Faulty Pattern-Matching

Yes, they are trying to confuse you.

Among the valuable tools for making sense of the universe with which humans are endowed is the principle that things which have some things in common often have other things in common. This principle helps us predict the properties of things, situations, and people, and gives us a sense that we have some chance of understanding this big reality we live in.

Unfortunately, the computer industry, or at least its marketing departments, seem to make considerable efforts to subvert this principle at every juncture.

Let’s look, for example, at Microsoft’s operating systems and office suite circa 1998. PC users generally were using Windows 95, or in some cases Windows 98. The Microsoft office suite available for purchase was Office 97. Sitting next to Office 97 on the shelf was Office 98. But they couldn’t buy that. That was the Macintosh office suite; essentially a port of Office 97.

Now, referring back to the introduction for this column, we recall that I sold computers and software about that time. I can speak from experience that people didn’t get it.

People were concerned that since they had Windows 95, Office 97 might not run on their machine. They were concerned that since they had Windows 98 it might not run on their machine. They wanted to buy Office 98, because it was obviously more current than Office 97. They were angry that Mac users got a more advanced version of the office suite.

And nobody believed us when we tried to explain things to them. We had a lot of returns of Office 98 before we realized that we had to make sure that everyone we sold it to actually had a Mac. We spent hours explaining to people that it was really very simple–PC people use Office 97, Mac people use Office 98. It doesn’t matter what OS version you have. And they still left with an expression that said that they thought we were lying to them.

Because it just didn’t make sense. First of all, common sense dictates that two products with 98 in the title should work together. Second of all, common sense and general computing practice dictates that a higher version number should denote a more advanced program. Third of all, common sense would dictate that two products with the same name but a different number should be mutually compatible. But none of these things are true. Because the only thing that the product names of that time period tell you is what year it came out, and that doesn’t really tell you anything right off the bat.

Us professionals could keep it straight because we had to learn all the silly details that make the numbering make sense–that is, that Windows 95 would run Office 97 because programs are written to run with existing operating systems, that Windows 98 would run Office 97 because Windows 98 wasn’t that radical an OS change and making it not backwards compatible would have been really dumb, and that Office 98 was the same thing as Office 97 but released a year later for the Mac because that’s just the fate of Mac users. You couldn’t deduce any of this. It’s the same reason that adults couldn’t figure out Pokemon: there’s 150 different critters, and their names are almost completely meaningless. On the face of it, it’s an unending sea of confusingly alike primary-colored foo. If you have a vested interest in figuring out what they can do–say, because you want to play the card game or the video game or some such–you can carve out some brain-space to learn what the difference actually is, and soon you too will be able to tell them apart.

No matter what venue you encounter faulty pattern-matching in, however, it’s irritating at first (well, in Pokemon the challenge of learning about all the critters is part of the experience, but buying an office suite isn’t supposed to be an adventure that keeps you occupied until the next toy-buying season). It seems like there is no logic to the scheme, or that you’re just too dumb to see it. Which would seem to mean that either you’re an idiot, or you’re being forced to work with tools designed by idiots.

Unfortunately, I have no ready solution for this one, other than to urge you to invest the time to figure out the logic behind the senselessness. Or at least to believe the professionals when they tell you something that contradicts common sense.

Myths of the Modern Age: Generation X’s mysterious harmony with computers

Given the unfortunate dearth of good coping skills for dealing with the new and central role of computers in our lives, certain coping strategies have developed among computer users which work in the short term, but are ultimately ineffective. Among the most pernicious of these is the notion, relatively common among computer users over 40, that there is a magical silicon empathy drug that they started giving to babies in the 1960’s, and if you didn’t get high doses in early childhood, you have no hope of ever really understanding computers. Maybe it’s the fluoride in the water or something.

This is a comforting myth, because if you are one of the aforementioned unfluoridated children, you are off the hook as far as responsibility for your computer problems: it’s up to those wacky GenXers to understand the durn contraptions. But alas, it just ain’t true.

