Stop Anthropomorphizing Your Computer

“I hate computers! I really do.” said the girl crossing her arms and staring at the screen with an evil glare. Her expression was a mix of frustration, anger and intense hatred for inanimate object. Then as if to punish the defiant, malevolent machine she started angrily pressing the alt+ctrl+del combination rising her finger high above the keyboard and smashing the Delete key harder each time.

Quick inspection of the machine revealed that it was simply hopelessly stuck swapping to disk. Poor, old, battered laptop was running Windows XP with merely 256 MB of Ram to work with and it’s screen was literally littered with open windows. I noticed iTunes (known resource hog), AIM (the new super-bloated client) 5 or 6 open Office documents, dozen IE windows, some yphoto editing software, and a whole array of apps running in the task bar. There was a recent Norton Internet Security Suite there, Google Desktop, 3 or 4 icons that were probably installed with the Printer drivers, bunch of auto-update tray apps for Adobe, HP, Cannon, and Quickbooks. There were 3 different garbage apps from Dell, a quicktime icon, a real player icon and some other stuff that I didn’t even recognize. I bet there was some spyware running in the background as well.

What we had here was a classic user problem. If you have a slow machine with a limited amount of memory, and proceed to open few dozen applications it will slow down to a crawl and eventually freeze on you. It is a simple resource management. And yet most people fail to see it this way and assume that their computer is somehow broken, or better yet, that it somehow became sentient and is simply being malevolent and hateful.

The truth is that there is no more point in hating a computer – it is an inanimate object. It is a simple tool. Would you say you hate screwdrivers or hammers for example? Or, I don’t know – shoes? Of course not. That would be stupid. Naturally you may not care for a particular pair of shoes, or dislike a certain screwdriver because they are shoddy or uncomfortable. But you wouldn’t hate all of them.

If your computer acts weird, its usually your own fault. 99% of problems are caused by user stupidity, ignorance or just carelessness. Almost all software problems can be traced back to some user action that caused an infection, corruption or interruption of some sort. These problems are your fault. You are the one to blame for them. The remaining 1% are real issues such as genuine hardware failures, and actual software bugs. Most of the time you are the one in control, and you have the power to both cause and prevent nearly all potential computer problems. We geeks thrive on the fact. Mere mortals rarely even admit that they may have any kind of control over the internal workings of their machine. To them it is a mystical, semi-sentient device that has it’s own mind and temperament. And of course such a magical being can never be figured out so you should not even try.

By allowing people to “hate computers” we are enabling them. They end up anthropomorphizing their machines so that they do not need to learn them. It is easier to say “I hate computers” or “this computer hates me” than actually admitting you don’t know how to do something, or worse – that you did something wrong. This is the attitude we should fight with extreme prejudice!

I’m sick and tired of hearing people enthusiastically claim that they are “computer illiterate” as if this was something to be proud of. It’s shameful and disgraceful! It is nothing one should be bragging about. And yet people say it loudly and proudly. It is not a badge of honor. It is not a lifestyle choice. When you willfully choose to be “computer illiterate” you are crippling yourself. Don’t do that and don’t let you friends and family do that to themselves!

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10 Responses to Stop Anthropomorphizing Your Computer

  1. “Problem Exists Between Monitor and Chair”

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  2. James Heaver UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Surely /some/ responsibility falls at the computer (or more specificaly the devs) – Any harmful action that a user is allowed to commit uninentionaly is a failure in GUI or software design.

    I’m not blaming the devs per se – many of these things are being actively worked on, but the way allot of software is designed is broken by default.

    It is not the /users/ fault that they have a 101 background tasks running. Its the paradigm of adding a system tray icon and background process for everything and its mum.

    There are technical solutions to spyware – however these all rely on the user setting them up and user education – windows is broken by default in this regard.

    The GUI paradigm surounding document creation is also broken – what is the analogue in the real world that requires you to save your work all the time? Saving every five minutes gives me no extra functionality, its just a manual autosave (and autosave is just a kludge anyway). Maybe versioning and ‘milestones’ would be a better system – you never lose anythign but whenever you reach a milestone in the creation of your document you makr it as such.

