Machine Empathy

A lot of people I meet tell me that they are not good with computers/technology when they hear what I do. I often wondered why do they do that. It seems like a silly self deprecation. In this day and age it is kinda shameful thing to say – almost as bad as for example publicly admitting you dropped out of high school. I used to think that not being able to deal with technology was an intellectual or developmental problem – that these people simply had a low IQ and probably also struggled with math, science, and basic logic concepts. I really had a low, opinion about people like that. There were exceptions – for example I didn’t expect certain age groups or professions to have a lot of exposure to computers, and thus didn’t hold it against them. For example my dad never really had to use a computer in his life, so I fully expect him to struggle with it. However some of the young kids who spend their lives on myspace, or professionals whose job revolves around sitting in front of a computer have no excuse.

Over time however I notice that a lot of these people who should not have any excuses are actually fairly bright. Many of them were good students, or diligent professionals considered to be very good at their job. They were able to excel in certain fields, and actually understood basic math and science. I realized that this is not an intellectual problem, but rather an attitude issue. They were unable to deal with technology not because of stupidity, but because they simply didn’t want to deal with it.

The main difference between me and most of my coworkers is that when I encounter a computer issue, I don’t go into a panic mode, but rather try to troubleshoot or work around it. Someone from the peanut gallery will say it’s because of my education, but let me shoot that concept down right away. It’s bullshit. I never had any training in IT. My degrees are in computer science, which, despite popular belief has nothing to do with tech support. When I landed my first tech support job, my only prior experience was actually owning a PC or two. Everything I know about tech support I found on Google. And that’s precisely what I’m getting at – doing rudimentary tech support stuff simply requires essential problem solving and online research skills.

On a daily basis I see very smart people who can go into a random company, dig through cooked books and all kinds of financial shams, uncover fraud and unmask all the shady shenanigans based on numerical discrepancies in the documentation they can get their hands on. These people are great at problem solving – this is what they do! But if they hit a technology issue at some point, all of a sudden they drop everything and turn into bumbling fools who can’t even read the error message from the screen back to me. Why is that?

The difference between us and them seems to be the fact that we have this weird intangible “good with computers” thing going on. I dubbed this trait as “machine empathy” because I believe it is more about understanding technology and being able to relate to it. It’s fairly simple if you think about it. If you want to work with animals you need to learn how to read them, know what they are capable of, and how to interact with them to get desired responses. Same with people – if you want to be a good motivator, or counselor of some sort you need to figure out how people work, and how to push the right buttons.

If you want to work with technology, you need to familiarize yourself with how machines work, and how to interact with them. I believe this is a skill that can be learned over time and through practice – just as the people skills. Only machines are much easier because they do not have mood swings, bad days, pms or just plain old bad attitude. They do not get angry and they do not hold grudges. They are always consistent, and for the most part reliable. It’s really not that difficult to figure out how to approach them, and how to make them cooperate. In comparison handling people (or animals) is much more difficult task.

I believe there are two major factors that contribute to the popper attitude towards technology:

“I’m bad with computers” is a self fulfilling prophecy

The very notion that someone can be bad with technology (or for that matter bad with anything) is deeply ingrained in our culture. But it is such a defeatist, self deprecating approach. If I ever have kids, I will do my best to try to root out this kind of thinking in them as early as possible. The major problem is that if you truly believe you are not good at something you will never actually get better. People simply go “I don’t seem to have the natural inborn talent for this thing, so I’m not even going to bother trying to improve this skill” which is absolute bullshit. While you may not have interest in particular subject, and others may actually be able to progress faster, if you apply yourself, practice and make a real effort you will eventually get better – it is inevitable.

People who consider themselves “bad with computers” simply refuse to learn about their machines. They use this excuse because it is easier to claim one is genetically incapable of learning technology, than it is to actually put some effort into figuring the inns and outs of the machine they use on a daily basis to do their job. Sadly, there is no “technology” gene. No one is born with the knowledge how to operate a computer. Each of us has to learn it at some point. Some people may learn faster than others, but every single human being has the capacity to learn how to use technology properly.

