The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Superstition & Computer Technology

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 27, 2009

Today I saw a great post over at the Tech Republic blog about the “10 habits of superstitious users” of computers.  I wanted to pass this along to you, partially because it is an excellent contemporary example of loose & magical thinking.  I am also sharing it partially out of deference to my wife, who has to deal with the computer illiterate all-too-often who view the computer as either some kind of malevolent entity or a magical box.

Here is the main text of the article [note that I’ve added relevant links to the text]…

Superstition: A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way (Wiktionary).

In 1947, the psychologist B. F. Skinner reported a series of experiments in which pigeons could push a lever that would randomly either give them a food pellet, or nothing. Think of it as a sort of one-armed bandit that the pigeons played for free. Skinner found, after a while, that some of the pigeons started acting oddly before pushing the lever. One moved in counterclockwise circles, one repeatedly stuck its head into the upper corner of the cage, and two others would swing their heads back and forth in a sort of pendulum motion. He suggested that the birds had developed “superstitious behaviors” by associating getting the food with something they happened to be doing when they actually got it — and they had wrongly concluded that if they did it again, they were more likely to get the pellet. Essentially, they were doing a sort of food-pellet dance to better their odds.

Although computer users are undoubtedly smarter than pigeons, users who really don’t understand how a computer works may also wrongly connect some action of theirs with success (and repeat it), or associate it with failure (and avoid it like the plague). Here are some of the user superstitions I’ve encountered.

1: Refusing to reboot

Some users seem to regard a computer that’s up and running and doing what they want as a sort of miracle, achieved against all odds, and unlikely ever to be repeated … certainly not by them. Reboot? Not on your life! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why take the risk?

2: Excessive fear of upgrades
Exercising caution when it comes to upgrades is a good idea. But some users go well beyond that, into the realm of the irrational. It may take only one or two bad experiences. In particular, if an upgrade causes problems that don’t seem to be related to the upgrade itself, this can lead to a superstitious fear of change because it confirms their belief that they have no idea how the computer really works — and therefore no chance of correctly judging whether an upgrade is worth it or just asking for trouble. Better to stay away from any change at all, right?

3: Kneejerk repetition of commands
These are the people who, when their print command fails to produce output in a timely manner, start pounding the keys. They treat the computer like a recalcitrant child who just isn’t paying attention or doesn’t believe they really mean it. Users may get the impression that this superstition is justified because the computer sometimes does seem to be ignoring them — when it fails to execute a double-click because they twitched the mouse or when they have inadvertently dropped out of input mode. Or it may come from the tendency of knowledgeable helpers to make inconspicuous adjustments and then say, “Try it again.”

4: Insisting on using particular hardware when other equally good hardware is available
Whenever you go to the trouble of providing your users with multiple options — computers, printers, servers, etc. — they will develop favorite choices. Some users will conclude, however, based on their previous experience (or sometimes just based on rumor), that only this particular piece of hardware will do. The beauty of interchangeability is wasted on them.

5: “I broke it!”
Many users blame the computer for any problems (or they blame the IT department). But some users assume when something goes wrong, they did it.

They don’t think about all the tiny voltages and magnetic charges, timed to the nanosecond, all of which have to occur in the proper sequence in order for success. In fact, there are plenty of chances for things to go wrong without them, and things often do. But then, all those possible sources of error are hidden from the user — invisible by their nature and tucked away inside the box. The only place complexity isn’t hidden is in the interface, and the most obviously fallible part of that is … them. It may take only a few cases of it actually being the user’s fault to get this superstition rolling.

6: Magical thinking
These are the users who have memorized the formula for getting the computer to do what they want but have no clue how it works. As in magic, as long as you get the incantation exactly right, the result “just happens.” The unforgiving nature of computer commands tends to feed this belief. The user whose long-running struggle to connect to the Web is resolved by, “Oh, here’s your problem, you left out the colon…” is a prime candidate to develop this superstition.

Once on the path to magical thinking, some users give up trying to understand the computer as a tool to work with and instead treat it like some powerful but incomprehensible entity that must be negotiated with. For them, the computer works in mysterious ways, and superstitions begin to have more to do with what the computer is than how they use it.

7: Attributing personality to the machine
This is the user who claims in all honesty, “The computer hates me,” and will give you a long list of experiences supporting their conclusion, or the one who refuses to use a computer or printer that had a problem earlier but which you have now fixed. No, no, it failed before and the user is not going to forget it.

8: Believing the computer sees all and knows all
Things this user says betray the belief that behind all the hardware and software there is a single Giant Brain that sees all and knows all — or should. They’re surprised when things they’ve done don’t seem to “stick,” as in “I changed my email address; why does it keep using my old one?” or “Did you change it everywhere?”  “… Huh?” or “My new car always knows where I am, how come I have to tell Google Maps where I live?” or the ever-popular “You mean when you open up my document you see something different?”

