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I work for an IT company. We design, build, and maintain computer networks for a variety of clients in our region, mostly clinics and assisted-living facilities. There’s a whole gamut of ALFs, from seniors’ communities which remind me of an upscale townhouse complex to palliative care homes, which are basically hospitals for the terminally ill, and apparently people in assisted-living facilities die mainly from two things: infectuous disease outbreaks (mostly influenza) and being given the wrong meds. We can’t do much about the infectous diseases (although we have extremely strict policies about on-site visits if there’s even a remote chance that an employee might be ill) but we can build and maintain the computer networks that track, organize and (increasingly) distribute the medications that these folks need to have a decent quality of life. It’s interesting, fulfilling work, and there’s a real satisfaction to knowing that at the end of the day we helped someone’s grandmother get the life-saving medication she needs and not, for example, the life-saving medication intended for the gentleman down the hall.

I often joke that the owner of our company (hereafter referred to as The Boss™, although he’s not a Springsteen fan) just runs the company in order to get a tax writeoff on all the latest gadgets. There’s enough truth to that to make it funny (and he does love his gadgets) but to his credit he lets his employees have the toys, too. I’m currently in possession of both a company-owned MacBook and the a company-owned iPad4 (132GB 3G-enabled). Both are loaded with software (bought on the company account) which enables me to access a client’s network and computers from, quite literally, anywhere in the world (with the correct series of passwords, of course.) My personal iPhone 4 is also loaded with most of the same software, which means if necessary I can troubleshoot a client’s computer hunched-over a 3.5″ Retina display… and I’ve done so on occasion. It’s not fun, but I’ve done it. (For the record, I’m the company’s Apple Guy, on a more-or-less “1-2-3-not it!” basis.)

It’s spilled over into my personal life, too. After two years at the company I’ve invested in my own NAS-server and a wifi network that’s second to none… and both are secured to the maximum level possible for consumer equipment. It’s fascinating to play with the cross-connectivity of these devices: I live in an increasingly complex network of computers, partitions, wifi, cell-data, and cloud-hosting. I can, quite literally, reach into my pocket and have unrestricted access to the entirety of human knowledge… so long as I’m willing to wade through the ads, popups and general bullshit that any Google search brings up.

Still, as we say at the office (usually when the Roomba starts its rounds), it’s good to live in the future.

But what I don’t understand is how many people don’t live there. Admittedly I’ve got a built-in bias towards the latest cutting-edge tech: I have to understand it, have to work with it, and on the plus side the company usually pays for it. But how can people, living in North America in the second decade of the 21st Century, fail to understand the most basic things about how a computer functions? Anyone who’s worked in tech support (and I had five years of call-centre tech support experience before I ended up with my current employer) has horror stories about the kind of things that people do to their computers. People bitch about calling HP or Dell and being asked whether their computer is plugged in, but believe me, I’ve had to ask that question and the answer isn’t always “yes.” Some of our clients don’t have the faintest idea of how a computer works — it is literally a black box technology: plug it in, and it somehow works. When it doesn’t work, freak out.

My Fiancée™ has had to listen to me provide “24/7 tech support” on one night or another while I’m on-call, which generally means me sitting in my home office in my undies at 02:30 remoting into some night-nurse’s computer to find out what Error 28 (0x1C) means (Printer Is Out Of Paper, FYI, which is clearly stated in the line just above Error 28 (0x1C)) and she’s often amused by the simplistic nature of the fixes. She describes herself as “not a computer expert”, but I’ve seen her run shell-script troubleshooting in a Ubuntu terminal window and that’s not for the faint of heart; I regularly deal with people for whom the power switch on the front of the computer is a scary and unknown thing.

Admittedly, I don’t know how to fix the engine of a car; I hire a professional to do that. But I have a core understanding of how a car’s engine works. I understand the importance of checking the oil and the fluids and so on, and I can do those things myself. I have the practical experience to know when my engine starts making a noise which requires taking it to a mechanic. If our clients don’t have the intimate knowledge of how computers work that we do, well, that’s why they hired us, isn’t it? But it’s more than a bit puzzling when we’re presented with computers that “don’t work” only to find out they’ve been run with all the vents stopped up until they overheat; or somebody panicked when one of those fake “your computer has a virus” popups appeared and downloaded upteen trojans by clicking “Fix Now!”; or (and this one is a favorite) somebody lost their temper at the contents of their email and kicked their computer hard enough to snap off the head stack and unseat the platters inside his HDD.

I’ve come up with the theory that some people don’t want to learn how computers work because they’re afraid of them. I blame TV and movies; computers and robots gone bad are a part of our literary culture, after all. Certainly a lot of our clients anthropomorphize their computers — heck, so do we, sometimes. And I’ve noticed that the people who understand their computers the least are the ones who anthropomorphize them the most, usually as some fickle and untrustworthy beast that is just waiting to devour all their paperwork, hack the Pentagon, and start World War III if you use the wrong set of shortcut keys.

But there’s nothing to be afraid of: A computer isn’t self-ware; it can’t be. It’s a machine, like any other: the difference between a computer and, for example, one of The Fiancée™’s inkle looms is a difference of degree, not of kind. Depite the enormous complexity of our programs, the efforts that have been made to make interfaces more “intuitive” and “user friendly” a computer is no more, and no less, than a sophisticated electronic clockwork. When they break down, they don’t do it to piss you off, or because they’re evil: They do it because something just got broken. The fact that people get so attached to (and bent out of shape at) their computers says a lot more about people than it does about their machine.