Fear is the mind killer

The second big issue for many people is fear. They are literally afraid to break their computers by doing the wrong thing. Fear is a show stopper – someone who is constantly worried about breaking something will never experiment, and never deviate from a beaten path – and thus will not learn new things. Fear must be extinguished – and the only way to do it, is by facing it head on.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

My attitude is this: so what if it breaks? Hardware can be replaced. Software can be reinstalled. Data can be restored from backup (you remembered to back it up before you started tinkering, didn’t you?). The only way you could actually suffer material or monetary loss is if you hose your hardware, which is very difficult to do if all you are doing is messing around with the software. So really, the worst case scenario is reinstalling the operating system if you really fuck things up. In fact, I know people who change their OS the way some women change hand bags – they get 3 or 4 new ones each season. I can pretty much install Windows and/or Ubuntu in my sleep, so the worst case scenario is really not so bad. As long as you have backups of your data, you are fine. Once you realize that, the fear will go away, and you will be on your way to become the local computer guru.

These are the two show stoppers. Once you remove these roadblocks I believe a person will become much more receptive and attuned to technology – assuming they will make an effort to actually learn something new about it. I refuse to believe that there is a single person on this planet who would be physically or psychologically incapable of developing this sense of machine empathy. It is all about the desire to learn. And once you get it – once you figure out what you can expect from your machine, you can do anything with it. Google is your firend. :)

Next semester I plan to try tackling these two major show-stopping issues in my class in a much broader way. I’m hoping that if I try to change their attitudes (even slightly) I might be more successful in showing raw knowledge down their throats later on. I probably won’t reach everyone (some people simply refuse to learn anything in college on a principle) but it might be worth to try this.

[tags]machine empathy, learning, computers, technology, tech support[/tags]

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24 Responses to Machine Empathy

  1. Starhawk UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Next semester I plan to try tackling these two major show-stopping issues in my class in a much broader way. I’m hoping that if I try to change their attitudes (even slightly) I might be more successful in showing raw knowledge down their throats later on.

    Good luck on that one luke. Never really figured out how to do that one myself.

    I’m more concerned about math and scientific literacy myself than tech literacy. I know they are kind of interrealted there, but I meet lots of people that say they hate math and seem incapable of doing or understanding the most basic stuff. Not only that but they completely do not understand even what math is. I blame public school for most of that.

    Scientific illiteracy is another rant. The world faces many problems that we need people to understand and then there are those that beleive the most absurd things and seem to not to be able to reason or apply logic to this things. Despite being able to reason about other things :(

    And you are right about both of your major factors:

    I believe there are two major factors that contribute to the popper attitude towards technology

    I agree and I also have the same attitude as you on breaking things software wise. I have no fear of messing with my machine and while i may sometimes alter something without really understanding it. I KNOW I can fix it if i trash it and it no longer boots or ceases to function properly.

    I think it is a confidence issue I am positive I can fix it and learn it and they the tech incomps are scared to try. maybe this too is the result of public school or childhood trauma. I was alway told in school how smart I was, perhaps i would have been a different person if I were told instead how dumb I was or told that I could NOT do or learn something.

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  2. Matt Doar UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I think it comes down to what interests people. If they’re more interested in non-tech, non-science things, then computers will always be hard. Fear has its part too. Imagine yourself in a world where the ability to paint and draw was a necessary skill for a large part of the world, and you weren’t that interested in it.

    ~Matt

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2371″]Good luck on that one luke. Never really figured out how to do that one myself.[/quote]

    Yeah, I’m not sure if it will work, but it’s worth trying. The least I can do is to enforce a rule which bans the usage of the phrase “I’m not good with computers” in my classroom :P

    [quote post=”2371″]Imagine yourself in a world where the ability to paint and draw was a necessary skill for a large part of the world, and you weren’t that interested in it.[/quote]

    I think I’d be fine. I don’t claim to be a good artist, however I would describe myself as competent in that area. I do have a semi-decent grasp of perspective, can do shading, and I did take a technical drawing class long, long time ago. :P

    But yeah, I know what you mean. Then again it is a matter of need vs want. My dad who is a contractor doesn’t really need the computer skills as much as say an accountant or business analyst whose job. Not knowing how to troubleshoot small problems, or how to use advanced Office features won’t hurt my dad’s productivity at all. But if all you do all day is to work with Office documents, refusing to learn tools and features will impact your productivity over time.

