COMPUTERS MADE ME SMARTER - INSUFFERABLE, TOO

Welcomat - February 14, 1990

My father is constantly sending me clippings from various periodicals that I might find interesting. I've gotten everything from articles on AIDS to Roz Chast cartoons, and most recently, an job-related article out of the Washington Post Sunday supplement. The subject of the article was a new problem that was being discussed among psychologists - the frustration experienced in dealing with the real world by people who work with computers all day long. Not only do we get upset in traffic jams and other life-delaying situations, but just talking to "normal" people who skitter around a subject before getting to the point can get us antsy and make us wish we could upgrade their software to make them a little more user-friendly.

The accuracy of the article amazed me, because over the years working in the computer field, I have noticed my own thought processes becoming more "logical" - that is, more able to sort out unnecessary bits of information, organize information before presenting it, and make decisions based on whatever data is relevant. A computer is most effective when the person giving it commands is presenting information in the way the system is designed to receive it. This means that the operator has to sort the data all out in his brain before entering it. Doing this day in and day out, certain thought processes are reinforced (the work gets done faster and more easily) and the operator actually learns to think in a more ordered fashion.

But the new way of thinking that we learn doesn't go away when we leave the office. I find when I go to McDonald's, I spend the time in line organizing my data (or "order" to the layman), and delivering all the necessary information at once - "Quarter pounder, medium fries, large Coke to go." This compulsion is strong enough that even if there is no line, I will hang back and sort out what I want before going up to the cashier, rather than going up and saying, "Um, I think I'll have...no, wait, I'll have the..." This causes two problems - first, normal people who don't work with computers don't have the day-to-day need to present information in an orderly fashion, so they have no problem with going up to the counter and making up their minds as they talk, and we "structured thinkers" get frustrated and think they're stupid. The other problem is that since the McDonald's employees aren't computers, they're not prepared to receive the information as we present it - in other words, the girl behind the counter will ask me two minutes after I place my order whether it's for here or to go, when I very clearly stated at the end of my order what I wanted. I mean, how dare they! Any self-respecting computer would have held that information in memory until it needed it! Unless we obsessed types monitor our own behavior, we actually get angry at both the undecided customer and the employee with the faulty memory, which gets our blood pressure up and (if we actually display our frustration) gets the other person thinking, "What a jerk!".

The funny thing about this is that it feels GOOD to be thinking in this orderly fashion. You actually do feel that you're thinking faster and more efficiently. I personally have found that the ability to sort out irrelevant or false bits of information have made me a better arguer (something I've never been good at). But considering the problems it can cause in ordinary life - well, hey. Unless you realize what is going on and watch yourself, you end up not being able to talk to anyone unless they're a computer nerd, or a robot, and there goes your social life. It can even ruin your job, which is what caused you to think like an automaton in the first place.

I've worked for the last two years in the field of computer customer support, which means I help people with computer problems. And most people who use computers professionally are not computer people per se; they're just average joes who have to enter data of some sort into a spreadsheet, or database, or a secretary who has to use a word processing program. Most of them don't "get into" computers the way we nerds do, and don't develop this weird mindset, so if we try to get information out of them, or they're trying to tell us something, WE have to do the information sorting. Often I have dreamed of a client who would call with a problem and present it the way I order hamburgers - "I was in WordPerfect and I used List Files to print a file on the laser printer and the printer didn't do anything". That's perfect - clear, concise, a lot of relevant and necessary information. But most of the time a client will give you this - "I came back from lunch and my boss wanted three copies of this complaint for the Newman case, and the complaint's twenty pages long and has three signature lines and then my husband called and I finally did that thing, you know, with the file list, and it didn't work".

Now, in order to help the user with her problem, we have to get her to be more specific - "What 'thing' with the file list?", for instance. Or more important, what is meant by "didn't work" - did the printer sit there happily doing nothing, or was it frantically trying to do something and smoke was coming out of the housing? Meanwhile, she is getting more and more upset, because her boss is screaming at her to get the thing printed, and she thinks she screwed up somehow and is going to get fired, and she's getting more and more incoherent, and can't understand why you can't just wave a wand and fix it. After a whole day of this, the customer support representative gets a little cranky, starts snapping at the users - "Turn the printer ON, you batbrain!" - and shortly thereafter gets fired.

This is probably why most people who are new to computers think they're never going to understand them and quite possibly end up hating them. First of all, the computer demands that they think in a new way, and while they're learning, they're turning for help to people who already think that way, and get frustrated by people who think the OLD way. "Computer people don't speak English", the users complain, and "user" becomes a synonym for "idiot" among the computer gentry.

What the solution is, I don't know. I've been monitoring myself and try not to get upset unless the situation calls for it. Once you realize that the skill of sorting and organizing mental information is useful at certain times and an actual handicap at others, you can just hold your tongue when you get upset. And then, later, having beers with your logical peers, just say, "Oh, you haven't heard THIS one yet..."


Copyright Eric Peterson, 1990