9: Assuming the computer is always right
This user fails to recognize that the modern computer is more like television than the Delphic oracle. Even the most credulous people recognize that not everything they see on television is true, but some users think the computer is different. “There’s something wrong with the company server.” “What makes you think that?” “Because when I try to log in, it says server not found.” … “Why did you click on that pop-up?” “It said I had a virus and that I had to.”

10: “It’s POSSESSED!!”
Users who are ordinarily rational can still succumb to superstition when the computer or its peripherals seem to stop paying any attention to them and start acting crazy — like when the screen suddenly fills with a code dump, or a keyboard problem overrides their input, or a newly revived printer spews out pages of gibberish. It serves to validate the secretly held suspicion that computers have a mind of their own — and that mind isn’t particularly stable.

We’re used to seeing superstitions among gamblers and athletes, who frequently engage in high-stakes performances with largely unpredictable outcomes. That superstitions also show up when people use computers — algorithmic devices designed to be completely predictable — is either evidence of human irrationality or an interesting borderline case of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Based upon all of these things, I wonder how long it’ll be until someone actually starts a religion based upon computers and/or the Internet?  It seems someone has already done so, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner, by creating the Church of Google 😀

2 Responses to “Superstition & Computer Technology”

  1. January said

    Most of these are not superstitions — they are perfectly reasonable ways to handle a computer.

    Ad 1. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — is directly related to “primum non nocere”. A seamless debian upgrade followed by a reboot might be the cause of your drivers (that you had to compile from source months ago and forgot about that) no longer working, and suddenly you have no webcam just before a major videoconferencing or job interview. Happend to me.

    Ad 2. Upgrades do break things — in Windows as in Linux (don’t know about Macs). An upgrade from Ubuntu 9.04 to 9.10 suddenly broke the beamer package that I use to create presentations — I discovered that an hour before a major presentation of scientific results. Luckily, I didn’t upgrade my workstation yet (because I was following the “superstition” #2; I did have to upgrade the laptop because I needed the 9.10 drivers for my new Thinkpad).

    Ad 3. Yep, this sometimes work. Not always, but sometimes. Computers are complex systems. Say, you try to print, but did not notice that an upgrade of the print system is running in the background. Try it again — in the meanwhile the update is finished — and you will find that the printing works. Magic? Nope. But it does look like this sometimes.

    Ad 4. Never change a winning team. I have my favourite brand of laptops and I am not going to change it even though “perfectly equivalent substitutes” are available. No two pieces of hardware are exactly identical. I once bought a scanner for a Linux system to replace a very similar scanner from the same vendor and series (like, replaced a “4000x” with “4100y” or something). The capabilities were almost identical, but it turned out that the chip version of the latter was not supported by Linux.

    Ad 5. Sometimes I did it, sometimes I did not. Chances are, the problem is related to whatever I was doing. In most of the cases, I am the source of my computer related problems.

    Ad 6. Any sufficiently advanced technology… etc. Where’s the news?

    Ad 7. Don’t we all do it from our earliest childhood? Didn’t you ever had a toy that had its own name and personality? Hello! We are HUMAN! This is how we work, this is how we *like* to operate. You should be aware that it’s a trick of your brain, but trying to deny the fact that we like to personalise our surroundings would be like denying our sexual drive. And you know what happens when you do it.

    Ad 8. The examples given are, actually, deficiencies of the user interfaces. The software makers are trying very, very hard to make the usage of their programs as painless and consistent as possible. And indeed, many things do work like this: you change your password in your googlemail account, then firefox remembers the change, all your other google services also update the password etc. In fact, when computer systems do not behave like that, then they are inconsistent. “You mean when you open up my document you see something different?” — hello, if you do, then your software is broken. You *should* see the same thing. I use LaTeX and PDF and yes, that is usually how it works.

    Ad 9. Yep, that is a real problem. However, users have been told so many times that they should follow the instructions (usually written in a language that is not different from gibberish whether you are a novice or a pro), and that if they don’t, they will not be given any support, that it is no wonder that they *do* follow them.

    Ad 10. Sometimes it is a useful metaphor for the statement “this computer is a bunch of incompatible components thrown together, immersed in a broken version of a brain-dead operating system that hasn’t been reinstalled or updated for years, and don’t expect that it will work properly”. We used to have a “haunted” machine like this in the lab I was working. One particular combination of components and network connection, and the network never was working correctly. No idea why — we exchanged several components including the motherboard, we have tried various settings, we have reinstalled the system many times… it just didn’t work. Finally, we have just dumped the piece of crap and replaced it by a new system.

    I am a scientist and evolutionary biologist in the field of computational biology / bioinformatics, and also did my share of system and network administration.


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