    For example, I knew a lady who would double-space her word documents manually – by hitting enter twice at the end of each line. Not only did it look ugly, but it caused her all kinds of trouble when she needed to insert or delete sentences in the middle of a paragraph as it would not automatically re-flow. I tried to teach her, but she claimed she will forget it anyway. When I made a cheat-sheet wit screen shots for her she said it was just to much hassle, and that she preffered her way.

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    My dad is an odd case. He used to be reasonably competent in front of a computer (even able to manage after messing up midway through a Win95 installation and being left with only DOS to use (and very limited knowledge of DOS).

    More recently it took him a while to get used to sending/receiving email, he still clings to Lotus 1-2-3, and when anything goes wrong he pretty much needs my help.

    I think this might be roadblock #2… he doesn’t understand it any more (the technology moved on around him) so he fears breaking it. He doesn’t claim to be inherently bad with computers, but does have a slightly defeatist attitude (“I used to be ok, but now I can’t do much”)… I dunno, I think if we had the time to burn on patiently training him up that he would be able to cope. Anyone should really given enough time and patience (and assuming they’re willing to learn).

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  5. So tl;dr is:

    I used to think teenagers who use the computer a lot, and people whos jobs were on computers who claimed they didn’t understand technology was dumb…

    Now I think anyone who claims not to understand technology is dumb.

    About right?

    :)

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2371″]Now I think anyone who claims not to understand technology is dumb.[/quote]

    No, not exactly. They are either:

    a. lazy – don’t want to learn new things
    b. ignorant – don’t think they ought to learn things when there is IT there
    c. socialized into the defeatist attitude that prevents them from learning
    d. to afraid of breaking something to experiment

    I believe c and d can be fixed through education. On the other hand a and b should be fixed by LARTing. :P

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  7. I just want to also point out one thing:
    Its easier when you have a good job to fiddle around with things and live under the idea of “if it breaks… it breaks” and from a guy who has probably never had a windows install for more then a year… I know that.

    However, when I fried my harddrive after installing linux, I had to wait 4 months untill i had the money to buy a new hard drive.

    Thats a long time without a computer… So sometimes its best to ask for help.

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  8. tash UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think you should make it a requirement for your students to read Dune. The entire series. If they don’t like it.. Kick them out

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  9. e UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    A good post that, again, hits the nail on the head. What type of society is it that we are driven by fear more than knowledge? I wonder if it is the same in other societies or just our Western civilization.
    [quote post=”2371″]If I ever have kids, I will do my best to try to root out this kind of thinking in them as early as possible. The major problem is that if you truly believe you are not good at something you will never actually get better.[/quote]
    Absolutely right about this…we have to teach them that they have everything they need to do whatever they want. yes, clichés, but for a reason.
    [quote post=”2371″]I probably won’t reach everyone (some people simply refuse to learn anything in college on a principle) but it might be worth to try this.[/quote]
    Keep us posted next semester, I might just need a lesson or two for my students who always tell me they’re no good at languages. :)

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote comment=”8683″]However, when I fried my harddrive after installing linux, I had to wait 4 months untill i had the money to buy a new hard drive.

    Thats a long time without a computer… So sometimes its best to ask for help.[/quote]

    Absolutely. Asking for help is part of the learning process. Asking someone to fix your computer because “you are not good at it” is plain old lazy. :)

    But yes, if your resources are limited, it is best to tinker within certain limits. Messing around with application software usually has very little chance of hosing hardware. :) And as long as your hardware is intact, you can fix it, without huge costs. So as long as you are not flashing BIOS, or overclocking one thing or the other you should be safe.

