General Question

flo's avatar

What is the problem with computers?

Asked by flo (11472points) June 12th, 2011

Edited: What are the legitimate problems that cause people to resist them as everyday tool/part f their lives? I don’t agree it is just older people who resist them. The experts understand why it is not like other products. Why do people keep saying it is age related?

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20 Answers

marinelife's avatar

It is because they have evolved to do thing that you don’t understand and to do them on their own (check for software updates).

jerv's avatar

Computers require people to learn how to use them, and to do things differently. As older people tend on average to be less mentally agile and more set in their ways, they are less likely to want to learn than younger folks, so there is kind of an age-related element to the phenomenon.

However, there are also many people (often also older people) who don’t trust them. It’s human nature not to trust things you don’t understand, especially when you have heard horror stories about identity theft or watched too many movies and fear that your home PC will evolve sentience and send an army of killer robots to exterminate humanity.

jaytkay's avatar

In general, on the average, it IS age related. Young people are more likely to be comfortable using computers, simply because they are more likely to use computers.

But of course, in any particular case, it depends on the user.

I started programming in high school. I work with people my own age who can’t find a Word file on their computer they created last week.

If you have to use it for your job, or computers just appeal to you, you spend your time learning how to use them. If not, not.

dabbler's avatar

A good old car analogy could be in order here.
If cars were as complex to use as “a computer” would anyone but experts drive ?

Yet there are oddles of specialty vehicles garaged in your computer and you have to figure out which ones you need to get to all the places you need to go. And you’ll have to learn how to drive each of them.

You really have to feel a need to go to those places in the computer. ... If you can’t type (arthritis? poor vision? the shakes?) what’s your experience with the computer? If you really can’t see a regular computer monitor clearly enough to understand what you’re seeing. Would you feel real compelled to strain your brain on that?

But gee whiz these days you can get a lot done just clicking on web pages, anyone who wants to engage with the digital reality can get a grip on it.

On the other hand watching TV used to be simple. On/Off Volume Channel, that was it. If you’re an expert, RabbitEars is on your list.
Now there are three remotes involved.

flo's avatar

Thank you @all
The OP was in editing till a couple of hours ago.

jerv's avatar

I think you also might learn something from this excerpt from In the Beginning… Was the Command Line That link is to a *.ZIP file on the author’s web site that contains a free copy of the full text.


The analogy between cars and operating systems is not half bad, and so let me run with it for a moment, as a way of giving an executive summary of our situation today.

Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated. One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect, but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them.

There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles—expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery.

The big dealership responded by rushing a moped upgrade kit (the original Windows) onto the market. This was a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when bolted onto a three-speed bicycle, enabled it to keep up, just barely, with Apple-cars. The users had to wear goggles and were always picking bugs out of their teeth while Apple owners sped along in hermetically sealed comfort, sneering out the windows. But the Micro-mopeds were cheap, and easy to fix compared with the Apple-cars, and their market share waxed.

Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success. A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle intended for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful than the station wagon, and only a little more reliable.

Since then there has been a lot of noise and shouting, but little has changed. The smaller dealership continues to sell sleek Euro-styled sedans and to spend a lot of money on advertising campaigns. They have had GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! signs taped up in their windows for so long that they have gotten all yellow and curly. The big one keeps making bigger and bigger station wagons and ORVs.

On the other side of the road are two competitors that have come along more recently.

One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS). They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything else on the market—and yet cheaper than the others.

With one exception, that is: Linux, which is right next door, and which is not a business at all. It’s a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They’ve been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.

Customers come to this crossroads in throngs, day and night. Ninety percent of them go straight to the biggest dealership and buy station wagons or off-road vehicles. They do not even look at the other dealerships.

Of the remaining ten percent, most go and buy a sleek Euro-sedan, pausing only to turn up their noses at the philistines going to buy the station wagons and ORVs. If they even notice the people on the opposite side of the road, selling the cheaper, technically superior vehicles, these customers deride them cranks and half-wits.