Computer skills, like anything else, are acquired skills. Some people have an aptitude for them, some don’t. But that aptitude is pretty much evenly distributed with age. Admittedly, younger folks tend to have a head start on older folks because computer games provide a powerful incentive for children to learn how to use machines at a young age, whereas those who grew up before Pong are more likely to learn computing at a much later age, when forced to by circumstance. Still, that’s a head start which can be closed with a bit of application.

Now, taking that time is a hassle, and it’s probably easier to pretend it’s not an option. However, as we discussed last time, alienation from one’s tools is a highly frustrating state of affairs, and you’ll be able to get more done and reduce the stress of dealing with your machine by making that investment in learning the skills.

The myth of the silicon empathy drug can also induce people to do things which are less than sensible. I got a programming job once based on a semester of Introduction to Programming and having designed two web pages. But really, the key factor was probably that I was 21 at the time, and twenty-somethings can figure out any computer problem, even if they are unqualified.

It also encourages utterly unqualified young people to try for jobs in the IT industry, which we are assured is just crying out for personnel. Which is true, but it’s crying out for UNIX sysadmins and Oracle database programmers with a BS in Computer Science and 4+ years experience. And yet, aimless young people who can customize the icons on their desktop and have their own web page believe that there are dozens of jobs waiting for them out there, because they keep being told there are.

And then, of course, there is the most dangerous pitfall of the silicon empathy drug myth: entrusting your machine to someone just because they’re demographically correct to fix it. An eighteen-year-old technician-wannabe who assures you he can fix the problem may just not be aware that he has no clue what he’s doing (Remember the story of me and the misread on/off switch? I was acting very authoritative and knowledgeable at the time, and also very fifteen), and may erase half your files before admitting that he’s a jackass. In fairness to eighteen-year-old technician wannabes, many of them are in fact quite skilled; my point is that you want to evaluate your technician based on his or her actual qualifications, not age.

So although it may be easier on you to believe that you are incapable of learning computer skills, in the long run, it’s more trouble and stress. Take the time to learn what’s going on. A little knowledge goes a long way with these machines.

Whaddya Mean, I Hate My Computer?

In the pursuit of a remedy for misotechny, we need to ask ourselves why it is that people hate their computers. Technophobia makes perfect sense: computers are complicated and often unintuitive machines, and mastering their foibles is a daunting task. But it’s only a machine; why should anyone hate it?

The answer, I think, lies in the role that computers have come to play in our lives. Over the course of the 1990s, computers have ceased to become toys or conveniences for most of us, but necessities. There are many advantages to this state of affairs: easier communication, simpler revision of documents, cheaper production of documents, and so on for several pages. However, this means that there are thousands and thousands of people who depend on computers everyday–for whom these machines are a essential part of their work–and they don’t understand their tools.

To work every day with a tool which may, at any moment, stop functioning for opaque reasons, and which you are not able to fix or even to diagnose its problem, is extraordinarily frustrating. Frustration, in turn, tends to be channeled into anger. But who is the target of this anger? Most people in this situation won’t blame themselves; they know how to do their job, and they’re doing it correctly. They could blame the company who made the machine, but it’s often not clear whether the problem is with the hardware, the operating system, or the software, all of which were probably made by different companies. Which one is at fault?

In the end, most people, unable to find an appropriate target for their anger, wind up putting the blame on the computer itself. The computer is serving as a symbol for the entire computer industry and the societal structures which are forcing them to use this machine which they don’t understand.

The problem, of course, with being angry at an inanimate object is that you can never work out your difficulties with a machine. If it isn’t fixed, it’ll keep doing what it was doing that made you angry in the first place; it has no desire to get past the negative relationship between you.

Fixing the machine, of course, would fix its behavioral problems, but if you could fix the machine, you wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. And as we all know, a computer is never permanently fixed. So, the anger just builds up and festers. Anything you do with your computer takes on a bit of that flavor of bitterness. The next time something goes wrong, you are even less inclined to deal with it, moving closer and closer to the day when you hurl the big plastic beast out the window.

The solution to this, as we discussed in the first column, is understanding. Once you come to understand your machine, you can deal appropriately with problems, and you have a better chance of being able to place blame where it rightly lies. Your computer problems will remain problems, but they will be setbacks to overcome rather than slurs against your ability to do your job.