    Btw, how did linux hose your drive?

    [quote comment=”8684″]I think you should make it a requirement for your students to read Dune. The entire series. If they don’t like it.. Kick them out[/quote]

    LOL! I know, I should. I actually do have Dune on one of my ppt presentations (I needed a picture of a book) :P

    [quote post=”2371″]Keep us posted next semester, I might just need a lesson or two for my students who always tell me they’re no good at languages[/quote]

    I’ll probably post about it. I still haven’t figured out how exactly to tackle this though. :)

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  11. and as i was clicking your adds as I do frequently I noticed something

    http://www.railsware.com/rw/index.html

    Tell me what you think is strange about this site.

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  12. and it wasn’t linux hosed my hdd, it was that I in prep for linux I had set my hard drive to defag nightly (for 1 week to make sure the partition process went smoothly) but i forgot to set it back to bi monthly afterwords.

    IE —>> Crash boom bang

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  13. lol oddly my post just disappeared and my anti spam word is hax

    In preperation of linux i set my hard drive to defrag nightly to move everything to the “front” that way my partition process ran smoothly. I however forgot to turn it off AFTER i installed linux… so it put too much strain on and killed it

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2371″]Tell me what you think is strange about this site.[/quote]

    I give up. What is it?

    Oh, and your post got eaten by Akismet, but I de-spammed it. :)

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  15. (btw, mon-key allways fools me i always think the “-” is just there for show)

    its not written in RoR

    and I also just want to say all this has given me the thought to finnally install ubuntu again. (i haven’t not because of what happened last time but more in part because i was lazy, and it seems ubuntu is bad luck)

    well just so happens, me and ubuntu IS badluck

    I went to install it, and then realized i clicked the wrong partition after about .1 seconds of pressing go.

    So i thought “ah i will just exit out and all will be good”

    So i get a “error loading operating system” when i try to reboot into windows….

    I fucked my partition over, and will now have to reinstall windows, which is a pain in the ass and so I will probably just run this for a while. Now here is my question:

    I have Vista Ultiment and i have XP Media

    Last time i rolled back vista because it didn’t allow me to run my favorite programs, but now all my favorite programs have updated with vista support. So is it worth it to go vista, or should i stick with XP?

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  16. (sorry for all the comments tonight)
    I just noticed that i haven’t totally screwed myself over, because the files are still intact in the hard drive, i just screwed up windows… so I will backup all my BIG files, and my images and invaluble stuff, and then just put it back onto the windows install after I finnish reinstalling. If you have a better idea please tell me. :)

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  17. ths GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    this kind of self-deprecation occurs equally often when talking about mathematics. all kinds of people like to tell they are “bad at math” when we talk about university (I studied math and CS). I still don’t understand that. There are so many fields and topics within math, I cannot believe that all the people who are so eager to tell me this are really bad at all those topics. Did they never try? Are they incapable of leading a normal life? I don’t know.

    Might be that people just are too lazy to think about the multitude of options. Same for computers and my job: all my neighbours think just because I work for a major computer company (with funny stripes in the name’s font) I can “fix their PC” when they screw it up by applying some weird registry fixes from a magazine which promises to speed up their computer by some 1000 percent. No one cares that my professional jobs never involved M$ windows ;), and noone believes me there …

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  18. A few things:
    1) in reply to above:
    Don’t you just hate when you have a friend or realitive who trys to put you in touch with someone because “they are a computer person” or “this person does this and that with computers so obviously you guys will just hit it off”
    I hate this, mainly because they have NOTHING to do with ANYTHING i am intrested in… (ignoring the fact that i hate being “set up” with friends) its like oh thats cool that guy develops microchips for NASA… that doesn’t mean we have the same interests… I develop websites and am a graphics designer… I don’t go to some “punk kid” and some “preppy kid” and put them togeather and say “hey you guys will make great friends because you both go to the mall” lol why would we have the same thing?

