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I’m on call for work this week, and I got an emergency page this morning while I was in the shower (I always get pages at the most inopportune times; I think there’s some sort of physical law involved) and it turned out that one of the nurses at one of our client sites couldn’t connect to the server.

You couldn’t have figured that out from the page itself, though: The wording was COMPUTERS ARE BROKEN! FIX THEM! plus her phone extension.

We did server maintenance and upgrades over the weekend, so I suppose it was to be expected. I called the person who paged me and asked if she’d done a reboot this morning (as per the various emails and notices we’ve been forwarding to our clients) and she reacted as though I’d suggested something vile.

“Of course not! I shouldn’t have to do that!”

I… what?

So I tried to explain that we’d made some server changes and that it was necessary to reboot the computer so that it could query the server and get the new address information, and could she try that quick fast and I’ll even stay on the line so as to make sure that it worked.
IT Crowd
That’s right: I went the Full IT Crowd on her.

Bear in mind that I’m telling her this while stark naked and dripping on my bedroom carpet.

She refused. She’s “not restarting this computer because what if it doesn’t come back on again?” and her co-worker “didn’t have to do that so why am I being singled out?” All of this in a belligerent and challenging tone, like the entire universe was conspiring to make her the target of some kind of nefarious global “Cannot Access Shared Folders” conspiracy. And this from someone who works for a company which has literally hundreds of computers attached to their network — I know, because over the past two weeks I’ve manually installed a new batch of Group Policy Exceptions in every single one of them.

So I explain that when a change is made to a host network server, we’ve essentially moved the front door of the building: your “client” computer has to go back out to the street, take a look at the front of the building and then walk in through the new door because as far as the computer is concerned, it’s a brand new building and it doesn’t know where the walls are anymore. That’s just the way it is… and if your computer fails during the reboot, I’ll have to swing by and take it into the shop anyway, because it’ll be in need of repair.

And so on.

It took some convincing, but I eventually walked her through the highly risky and intimidatingly technical process of Start > Shut Down > Restart and she was able to log back in and access the server. Her final comment was a bit baffling, though: “Why do I have to do this? Shouldn’t the computer be smart enough to figure it out on its own?”

Nope. The computer isn’t “smart enough.” The computer isn’t smart at all. The computer is complex which isn’t just a different ballpark from smart, it’s a different sport entirely. The computer is a sophisticated machine with absolutely no problem-solving or critical thinking abilities of its own, because it is neither alive nor intelligent. The primary difference between your desktop computer and the little clockwork music box in my mother’s china cabinet is that the computer is a lot easier to re-program.

I blame movies and TV. We’re presented with fictional portrayals of computers that think and react like people, when in the real world they are literally incapable of doing so. People worry about the science-fiction stories of runaway AI but believe me, it ain’t ever gonna happen. Electronics are infinitely less complex than biological processes… and it took biological processes billions of years to evolve even the most rudimentary intelligence. With our current technology — or any technology we can extrapolate from it — the development of sophisticated independent Artificial Intelligence is about as likely as my mother’s music box spontaneously changing it’s tune from Edelweiss to Thunderstruck.

Sigh.

I try to be patient with our client’s employees because that’s good customer service and I really don’t want to be fired, but it can be frustrating sometimes, especially when the person I’m dealing with is completely — and in some cases proudly — computer illiterate. I’ve written about it in this blog before, but it continually astonishes me how many people who deal with computers each and every day, whose job depends on this basic tool, have absolutely no idea how they work and are frightened of finding out.

Basic computer literacy is absolutely essential in our modern society. I understand it when a senior citizen doesn’t have those skills because for the bulk of their lives computers were a specialist’s tool or a curiosity or both. Even somebody older who got their start in the workforce in the seventies or eighties can be excused for not having an instinctive ease with computers, but they should still know the basics. But a lot of people I deal with day to day — including this morning’s caller — are my age or younger.

If you’re working in North America in the 21st Century, not knowing how to reboot a computer or why that’s a useful thing to do is just weird. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be a computer expert — I’d hardly have a job if that was the case — but the level of willful ignorance about computers that I frequently run into is absolutely appalling. Rebooting a computer is the simplest (and in the majority of cases the most effective) method for fixing a computer’s issues, especially connection issues, because all modern desktop computers run programs during startup to check the computer’s hardware, software and networking. These programs are so complex that they can diagnose and correct almost all of the routine issues that a computer is likely to encounter.

In fact, free IT advice: you should always reboot the computer before calling Tech Support. At the very least, you’ll have an error message to give the technician. That’ll save you time and it’ll save me time. And that time is valuable, especially when every call to the thinking, problem-solving human brain on the other end of 24/7 emergency line is costing your company money.

Because we’re not doing this for fun and we don’t work for free.

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