I knew someone who became so frustrated with a computer printer that he threw it down on the floor and jumped up and down on it until it was smashed to pieces. That's a bit extreme (and damaging to your bank account), but technology can make us feel like that, can't it?
OK, show of hands, how many of you hate your computer and have at least been tempted to smash it to bits?
That many? Good. Now how many if you have ever felt "stupid" because of your computer? Hands up again. Right, I can't actually see your hands, but I bet a lot of you would shoot your arms right up if I asked you in person.
You can't see my hands either, but they were up in the air for both questions. I hate computers and computers frequently make me feel stupid. I think smashing one to bits might be pleasingly cathartic.
Wait a minute. I'm a computer geek. I make my living doing computer stuff - troubleshooting, networks, even programming. How can I say that I hate computers and they can make me feel stupid?
Think of your TV set
If TV sets worked like computers, nobody would watch TV. There just wouldn't be enough value compared to the pain. Can you damage your TV in normal operation? No, of course not. Does your TV suddenly switch channels or crash and refuse to turn back on? Can your TV get "infected"? No, no, and no.
Does your TV ever make you feel stupid? Yes, a VCR can, but that's not a TV, is it? No, a VCR is an irritating little computer.
I want to tell you something important. You should write this down on a big piece of paper in great big letters and hang it on the wall behind your computer:
IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!
If you feel stupid because you can't get the computer to do what it is supposed to do, that's not your fault. It is the fault of the anti-social geek who designed and wrote the program that you are using. It's the fault of the company that geek works for because they didn't do enough testing to understand whether anybody but a fellow geek could actually understand how to do whatever it is you are trying to do.
Though even other geeks can have trouble. I am a geekish sort and yet all too often I can't figure out how to make something work. Sometimes I can figure it out if I put on my geek hat and ask myself "What would a geek think is logical here?" I try that, and sometimes it works, because geeks are crazy and we all think alike to some degree.
Whatever went wrong, no matter how much the guy with the awful accent at the other end of the phone line insists that you pushed the wrong button or typed the wrong answer, whatever incredible excuse they try to lay in your lap, the guy who wrote this program should have anticipated that someone could do whatever it was you did and he should have prevented anything bad from happening.
Shouldn't it be designed to be safe?
People who design microwave ovens have to design them to be safe. Do you realize how dangerous a microwave oven actually is? If it were not designed to protect you, you could get electrocuted using it. I don't mean shocked, I mean enough voltage to kill you. Do you know anyone who was ever killed by a microwave oven? I actually do, but he was a service technician who made a tragic mistake. Ordinary home owners don't normally get hurt by their appliances, and if they do, lawsuits surely follow.
Computer software doesn't kill people (yet!), but it does annoy, frustrate and anger, and it certainly can cost you money and waste your time. Your bank accounts can be compromised, your credit cards stolen and your credit rating can be destroyed. Why can this happen? Because it is really, really hard to write good software, software that isn't confusing and illogical, software that protects you from mistakes.
Today's software is much better than it was when I started using computers. Most modern software will protect you from at least the worst possible mistakes. Many programs have multiple level undo, so you can back out of almost any error. Many of today's programs have context sensitive help, though most of that is still rather primitive.
Computers are not very smart
For example, as I type this, the program I am using automatically corrects spelling and bad typing. That's helpful, but it does not look at whole sentences to help determine the correct word and word tense. A really well written program would take clues from the whole document, but as far I know, nothing like that exists today. Therefore, I'll often find "us" where "is" is all that would make sense, and "fir" regularly appears when I meant to type "for". The programs just aren't very smart.
Of course there are worse corrections than that.
More frustrating is software that is confusing. You know what you want to do, you may even know that the program can do it, but either you cannot figure out how or the program just isn't doing it. Once again, it's not your fault. If the brakes on your car don't work, you would never blame yourself. But if your browser can't get to the internet, you may very well blame yourself.
No? I had that recently with a neighbor. Internet Explorer wasn't working. Nothing wrong with the Internet because she could use mail and chat and Skype. It was just IE being stupid. I fixed it easily, but my neighbor wanted to know what she did wrong.
Did wrong? She didn't do anything wrong. Somebody at Microsoft did something wrong, but my neighbor surely did not. All she did was turn on her computer and expect that IE could go to a web page.
Acid in your face
The worst of it, the most inexcusable transgression of the obligation to keep you safe, is the virus infections. In all cases, these involve letting something happen that never should be allowed to happen. You take gasoline into your fuel tank and the designers of the car let it be turned into acid that is sprayed from your air conditioning vents.
The apologists will again insist that you share the culpability when these infestations involve you assenting to some small part of the process that converted gasoline into deadly acid, but again their software neglects to consider context. Like the spelling correction program that stupidly blunders along inserting inappropriate words, the operating software allows operations that, taken in context, should never happen.
Buffers and Escalations
And what of the infections that involve no assent from you? The buffer overflows, the security elevations? What excuses do the programmers have for these? Oh, programming is very difficult, they say. Very, very difficult.
I agree, programming is difficult. But these security holes and overflows do get fixed, don't they? Faced with the evidence of perversion, the programmers look at their code and say "Oh, gosh, we forgot to.."
That code could have been looked at when it was written. It could have been checked and double checked. The software company could have hired people whose only job is to try to subvert the correct operation of that code. Some companies have started to do just that now, but the continued flood of software exploits makes it plain that they do not do enough.
That would cost too much, they wail. Really? Has Bill Gates suffered financial difficulties because he spent too much money making sure your computer couldn't harm you? Is Microsoft running low on cash because they spent too much money trying to prevent viruses?
Every year some hackers run a contest called "Pwn to own". The idea is that the first person to take control of the systems offered as sacrificial lambs wins a cash prize and the computer they took over.
These contests run on for weeks and months as the hackers pit their skills against the operating system designers.. No, they do not. The systems are quickly compromised, sometimes in a matter of hours, sometimes literally in just minutes, even seconds!
There is hope. In 2008, the Linux machine remained uncracked. More recent contests have focused on browsers rather than operating systems per se, and these have usually been cracked with depressing ease, though Google's Chrome browser did survive. The system programmers are generally still leaving gaping holes in their code.
Someday computers will truly be user friendly and safe. Someday they will actually be helpful, will anticipate your needs and intentions, and will really function as personal assistants.
Someday you won't learn how to use a computer program; the program will learn how it can help you do whatever it is you need to do. It will learn you.
Until then, remember: IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!
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© 2011-09-15 Anthony Lawrence