    I don’t know, I’m rattling these off the top of my head, but I think that the fault /ultimately/ should lie with us, not the users.

    Having said all that…

    Computers work the way they work. Users should anticipate this, as you always say – they’re not stupid when it comes to most things, just computers.

    They /should/ take responsibility for their computer until we can come and fix the problems above. But people will always overload their cars, their computers, and wardrobes – we need to build this into the design somehow take weight alarms on lifts for instance.

    But “I’m not a computer person” as a boast – unforgivable, almost as bad as “Oh, I could never do numbers”.

    No one would boast about “Oh, I never get the hang of letters” yet IT and maths are fairgame. GRAH!

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  3. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Where people don’t understand or see the logic to the internal workings of a thing, it’s easier to ascribe an irrational reason to it (such as emotions, intelligence or spite) than it is to figure out the actual reason for what happened. Just human nature…

    Doesn’t stop it being stupid though, same goes for the people who are proud to be dumb in any area, be it IT, maths or whatever.

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Had to bang my head against your spam filter for a minute there, kept saying I had javascript and cookies disabled.

    Cookies were definitely enabled… though not 3rd party ones, and NoScript was on but is allowed. Eventually made it work by temporarily allowing all scripts for this page and enabling 3rd party cookies… do I need to add exceptions for some other cookies or scripts?

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

    @James – You are right, as developers we do have a responsibility to make our software as idiot friendly and as secure as possible.

    And yes, some of the solutions we use today are suboptimal because they were designed to be practical rather than idiot friendly. For example, text editors work the way they do because modifying a buffer in memory fast, while writing the same buffer to disk is slow. Today everyone has copious amounts of memory, fast hard drives and dual core CPU’s but in the olden days saving your document to disk usually meant that your machine would grind down to a halt for a few seconds as it was performing an expensive IO operation even when it was run asynchronously. This is why editors let you save whenever you are ready, and not in the middle of a sentence.

    That said MS Word does have the milestone thing implemented. Go to File menu and enable Versions. Once you do that, Word will store a delta of your document at each manual and/or autosave. You can roll back to any of the previous versions at any time you want.

    The silly mentality to have your application start with the OS is a chronic condition of the whole Windows software sector. It needs to stop, but users should be able to know how to prevent unwanted applications from loading on startup and how to save their data.

    But yeah, it is astonishing how people always fell compelled to brag about their deficiencies at math and science. Go figure.

    @Matt` – Hmm… I’m not exactly sure how WP-SpamFree plugin detects bots. I suspect it may be doing something that is throwing NoScript off.

    To tell you the truth, I found NoScript to be way to troublesome to bother with it. It instantly rendered almost every single Web 2.0 website nonoperational, even after whitelisting. It broke all my bookmarklets, and make extensions act in a weird way. It’s a great idea, but these days there is just to much Javascript around for it to be a practical solution.

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  6. jambarama UNITED STATES K-Meleon Windows Terminalist says:

    I use noscript on all my FF profiles. No problems here. But when I’m on XP, I run as a local user without admin privileges, and I have quite a few other security conscious things setup.

    More on topic, I think more problems are caused by computers than you may think. My father brought his external hard drive on vacation because it had stopped working and he wanted me to fix it. The hardware was fine, there was just file system corruption, and enough of it that I couldn’t fix it. I recovered what I could, & wiped. It wasn’t his fault either, it wasn’t an NTFS drive he pulled without unmounting, and it wasn’t a massive FAT drive.

    Speaking of luddites, have you seen this video? Scary.

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

    Well, I probably exaggerated with the percentages there. What I really mean is that in my experience most users tend to complain and seek free tech support from me for issues that are mostly if not entirely their own fault.

    Real problems do occur though. Like that damned blinking dash thing that seems to plague my xp box at home. I still have no clue what causes this, but every time I reboot that machine I have to hold my breath and pray that it actually starts up.