    Next: For some reason Ubuntu isn’t even installing, it says there might be an error with the hard drive (i sure hope not) I will just run on the CD untill I can figure out a solution. If I kill another hard drive I am going to cry… like… just sit down… and let myself cry… I might not stop crying for an hour… and you know what… that will be okay, I will have earned that right and I will take it.
    I. HATE. ME.

    Maybe this is why people just ask for help before they go about doing stuff all willy nilly… they don’t want to be failures at life like I am. Anyway… Thought I would keep you updated on the progress.

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  19. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2371″]So is it worth it to go vista, or should i stick with XP?[/quote]

    I’d stick with XP, but if you are feeling adventurous you can check out Vista. Or you could try dual booting the two – simply install XP on the same drive, just in WINDOWSXP folder or something like that. It will work just fine because both store user data in different places Documents and Setings vs Users :P

    @ths – yeah, I noticed that too. This usually pops up when discussing worst professors ever. I always tell the story about my horrible calc 3 teacher at which point people seem to be amazed that I voluntarily took Calc 3 and then then proceed to tell me how they changed their major just to avoid taking Calc, and how they are horrible at math. Sigh…

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  20. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2371″]Don’t you just hate when you have a friend or realitive who trys to put you in touch with someone because “they are a computer person” or “this person does this and that with computers so obviously you guys will just hit it off”[/quote]

    That actually doesn’t happen that often to me. Usually people try to introduce me to their friends who need free tech support – as in: “I have this friend, and she is having all these problems with her computer. Maybe you can check it out.” Ugh…

    [quote post=”2371″]For some reason Ubuntu isn’t even installing, it says there might be an error with the hard drive (i sure hope not) I will just run on the CD untill I can figure out a solution. [/quote]

    Odd… I never had a problem like that. Try formating the drive clean, make a single partition and install windows.

    Also, if your computer came with Vista, you might have one of these SATA drives. XP install disks do not have SATA drivers on them so this is why you are having problems installing it. I think you can load SATA drivers from a USB/floppy drive by pressing F6 at some point during the install, but it is a hassle. Just try to roll out Vista from scratch and see how it works for you. Better to have Vista than nothing. :)

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  21. After a long night here is the break down:

    * I have been able to spam your blog so much Akismet thought I was a spammer.

    * I fucked up my windows

    * I now have for some reason 6 partitions on my hard drive

    * When finally Ubuntu installed, it fixed windows some how…

    * I have to figure a way to delete all my extra partitions, and make one giant partition thats FAT32 so then i can share; because currently i have one 60 GB partition, and one 5GB partition usable, out of a 160 GB hard drive.

    * I am really tired, I hate everything, and I am lame enough to summerize my night with a bulleted list (an unordered list go figure ;) )

    DUdglkdfjalfkdjalf j

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  22. and since you wrote that while i was writing my bulleted list i would like to point out that my computer came with XP Media edition, it DOES have an SATA hard drive, although it has never caused me any issues…
    and I have Vista Ultiment because my friend has this college course and all you have to do is burn the CD and the college was given unlimited product keys, because i think its beta edition.

    Like i said, if i hear the word “partition” or “windows” or any word for that matter I am going to throw something… I think its time for me to go to bed.

    We will work on my multipul partition thing tomorrow…

    That and I am still looking to transfer hosts because my old new host (the one i just got that is) pulled out from under me and took my money (the only money i have saved that i get for my birthday, that i use for my website) so I have to find a web hosting friend so I can bum off him for a while.
    Just more and more stress… why did I ever get intrested in computers? I should have taken football.. then i would be so dumb important things wouldn’t matter to me anyway. :)

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  23. Just so you can see that i am indeed using ubuntu :)

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  24. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2371″]When finally Ubuntu installed, it fixed windows some how…[/quote]

    Your previous install probably messed up the windows boot loader. Ubuntu installed GRUB which solved the issue. Makes sense now. :)

    [quote post=”2371″]That and I am still looking to transfer hosts because my old new host (the one i just got that is) pulled out from under me and took my money[/quote]

    Ouch! DH fucks up every once in a while and it is slower than slowpoke but when it took my money, they gave it back. :P

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