process – but looking at the fire, it’s easy to see that the fire does nothing for itself, that it arises from external forces it doesn’t control. We understand that the flames themselves are in no way responsible for their own existence in a way we don’t seem to understand that a computer is not responsible for the processes it runs. We understand that the computer is not responsible on a logical level, if we pause to think about it, but we don’t understand it on an intuitive level, which is where we get angry at our computers.

So I am led to dislike computers: they are simply too easy to blame when they don’t work right. I only tolerate them because of what they can do for me. I will try to be more patient with them, but it sure isn’t easy.

One thought on “Misplaced Blame: Why We Hate Our Computers”

  1. Hi :)

    I originally came here following a link from a page that deserves no further linkage, to your page here on the Dvorak Keyboard (for which, thanks very much for helping to combat misinformation).

    After browsing your (interesting!) website for a while, I found myself here, and was tempted to comment because I, too, find myself often becoming frustrated by the ‘behaviour of the machine’.

    However, the focus of my ire isn’t so much ‘the computer’ itself (although I’ve no doubt that’s the way it may appear to anyone watching me have one of my little hissy fits): it’s poor design. Having played and worked (and played some more) with computer systems for the best part of four decades, I’ve come to believe that the common factor, more often than not, is that there’s really no need for whatever-it-is to have happened had some part of the system been designed properly in the first place.

    You might say that, while my rants appear to be directed at the machine, that’s purely a matter of accident of location: my annoyance is really directed at whichever incompetent is responsible for having placed me in a situation where I can be frustrated by [insert widget here].

    There, I’ve got that off my chest ;)

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