Malicious technology (Part 1)

No, this is not related to the Heartbleed bug. There is already plenty of valuable information out there about it and what you should do about it without me sticking my oars in.


I’ve noticed a certain unconscious assumption some people have (myself included) when dealing with computers*, that primarily affects how we react to something going wrong. I feel it would remove certain roadblocks if this were addressed and refuted.

It’s the belief that the computer is smarter than we are.

Now, it sounds silly to say it out loud—computers are just machines, of course they’re not smarter than people. And I don’t think it’s a position that people hold intellectually, but rather emotionally. What’s the difference? Just ask someone on a strict diet what they feel about butterscotch pudding (or whatever sugary/salty/fatty banned food it is they’re craving). Their brain says “no, it’s bad for me”, but their heart says “yummy!”.

So what effect does this have with regards to computers? When something goes wrong—a program crashes; your data mysteriously disappears; something changes and you have no idea how to get it back; you find yourself in a maze of twisty little dialog boxes, all alike; etc.—your reaction is “what have I done?!”. Tech support often reinforces this**, both overtly (“What did you do?”) and implicitly (think about the underlying tone of a lot of the available help, especially online).

There are two components to the assumption.

If I was more savvy, this wouldn’t have happened

It’s easy to see why this belief persists. It’s certainly true in a wide variety of other situations. However, even expert computer users still run into problems. Partly this is because almost no-one is an expert in all aspects of computers (electrical physics, electronics, cpu and memory architecture, bios, kernel, network, software, etc.). The difference tends to be that more experienced users are better able to recover from a problem (either through knowing where to look, or being able to understand the jargon). Plus, there’s the second component…

The computer doesn’t make mistakes

Again, an understandable belief. Almost every mechanism we encounter will perform the same way every time (provided it’s not faulty). Computers don’t necessarily. Or rather, they do, but Chaos Theory. In practice, this means a correctly-behaving computer can be unpredictable. This makes it hard to get over the assumption that it did something unexpected because of something you did (wrong).

There’s more to say on the topic, but this is getting long enough, so I’ll save it for next time.


* And indeed, many other types of technology. I think the key factor is whether or not the user understands it or not—it’s not generally a problem with a toaster for example. Unless you’ve got a whizz-bang, multi-function, golden-brown-sensing, iPhone-compatible toaster. And if you’re rich enough to afford one, you probably don’t make your own toast, anyway.

** To be fair, there are people who genuinely shouldn’t be put in front of a computer, and who cause no end of stress and frustration to the people who have to work with/clean up after them. The vast majority of computer users, however, are reasonably capable.

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2 thoughts on “Malicious technology (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Malicious technology (Part 2) | Semi-Coherent Musings

  2. Pingback: Changing Perspective | Semi-Coherent Musings

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