Holistic Technology:
Helpful Tips for Facing Your Machine

Holistic Tech Tip #1: Check The Power

If your computer–or any machine, really–refuses to turn on, check to make sure that it’s plugged in and turned on. Not once, not twice, but three times. And don’t just glance at the plug. Really check. Wiggle the plug; check the power strip. Make sure the power settings mean what you think they do (in younger and more foolish days, I managed to interpret the 1-and-0 switch on a printer as “closed” and “open”, leading me to believe that 0 was the correct setting).

The reason for all this rigmarole is that, should you fail to remedy the problem on your own and be forced to call for assistance, there are few things so embarrassing as being told that you simply failed to plug the darn thing in. You will probably then blame the machine for your embarrassment, which will just add to the burden of your misotechny, and we’re trying to avoid that here. On the other hand, should you discover that, in fact, the machine was not plugged in, you will have the satisfaction and empowerment of having fixed the problem yourself, and will be able to say “Silly me; I forgot to plug it in”. You will feel better about yourself and your machine, and you’ll have more confidence that you can solve your own technological problems. Even if the power supply isn’t the problem, at least now you can rule out one possibility.

Holistic Life Tip #1: Calling For Help Doesn’t Mean You’re Dumb

Even if you do find yourself in the above-mentioned situation of calling your technical support person only to find that you didn’t plug the machine in correctly, you should know that you shouldn’t feel stupid. The reason that you ask a more knowledgeable person to help you with a machine, nine times out of ten, is not that something needs to be done that you couldn’t do yourself. It’s that knowledge helps you pare down the options.

You, the less knowledgeable user, are faced with a situation where things don’t work, and you don’t know why. For all you know, anything could be wrong. Even if you’ve checked something, you don’t have enough confidence in your own diagnostic abilities to rule it out. Furthermore, you have no confidence that the problem isn’t with some part of the machine you aren’t even aware of. This prevents you from being at all systematic about attempting to solve the technical problem, and probably makes the psychological problem worse. The negative feelings associated with things not working have not alleviated, and are now compounded by the frustration of failure.

The expert, whom we shall call Dave, on the other hand, can look at a part of the machine and say with confidence that part of the machine is not the source of the problem. His experience enables him to tell what sorts of problems usually cause the symptoms you’re experiencing. He probably doesn’t know what’s wrong. But he is much better equipped to narrow down the options and try to solve the problem systematically. So even though the problem was just a silly power cord which you could have fixed in a second, Dave was much more likely to discover that problem than you. You’re not stupid, merely inexpert.

Holistic Technology: What’s Wrong with This Machine?

I decided to write this column after working as a hardware sales consultant for a year. Lengthy exposure to people’s concerns and complaints about their computers has led me to the belief that the biggest problem that people face in putting computers and other machines to good use is not a problem of user interface, nor a problem of intrinsic design. The problem is that people hate their computers.

They like what their machines do for them, but on a deep and abiding level, they hate the malicious chunk of metal and plastic with which they are compelled to interact in order to get the good stuff, and they fear the unpredictable ways in which it may cause them trouble. This creates what they call in personal-growth circles “bad energy”. As a result, people spend their computer time stewing in their own bad vibes, which impairs their ability to deal with problems which may arise as well as their ability to be productive with the machine in any way.

There is an ongoing effort to make computing more and more inoffensive, in an attempt to alleviate people’s technophobia. For the majority of users, however, the problem is not technophobia but misotechny — hatred of machines, not fear. No matter how non-threatening and easy to use you make a computer, misotechny will still stand between people and their machines.

Most people are smart enough to understand and learn computer skills far beyond the level of most users. The problem is that they don’t want to. They don’t feel they should have to. Psychological obstacles prevent them. What we need, therefore, is skills for overcoming people’s hatred of their machines, so that they can devote their energies to making their computers help them do whatever they want them to do.

This column exists to take a few steps in that direction. It’s aimed at the basic user trying to establish a better relationship with their tools, but I think anyone who works with computers may find something interesting from time to time. There will be a little bit of theory, a little bit of philosophy, and a little bit of technical advice. With a little luck, we can all learn to groove with our machines.