The Perils of Repair

Doing 21st Century Voodoo

A few days ago, we had a primer on how to build your own computer.

As many readers would attest, doing this is likely to make you the “computer expert” in the eyes of family, friends and acquaintances.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing. People can get very funny about this, and based on long observation, here’s some possible reasons why people can get a little bizarre when you try to help them:

For the average person, having an ill-functioning or not-functioning computer is an awkwardly stressful situation. To the average person, a computer is a glorified TV. It’s supposed to work, period. How it works is a mystery to them, but there are lots of such mysteries in their lives, and so long as the mysteries work without any help on their part, they’re perfectly fine with that.

However, when their computer stops behaving, it’s even worse than with the average consumer electronic device, because 1) it happens more often than with the other stuff and 2) a computer can work badly or not at all with being “broken.”

This is truly a mystery to the average person. They can understand a part inside being broken, but they don’t truly understand this thing called software. They truly don’t comprehend how or why something immaterial can maim their computer just as easily as a short-circuit.

Even worse, on the whole, I would say the majority of computer problems are caused by users, one way or the other. In other words, it’s their fault the computer isn’t working right, and let’s say accountability isn’t exactly hard-wired into most people.

They can understand a computer failure being their fault if they took a sledgehammer to it or dropped it a few feet onto the floor. They do not accept that clicking on “Yes” every time they see the word, or viewing more porn than Larry Flynt is more likely to maim their computer than a broken part. To them, saying that doing their thing caused the malfunction is like saying the TV doesn’t work because they used the remote.

They really resent the idea that they need to do something to take care of their computers, so they don’t. They may well buy something to do it for them, but if it doesn’t do it automatically, it won’t get done.

After all, they don’t maintain their TV set or clock radio (well, maybe they dust it occasionally), so why should they have to take care of their computer? It’s a machine, it should take care of itself.

Psychologically, for such people, you showing up to clean out the spyware on their sick machine isn’t a whole lot different than a witch doctor showing up for a sick child and saying, “Your child is sick because you have been consorting with evil spirits. I will now exorcise them,” then performing an incomprehensible ritual. The only real difference is that your magic works better than the witch doctor’s.

Incomprehension means lack of control, and an implicit concession of incompetence. Lack of control means fear, and fear means resentment of those who (maybe) do have control.

People don’t like feeling stupid or ignorant, even (and sometimes especially) when they are.

That resentment can manifest itself in a lot of ways. Some will try to get back a measure of control over the situation by acting as if they’re doing you a favor by letting them fix their machine. They won’t be ready when you are, or will delay you one way or another by having “more important” things to do with the machine, or they’ll sit there and “supervise” you. Some will tell you, “I want to learn,” then start arguing with you.

Others will judge/question your competence solely by how fast you diagnose and/or solve the problem. The reality is just about any computer problem might be caused by five or six different problems. You usually can find a prime suspect, but not always, and sometimes, it isn’t the prime suspect, but something that wasn’t even on the list. Research and logical troubleshooting can go a long way, but since the average person is good at neither, well, the witch doctor rarely said, “I need some time to research this.”

Finally, there’s the general, all-purpose, “repairmen are a lower form of life” attitude.

Advising The Queen

Another area where people may seek your “help” is in the purchase of a computer. My experience has been that people will either do what you say, or (more often) end up paying absolutely no attention to what you said when they pay. Usually, it’s because they want to buy right away (usually, to get it over with), and trifles like lack of knowledge aren’t allowed to get in the way of that.

Some, when put to the test, will toss anything you’ve said in favor of saving a few dollars. They don’t understand dual channel DDR; they do understand $100.

Others need someone to kiss their dorsals first before they buy. People often make a decision, then ask someone like you about it. They really don’t want your opinion, they want you to agree with what they decided and tell them how wise they are. If you don’t do that, what happens in many heads is not “Gee, I don’t know what I’m doing” but rather, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” So they go to a salesperson, who is more than happy to tell them how smart they are, and how they can be smarter yet with a few additions.

Some really consider the salesperson to be a certified (unlike you) authority figure.

There’s a subtle distinction between listening to a salesperson and listening to you. The salesperson is in a dependent relationship with the buyer, and you are not. The salesperson can’t say, kindly or not, “You are clueless,” while you can. Nor does the salesman have to with the “everafter” part of the story; you likely will.

Again, for many, buying is another case where personal egos trump rationality. Buying a product is considered a sovereign act, an act of control. For many, buying is practically the only act where they’re in charge. And here you are trying to take that away from them.

I’ve literally had people tell me, in a regal tone Queen Victoria would have admired, “You will not question my decision.”

I’m not saying people will run into this all or even most of the time. I am saying you will run into this if you do it enough.

It took a long time for me to understand this, because this way of thinking is so foreign to me. To me, buying a computer is about as much an emotional experience as buying a screwdriver. It will not make me a better person; it will not make me more (fill in the blank). It won’t change me one little bit outside of somebody with a better tool.

Some people seem to have reservoirs of resentment ready to be released at a moment’s notice; I don’t. There are many things in life about which I am cheerfully clueless, usually because I’ve had no reason to get one. When the need arises, either I will research and get a clue, or find someone who does.

I live in New York City. I am clueless about tractors. If I moved to Nebraska tomorrow, and found that I needed a tractor, I would not feel that I was a competent tractor buyer just because I’m a man, or any other reason. I would not go out and buy one before attempting to get a clue. If I asked Farmer Jones about it after doing my research, and he laughed at my decision because I hadn’t considered A, B, C, or D, whatever my reaction, I wouldn’t resent him for knowing more than me, any more than I resent Shaq for being center of the Miami Heat rather than me. After all, if I were so smart about it, I wouldn’t have asked him in the first place.

But other people don’t work that way. For them, buying a computer, or dealing with a malfunctioning one are very personal, emotional experiences, and a lot of that emotion is heavily tinged with fear, of one sort or another.

In all honesty, those other people could find things I do that are just as stupid and irrational.

So whether you’re starting on the path of becoming smarter than the average bear, or have been long there, keep these thoughts in mind when you run across such situations. It may not reduce the unpleasantness of some situations, but it should reduce the anger, and yes, resentment, you might feel when you’re in them.


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