Why are computers so frustrating?

As magical as computers seem to be, I think we’ve all found them disheartening at one time or another. You go to a website to fill out some information for your car insurance, but right when you click “Save” the browser freezes up and the screen goes blank and you grab your computer and smash it against the wall and stomp on it and scream violent obscenities. It’s happened all of us. When you complain about this to your friends, there’s usually some dorky techhead who says something like “You know, computers are 5000 times more efficient than any other methodology known to man. The fact that you were able to fill this form out on the web saved you the time of having to go down to your insurance company’s office and fill it out there blah blah blah blah…” At which point, you grab your friend’s head and smash it against the wall and stomp on it and scream violent obscenities.

Of course, your now deceased friend is fundamentally correct. As frustrating as most computer processes are, they’re still more efficient than the pen and paper or filing cabinet processes society used up until the popularization of the PC. (Remember when creating multiple copies of the document involved sticking carbon paper in the typewriter?) So why don’t I fear using pens or filing cabinets the way I do using a computer?

Up until six months ago I probably would have just said something like, “because computers suck,” and not give it much thought. But having read significant amounts of text on neuroscience since then, I think I have a deeper answer. Our brains are prediction engines; we’re constantly taking guesses at what’s going to happen with this or that action. And we like to discover consistent patterns — that’s what learning is. When we can’t figure out the pattern, we get frustrated. You can see this in experiments with monkeys. Scientists teach a monkey that clicking the green button will deliver a food pellet. The monkey does this hundreds of times and is consistently rewarded. Then they alter the functionality so the button only randomly delivers a food pellet. The monkey, who has learned to expect a certain behavior, gets extremely frustrated. He grabs the green button, smashes it against the wall, stomps on it and screams violent obscenities. And who can blame him?

You can obviously see where I’m going with this. Pen and paper and filing cabinets may be inefficient, but they work exactly as expected 99.999% of the time. Computers are much less predictable. As such, we have a slight but always simmering anxiety when we use them. “Is this the time that I will click the Enter key and the computer will erase all my MP3s while sending everyone in my contact list copies of the pornographic photos of morbidly obese women I’ve been looking at?” Probably not, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

As readers may know, I recently finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide,” a book that gets into a lot of these intricacies about how our brain interacts with the outside world. And while I was reading it, I was considering the possibility of a new kind of consulting service: working with software developers to design programs that have an understanding of how the brain operates. I dismissed the idea because it just seemed a little too vague and it would be hard to determine whether any value was really being derived from it*. But now I’m not so sure there isn’t something to it.


* Some might argue that vagueness and indeterminate valuation are the definition of business consulting, but I digress…

5 Responses to “Why are computers so frustrating?”

  1. John Saleeby

    I can’t find the green button on my computer that gives out the food pellet. Computers are SHIT!

  2. Jon

    From the resident “techhead”. Computers suck.

    The more you use them, the more you know this is the unforgiving truth.

  3. Wil

    Jon, as a techhead, perhaps you can show John where to find the green button.

  4. John Saleeby

    And how do I do the thing where I solve murders by zooming in on tiny details of pictures?

  5. Wil

    That’s also the green button. You get a food pellet for every murder you solve. That’s how cops work.