Computers as Places of Power

“This is my home, Azazel; my place of power. This is the Heart of the Dreaming. Reality here conforms to my wishes; it is what I wish it to be — no more, no less. You have displeased my, Azazel. And in light of your actions, it was extremely unwise of you to reject my hospitality.”
Dream in “Sandman” by Neil Gaiman

I have worked for some time as tech support in a small university department. During this time (and at home, fixing computer problems for my parents) I have seen people who were controlled by their computers. Not totally, but from time to time. Their interaction with computers was characterized by being stressful … and very inefficient. I’ve seen it again and again in different places. In other jobs, at conferences, with friends and not so nice guys.

Some problems were related to the behavior of the operating system (OS), for example darkening the screen after a short time without user input, which is fine to save power if the user is away (and if running on battery!) but really, really stressful if the user is only reading longer texts. In these circumstances, the computer simply trains bad habits, like pushing the mouse every ten seconds or so. An other common problem is the lack of an adequate mental model of the computer’s file system, resulting in an illogical file structure that is impossible to remember and makes every search process and exploration mission with uncertain results. After a short while the user does not find anything he is searching and invents reasons for not using the file he has (somewhere). Usually along the lines of “Could you send me the file again?” or mantras like “I have it somewhere, it’s not urgent at the moment.” Frankly, it makes this person an ulcer generator for those working with him.

It is not that the problem is difficult to fix, the actions often involve only changing a setting or finding the files, but the behavior does not change and the anger by these inefficient computer users is often blasted to unsuspecting persons (because the computer does not care). While some vent their feelings into space like this comedian:

others attack the hardware:

or their subordinates.

In reality, the problem is rarely the computer. Computers can make mistakes, hardware can fail and software has bugs, causing the computer to fail or act gasp illogically. But in the overwhelming majority of cases a computer does just what the user tells him to do. Unfortunately for some users, what a user tells the computer and what a user wants the computer to do are not always equal.

I think that people who have problems with their computers often have problems with communication in general. They are not able to make their will known in the language of teh recipient, which is the only language that counts. In normal human communication, the personal status (department boss, parent, politician) might lead others to compensate for this deficit by learning to interpret the commands and finding out what the person really wanted by sifting what the person had said and referring to earlier instances in the past. A computer, however, cannot do this and probably would not do this. A computer is also impervious to brute force, bursts of anger, or disciplinary measures that would punch any subordinate into submission.

I think that’s whay more rational types really, really like computers — they are easy, they do what they are told if you learn their language and accept that you are responsible for any miscommunication. And I think that’s why more … emotional, management type persons often have a hard time with them.

Even today with computer classes in schools and computers being part of everyday life there are still people who are controlled by their computers, who cannot speak in their language and are unable to make themselves understood, to really work with this incredible machine most geniuses of the past would have given an eye and a leg for.

In summary, I can only recommend that you learn to make the computer a part of you, to communicate clearly with it, to use a logical and enduring file system, make backups because a computer is good but it is only a very complicated and very vulnerable machine that not only can fail but will fail if time has eroded its components to the point of breakdown. And I can only recommend to make your place in front of the computer a place of power that lets you use the “bicycle for the mind” (Steve Jobs) to your advantage.

Your work will benefit tremendously from it.

Some hints what you can do:

  • Play around
    My programs always came without handbooks so I found out what a program can do by going through the menu items one by one. You find many interesting functions this way. BTW, start with your operating system but do not change the settings unless you are sure that you can reenter them the way they were.
  • Look at the default settings
    Most settings are the way that at least 80% would like it this way. Chances are, you are uncomfortable with some. So have a look at the default settings and change them to your liking. Most programs have a “reset” button somehwere, if not, note what the default settings were before you change them in case you do not like the changes.
  • Learn the keyboard shortcuts
    There is more to keyboard shortcuts than cmd + c and cmd + v and they are called shortcuts for a reason.
  • Use helper programs
    For example, on a Mac, Quicksilver is a very useful program that can quickly open files or even append text files with new information.
  • Use what is useful to you, not what the program offers
    For example, Quicksilver has a lot of functionality and offers various plugins but I use it only to quickly open text files of my wiki. Why? Because this is a functionality that I need. Everything else I could use would actually slow me down because I do not work this way. I want to see the text file when I change something in it, so appending text to a file would be useless for me.
  • Start a pet project
    The easiest way to learn what a program can do is to try to create something with it. When you are playing around with the features, try to think of a project that would require most of the features and realize it. This will give you more confidence in handling the program and lead to a nice project. The best way to learn is often to do.
  • If something is bothering you, google for it
    Chances are, you are not alone and someone found a solution for it. There is even a solution to get rid of the stupid, condescending, and idiotic message bubbles of Windows XP (“wlan card is deactivated” <click closed> “could not connect to wlan” GRRRRRRRRRR).
  • and last but not least: ask
    Most people are willing to help, knowing well how gut wrenching it can be if you are controlled by your computer. Some people fear a lack of authority if they ask someone but in reality, it is a sign of a good boss if he is willing to ask.

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