Digital incantations (a.k.a. computer voodoo)

I call it “dousing for signals.” I’m sure you’ve done it too. You can’t get a good signal with your cell phone or wireless Internet connection. So you start walking around, pointing your phone at weird angles, tilt the lid of your monitor, all in the vain attempt to get one more bar of signal.

You might as well call the reception bars “dousing rods.”

Technologies have problems all the time. And people come up with methods to cope with technologies’ problems. Some work, like cell phone dousing. Some don’t.

These coping methods are signs that technology design is far behind when it comes to helping people diagnose and fix problems with their devices. It would be good enough if said devices actually made our lives better, solved problems faster, did what they claimed to do. But when the technologies hinder us from their benefits, we humans do the only thing we know how to do.

We speculate. We improvise. We get frustrated and give up.

Here are examples of computer voodoo that people try in the vain hope of making our problems all better.

  • Reboot
  • Hold the reset button down until the light turns red
  • Turn off the power, wait ten seconds, and turn it back on
  • Charge the battery to full
  • Discharge the battery to empty
  • Remove the battery
  • Push reset
  • Uninstall
  • Reinstall
  • Re-flash
  • Downgrade to the last version
  • Upgrade with the latest version
  • Push the “esc” key
  • Don’t push the “esc” key
  • Push the power button harder
  • Clear your browser cache
  • Delete your cookies
  • Check your drivers
  • Add more ram
  • Get a bigger hard drive
  • Buy a new computer/phone/device
  • Call Dave

When you see them altogether, they look pretty silly. You might as well add “toss salt over your left shoulder” and “shake the magic 8-ball” and “ask a unicorn” to the list. If any of these computer charms work, consider yourself lucky.

Compare technology problems to a running toilet. You can fix a running toilet yourself. Just check the flapper. It’ll cost you $5 at the hardware store to get a new one. Many are universal and will fit in any toilet. You can install it in a couple of minutes. And if that doesn’t fix it, certainly a plumber can fix it with a little work. Or you can just jiggle the handle.

Meanwhile, “digital” means “you can’t fix it.”* Application crashed? Send in a bug report. Then check for an update. Also make sure your drivers are up to date, you have all the patches for your operating system. What browser are you using? We don’t support that any more; try an earlier version. And turn off your firewall and anti-virus too. And there’s no way you could possibly fix it without help.

But there’s a plus side to an otherwise hopeless struggle against technology. “Digital” also means “new excuses.” Something bad happens that defies your ability to explain it, so you come up with an incantation to stop the pain from spreading. It’s a ward against evil — evil caused by technology problems:

  • My spam filter ate it
  • My anti-virus program ate it
  • The power went out and I didn’t save
  • The application crashed
  • I can’t find that file again
  • I know I sent it
  • My battery died
  • The hard drive died
  • It won’t boot
  • It won’t shutdown
  • I had no signal
  • I was on the other line
  • I was on the telephone
  • I was away from the telephone
  • Dave did something to it
  • I don’t know what’s wrong with it

Digital incantations are symptoms of a larger problem — poor design. The reasons for poor design are varied — planned obsolescence, incomplete testing, releasing products with bugs, the cost of supporting infinite software and hardware configurations, designing AT the people who will use the products instead of designing FOR them.

The cynic in me says that companies prey on the digital ignorance of most people. This attitude is embodied in the technologies those companies produce; most are difficult to use and impossible to fix for the average person.

The realist in me says if technology was well designed, people would be able to diagnose (and maybe even fix) their problems as easily as fixing a running toilet. Then the realist in me says, “but no company would ever do that.”

Technology should not be this inept.

Of course, sometimes you’ll need someone to help you fix your technology problems, just like sometimes you’ll need a plumber to fix your toilet. I know lots of people who can fix plumbing, cars, and wiring without trouble. But I know almost nobody who can fix their own computer problems without help.

As long as technologies aren’t designed to fail gracefully, and are designed to fail in a way that isn’t usable or fixable by normal people, I’ll still be able to bitch about it. So here’s to the hope that technology designers will take greater care to hold the hands of their users even when their shit breaks.

Design for the disaffected masses; they’ll appreciate the attention.

In the mean time, my cell phone is broken. It keeps rebooting right after it powers on. But I found that if I hit certain keys at the right time, it won’t reboot…

* And before I forget, open source software can’t fix this. Just because you can fix open source software yourself doesn’t mean my computer literate relatives can. They call me for help. And if you thought commercial software was unusable…

One Reply to “Digital incantations (a.k.a. computer voodoo)”

  1. Just read your article and think it is spot on. the job I had was working with computers systems. We changed to a new modernized system and my workload nearly trebled overnight. And that was without dealing with all the bugs and faults in the system.

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