The Batmobile outlet sells a few vehicles to the occasional car nut who wants a second vehicle to go with his station wagon, but seems to accept, at least for now, that it’s a fringe player.

The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers’ attention to this incredible situation. A typical conversation goes something like this:

Hacker with bullhorn: “Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!”

Prospective station wagon buyer: “I know what you say is true…but…er…I don’t know how to maintain a tank!”

Bullhorn: “You don’t know how to maintain a station wagon either!”

Buyer: “But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music.”

Bullhorn: “But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!”

Buyer: “Stay away from my house, you freak!”

Bullhorn: “But…”

Buyer: “Can’t you see that everyone is buying station wagons?”


Think of that as a Zen koan and ponder it :)

koanhead's avatar

There is no real reason why computers can’t be made more intuitive for humans to use. In fact a great deal of progress has been made on this front, and lots of people constantly strive to make it even better.
Unfortunately, nearly everyone involved in human-computer interface design is an expert on computers, and very few of them are experts in humans. You are not alone in your frustration. I’m someone whom a lot of people consider a “computer expert”, and I still become irritated with crappy interfaces (though most of my frustration is with the single-button, dumbed-down “user friendly” interface type which prevents users from actually doing things).
There are lots of reasons why the state of the art is in this state. First of all, developing software is hard. Programming languages are designed to be easy to learn, but a programmer still needs to develop a certain mindset in order to use them. This is easier for some folks than for others. Unfortunately, lots of people learn one or more programming languages and go hog-wild programming stuff (because while programming is hard, it’s also fun) and crank out volumes of crappy code.
I’m not an expert in software design, but I know enough about it to know that software needs to be designed before it is written, not during that process. Unfortunately, design is not fun, and neither is writing documentation. So lots of programmers resist doing both, which results in poorly designed, undocumented code.

Basically, it comes down to this: computers are hard to use because people are lazy.
Lazy programmers write dumb code; lazy sysadmins (that’s me) fail to implement the programs properly and to support and educate their users properly; and lazy users just accept that the software sucks and fail to complain loudly enough, effectively enough, and to the right people.

David Platt has written an interesting book on this subject called Why Software Sucks and What You Can Do About It. It is aimed at non-technical readers. I wish every end-user would read it.

Ubuntu, for example, has a bug-reporting system which is very flexible and thoroughly worked-out. It is called and it combines bug reporting, questions and support, and an OpenID broker. As far as I know this is by far the best and easiest bug-reporting facility in the industry (sorry Bugzilla!)- but it’s still so hard to use that more than half of problem incidents in Ubuntu (my estimate, it’s impossible to know for sure) go unreported.

flo's avatar

I’m using IE. I copy and pasted something from Library of Congress
Resources & Programs
American Folklife Center
Keeping culture, art & song alive
Center for the Book
Promoting books, reading & literacy
Copyright Royalty Board
Determining statutory royalty rates & distributing

What it is it that Library of C has, that enabled me to only copy/paste the part of the screen I wanted, right or left (no problem with top or bottom part of screen) Other website/s it highlights what I didn’t want, from the opposite side of the screen, and sometimes it pastes what didn’t even appear highlighted. So, FF can’t be credited since I am using IE.

ADDED: Just to give more info

flo's avatar

@koanhead Thank you so much.

jerv's avatar

@koanhead ”’s still so hard to use that more than half of problem incidents in Ubuntu (my estimate, it’s impossible to know for sure) go unreported.”

Why report it when it’s so much easier to just complain that it sucks and/or just give some geek money to fix it? On that note, if computers didn’t suck (or if they easier to use), how many people would be out of a job?

flo's avatar

I just stopped in to say,ignore my last post the Library of Congress text, not a good example since it is in it’s own compartment, (whatever you call it), right?

koanhead's avatar

@flo those sub-compartments are called “divs”. They are like little boxes on the page that contain content.
Selecting within a div should work the same on all browsers. I can verify that it works the same as you describe in Firefox on that page.

