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PC Paranoia
by Mike Jennett
2007-10-27 08:42:29
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Forgive me if I sound biased or even a tad paranoid, but I’m convinced that computers are out to get me.

Just me.

Not a single 24-hour period goes by – unless I’m on the road or at the beach or somehow not within sight of one - without something quite definitely computer-based going awry.

According to friends and colleagues to whom I moan, I’m making it up or have caused it myself. Such things don’t happen. Word is perfect. Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, XP, Vista and any other collection of letters imagined and collected in those heady offices in Seattle, never have issues.

So it must be me.

I rename or delete folders and files, only to find then un-renamed or un-deleted, or the machine tells me I can’t, or I click and drag and it dumps the file somewhere else, somewhere unimaginably bad. I play two CDs in a row and the machine ignores the new one, convinced that the previous one is still in its drawer.

How far would you trust a pen that wrote in three different colors, or one that began producing italics after a particular line on the page? How often would you use paper that made all words right-aligned or turned them into a different font, or just simply stopped accepting anything visible? You wouldn’t.

You’d moan and complain and run screaming and yelling about the illogical fashion in which your pen and paper were behaving – but it’s apparently quite acceptable with a computer. They do stuff like this all the time and we’re somehow OK with it. People don’t notice it.

Except me.

The other day I wanted to write a short piece of technical documentation; perhaps three or four pages, with headers and a couple of numbered lists. It’s a marginally higher requirement than a letter to dear old Auntie Jeanne, but hardly taxing.

There’s no point reporting how, part way through, my tabs changed from 5 to half way across the page for no discernable reason. Or how the indented lists lost their numbering, regained it, ran on from each other and finally became bulleted. None. And why did a heading, noted as ‘Heading 2’, look bolder and bluer than a similar-named ‘Heading 2’ further down, which had also changed its font size? Who would listen - or care?

Of course, there are HELP screens. Hah! Help? What kind of cruel joker named them that? Just press F1 to see pretty panels employing everyday words in contexts hitherto unknown, mingled with ones apparently made up on the spur of the moment, culminating in mind-bending, screaming frustration. Let’s see – what would one look up, to find the name of the last text randomizing function, to first undo it and then turn it off?

Read a book? Hah! A book on Word for people who want to do more than trawl through seventy glossy pages of color screen prints with arrows and speech bubbles, so they can eventually rattle off a grocery list? Or something smaller than the 2,000 page bible printed in miniscule font on tissue paper and more suitable as a door-stop? Don’t make me laugh.

I talk about this stuff and I’m thought of as a heretic, or a Luddite, but the simple truth is that I just want to get something done quickly and without a lot of fuss.

I realize something of significance now. It’s people, not computers that are the problem. At the front end – excuse the insider terminology – there are the nerds and geeks who soak this stuff up and see interesting challenges in place of issues and, at the back end there are the designers, who don’t think enough like real people.

I hate spending two hours on the internet trying to reserve a flight because, after displaying everything supposedly available, Orbitz prevents me from booking each option as ‘unavailable’, or displays a significantly higher price than three minute earlier. Why should I sign up for an account by creating yet another user ID and a password before I can learn the price of a seat on the Eurostar to London? What about getting all the way through reserving a Hertz car to collect at Auckland airport in New Zealand, only to discover, at the credit card payment stage, that the ‘deal’ is only available to American residents. I am one – but the designer’s forethought didn’t extend to US residents reserving a car overseas.

How is it that installing a new piece of software can lead you ‘round and ‘round in circles without letting on that you’ve finished until you notice a familiar screen and try to back out? Poor design. Why do so many so-called international web-sites sites make no mention of their currency or require an US ZIP code and formatted telephone number? Poor design. And who is responsible for poor design?


So, I believe I’ll change my earlier premise; computers aren’t out to get me. That sounds too paranoid.

People are.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-10-27 12:34:42
Sundry musings on the subject: you are definitely not a Luddite Mr. Jennett, you are just human and the good news is that you can still recognize your humanity as more than mere robotic rationality, more than the sum of its parts. The computer is rationally superior and beats us at chess all the times. We are more than mere rationality and can write poetry and conceive of the soul and the ineffable, the poetical, the mind, which is definitely not a computer of meat called brain. Those who think of themselves as nothing but complex machines with no feelings and no freedom run the risk of dehumanization. So, be friendly to your computer which with all its rational perfection has no freedom and cannot imagine a love poem, don’t think of it as a substitute for a good friend and keep on reading or perhaps writing good poetry. That way you'll avoid being clever by half and selling your soul for dish of lentils or your whole humanity for mere rational perfection.

Sand2007-10-27 12:58:02
You puts your nickel into the Paparella slot machine and out comes the same printed message.

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-27 16:07:51
"You puts your nickel" and out come the familiar voices in one's head...

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-27 23:39:27
P.S. To return to the PC paranoia of the above piece, here is one of my recent experiences: for four days now I have attempted to forward a contribution to the magazine expecting the usual confirmatory reply. So far I am not sure if it has arrived or not. I will continue sending it daily so that eventually I'll know whether it is my paranoia, or my unpredictable computer, or perhaps a mischevious goblin from cyber space...

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