    Then again, I blame myself for that one too. I have this feeling that the problem is caused by something that I did, I’m just trying to figure out what it was so that I don’t do it again. I have a hunch it might have been some funky virtual device driver that shipped with some software package. Again, it may be a random fluke but I don’t like that explanation. I don’t like forces of entropy messing around with my machines. If I did it, I can prevent it from happening in the future. If it is random, I can’t control it.

    Re: the hard drive. You say it was not NTFS and not FAT… So what was it?

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  8. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Not NTFS and not a *massive* FAT drive, maybe it was a small FAT drive :P

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  9. Cement Head UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think you are mixing up two different things:

    1) It’s a complex world – everyone is grossly ignorant of almost everything upon which they rely. I am a Unix geek with a fair amount of Windows experience, so I am comfortable keeping my computers running, solving my own problems and avoiding creating new ones. However, I have no idea how to fix or even diagnose problems with my car, my plumbing, or even my own body – I don’t think most people treat that as a disgraceful sin. I even cause most of the problems with those things. It always seems dumb when others are ignorant in areas where we are smart, but that’s the world we live in.

    2) Anthropomorphising is a human trait that people do to both thngs loved and hated – ever hear of someone who named their car, their bike or a musical instrument? On the other side, the phrase “my fucking car broke down” implies a level of vehicular activity that I don’t even remember seeing in the director’s cut of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Treating the inanimate as animate is a way of relating to it in a way that is more natural to social beings like humans. It’s what we do, and it isn’t a symptom of disassociating from something – it’s more like associating with it.

    Random side note – just found your blog today and have read about twenty posts – interesting stuff. Felt compelled to respond to something, so I picked this one. Thanks for making the web a more interesting place.

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

    @Matt` – Ah! I get it now. I was like “what else can you use with windows”. I mean I did mount ext3 drives under windows at one point but that’s not something that went with the story.

    Cement Head – First, welcome! I’m glad you liked the blog.

    I know what you are getting at, but I personally see a vast difference between what an average person knows about their car, and about their computer.

    For example most people are aware of basic car care – like regularly changing oil, rotating/replacing tires every once in a while and etc. They know that if they leave the lights on over night, the battery will drain and the car might not start in the morning. They actually have to pass a written and a practical driving proficiency test before they are allowed to operate machine solo. I’m not really expecting anyone to actually be able to take apart and repair car transmission, or troubleshoot engine issues. I’m talking about basic stuff you need to know to operate a machine.

    Imagine someone driving with a parking break on for 4 or 5 years and loudly complaining that the car is slow, sluggish and that the breaks are failing all the time. Then you show them how to disengage the break and they are like “LOL, I’m just not good with cars”. You come back a week later and they are still driving with a parking break on. You ask them why, and they are like “I’m never gonna remember to do this! Why won’t they just make a car where this stuff is like automated”

    Same with health. I’m not a doctor but know roughly how to avoid getting sick. I know I need to dress appropriately for the weather, maintain personal hygiene, take vitamins etc. I can usually tell whether or not I’m sick and have a fever and I can describe my symptoms to the doctor in much more detail than the usual IT helpdesk call where the user complains that they have “this thing that is popping up sometimes” and can’t provide any additional info.

    I also know for the most part how to avoid clogging my plumbing and apply Drano if I do.

    If you damage your car because you were careless, and neglected maintenance you can’t blame the car for it. If you clog your plumbing because you were trying to flush something that should not be flushed you can’t blame the toilet. But if you fuck up your laptop by running it unpatched, without any security and clicking on shady executables it’s suddenly not your fault.

    All I’m saying here is that a lot of people feel that they are exempt from any responsibility and competence when it comes to computers and electronics.

    The issues where something actually breaks (ie. car wouldn’t start, pipe broke and flooded your basement) falls under that 1% of real problems not caused by end users negligence or ignorance.

    As for your second point, you are right. Perhaps anthropomorphising is not the core of the issue. As long as people learn the bare bone basics required to operate their computers safely, securely and without breaking them, I won’t mind if they name them and assign human traits to them. :)

    Anyway, thanks for reading!

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