@jerv Conversely, how many more people would qualify for general office work if knowing the peculiarities of MS Office weren’t a requirement? That is, what if office staff actually understood basic principles of accounting instead of stupid Excel tricks; or understood how to draft a business letter without relying on a template put together by a middle-manager who understands even less about business correspondence than they do? Two sides of the same coin, as I see it. Although the coin may actually be a n-sided die.

jerv's avatar

@koanhead…and n may not even be an integer.

Stinley's avatar

I think that today, people who work in most occupations are required to have a understanding of the basics and it’s no longer an acceptable thing to say that you can’t use a computer. It’s in our way of life and our way of working and it is unprofessional not to have those skills. Especially since there are such advances in the usability of them. I work with doctors and nurses and as a group they seem to be very late adopters of technology but the tipping point is here and everyone needs to use them now, or if they don’t it won’t be long.

For me, I’m one of the kind of peole who would try to use the computer to do something even though it can take me longer to do it a technical way rather than just cut and paste a list again but I think that I’d rather learn how to do it once and spend time on that than waste time, every time, plodding away typing or cutting and pasting. But I seem to have a different sort of brain and can remember these things where as I know most people can’t remember and have to relearn it all again, at least a few times anyway so there’s no net benefit. Also I’d rather be learning than plodding.

koanhead's avatar

Certainly people need to understand the basics of how to perform their job. The problem as I see it is that employers advertising for prospective employees don’t say “must know computerized double-entry bookkeeping”, they say “must know QuickBooks” or whatever particular application they have been using up to that point.

The thing is, if you understand the problem domain, that will help you to understand the programs that are designed to work in it. However, the reverse is not necessarily true. QuickBooks does a poor job of teaching about bookkeeping, and Excel does not help users understand the various calculations it can do. Access actually makes it more difficult to understand relational databases with its weird nomenclature. If you have to buy a book to understand the program, then the program is poorly made.

Also, lots of modern programs do way too much. People use Excel as a database, FFS! That’s just wrong. But it happens- because it can be made to work, and because people “know Excel” and don’t “know Access”.

This is a failure of education. Most vocational training programs that I have seen focus on specific (nearly always Microsoft) applications and consider those the “basics”. That’s actually ignoring the basics.

A database is a database. A spreadsheet is a spreadsheet. Bookkeeping is bookkeeping.
I don’t really know Access. I’ve used it before, but I’m no guru. However, I don’t need to “know Access” because I know databases. I can work with MySQL, SQL Server, PostGres, CouchDB, Access or what have you- because I understand the problem domain. That’s what these classes need to be teaching.
Three years from now Microsoft Office 2010 will be obsolete (never mind that these classes are still teaching to Office 2007) but the problem domains don’t change.

OK rant over.

dabbler's avatar

@koanhead Yay databases ! There is always a database under the hood.

jerv's avatar

@koanhead Those of us that prefer OpenOffice are unemployable as most employers who demand MS Office skills don’t even know what OO is. How can they demand computer skills when they have less computer knowledge (and common sense) than my cat? Sometimes I wonder how much Microsoft pays employers to advertise for them by making their products a requirement for employment, and why companies use MSO (and Windoze) when there are better things out there that cost far less.

koanhead's avatar

@jerv which cat ? *

Why Windows rules offices:

“Duh, it came with the computer, I don’t wanna break it.”

“Hurr, it’s what everybody else uses.”

“Vendor X supplied this application that requires Access.” (There’s still no way to directly support .mdb databases in Linux without migrating them.)

“Customer Y requires Excel sheets for itemized billing.” (And I’m unaware of the dozens of programs that can produce output identical to Excel)

And of course, the Great TCO Canard: “Buh, [Linux | Mac | BSD |whatever] costs more to support.” (aka “I don’t know how to maintain a tank”)

* answer: /bin/cat !

jerv's avatar

@koanhead Darwin. At least Izzy has enough sense to know that she can’t bury her food and save it for later by scratching at the linoleum floor, which is more sense than many humans I know.

flo's avatar

@koanhead The book you suggesed above,
sounds like it would make me feel better. Thanks.

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