The Emotional Nature of Software

We’ve all felt the extreme frustration that using a computer can cause.

Maybe you spent several hours updating a Word document, assuming it was autosaving, only to have Word collapse in a heap, erasing all your changes.

Maybe your IT department has an antivirus scan scheduled to run weekly that mysteriously starts in the morning. You can’t kill the process, and it’s using all the system resources, making it impossible to get any work done.

Maybe you spent an hour fine-tuning your profile on your favorite social networking site, only to have it all washed away when you click Update.

This happened to a guy on Mix this week. He said in his feedback “I may return to Mix after I regain my normal breathing rhythm again.” We haven’t been able to pinpoint what caused his problem, and it turns out he wasn’t that peeved. He was just venting.

I can relate.

The more we rely on computers, the more emotionally attached we become to their contents. Paul had his Macbook Pro stolen out of his office recently. He mentioned family pictures as the worst thing he could lose from the theft. Luckily, he has a backup, but we all know that hot flash fear you get when you think you’ve lost some important data.

This attachment we feel quickly turns against computers when they don’t perform. Ironically, the monitor usually takes the brunt of any beatings that frustration elicits. Like the classic “Bad day” video that’s been floating around since 1997.

Software inspires fanaticism too, both for and against, e.g. the cult of Mac, Linux and Open Source, anti-Microsoft sentiment, etc.

The question is why do we put so much emotion into software?

On the one hand, it seems odd to be frustrated by software, but we depend so heavily on all kinds of software to do everyday tasks that when it’s borked, life is bad.

Think about how you feel when your car isn’t cooperating, and all the stuff that you can’t do without a car. Software’s the same way, we need it to work.

I don’t have a good answer. What do you think?  Why are we so attached to bits and bytes?

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

24 comments

  1. “Ironically, the monitor usually takes the brunt of any beatings that frustration elicits.”
    I don’t think that is ironic. It is the bearer of the bad news. The monitor is the bit of the computer that talks to us.
    And its a lot safer taking out your frustrations on the monitor. It is easily replaced, much more so than the system box itself. Even on a laptop, a broken monitor could be bypassed with an external monitor and data or applications accessed.
    These iMacs are a different story, with all the important bits squeezed behind that screen. Maybe the famed OSX ‘friendliness’ is natural selection at work, a survival mechanism to protect that valuable hard drive.

  2. “Ironically, the monitor usually takes the brunt of any beatings that frustration elicits.”
    I don’t think that is ironic. It is the bearer of the bad news. The monitor is the bit of the computer that talks to us.
    And its a lot safer taking out your frustrations on the monitor. It is easily replaced, much more so than the system box itself. Even on a laptop, a broken monitor could be bypassed with an external monitor and data or applications accessed.
    These iMacs are a different story, with all the important bits squeezed behind that screen. Maybe the famed OSX ‘friendliness’ is natural selection at work, a survival mechanism to protect that valuable hard drive.

  3. Great day for this post as I’ve had to re-install and re-work a ton of applications as I “upgrade” my computer. The price of progress is really often too high for me to cope and right now I am totally frustrated as nothing is working correctly [yet].

  4. Great day for this post as I’ve had to re-install and re-work a ton of applications as I “upgrade” my computer. The price of progress is really often too high for me to cope and right now I am totally frustrated as nothing is working correctly [yet].

  5. @Gary: I hadn’t thought of your “bearer of bad news” theory. I like it. I also like your theory of venting against the monitor b/c deep down inside, you know you can replace it. Seems like an interesting study all on its own.

    @Meg: Jump on the Interwebs bandwagon and store your stuff centrally. I agree that upgrading an O/S can be a nightmare. It’s like moving though, the more you do it, the better you get. Now, I have everything backed up, so I can wipe this baby and move on, if need be. Fingers crossed 😉

  6. @Gary: I hadn’t thought of your “bearer of bad news” theory. I like it. I also like your theory of venting against the monitor b/c deep down inside, you know you can replace it. Seems like an interesting study all on its own.

    @Meg: Jump on the Interwebs bandwagon and store your stuff centrally. I agree that upgrading an O/S can be a nightmare. It’s like moving though, the more you do it, the better you get. Now, I have everything backed up, so I can wipe this baby and move on, if need be. Fingers crossed 😉

  7. I think that people are naturally emotional, and anything that we spend a great amount of time with (computers, co-workers, friends) becomes a likely trigger of strong feelings, both good and bad. It may seem weird to have the same emotions about people and inanimate objects, but software falls into a strange gray area between people and objects. It’s not alive, yet it requires that we put forth a lot of effort interacting with it.

  8. I think that people are naturally emotional, and anything that we spend a great amount of time with (computers, co-workers, friends) becomes a likely trigger of strong feelings, both good and bad. It may seem weird to have the same emotions about people and inanimate objects, but software falls into a strange gray area between people and objects. It’s not alive, yet it requires that we put forth a lot of effort interacting with it.

  9. @Sarah: Agreed. Software tends to take an inordinate beating though because it won’t retaliate. Your coworkers and friends will.

  10. @Sarah: Agreed. Software tends to take an inordinate beating though because it won’t retaliate. Your coworkers and friends will.

  11. Yes, software is similar to a car in the sense that we need it to work. But for me one of the most important things that makes people emotional is aesthetics. I am not emotional about any software that is not good-looking, elegant, simple. Have you ever used software from 37Signals for example? If not you should see it, they get you attracted as the time you see the product and you desperately look for ways to use it 🙂

  12. Yes, software is similar to a car in the sense that we need it to work. But for me one of the most important things that makes people emotional is aesthetics. I am not emotional about any software that is not good-looking, elegant, simple. Have you ever used software from 37Signals for example? If not you should see it, they get you attracted as the time you see the product and you desperately look for ways to use it 🙂

  13. @Yas: Good analogy, and one I use pretty frequently. The comparison of cars to s/w in the reliability department isn’t very kind, but cars have a pretty good head start in development time. Same deal though, it should just work.

    I agree that a nice look/feel makes me feel more attached, but I’m pretty hardcore into functionality, being a product manager guy. Usability is key for me. What the s/w does over how it looks.

    I have used Basecamp and Campfire, and they are nice-looking and functional. Basecamp is pretty thin project management, and I can’t decide if I need more functionality or am just accustomed to having it.

  14. @Yas: Good analogy, and one I use pretty frequently. The comparison of cars to s/w in the reliability department isn’t very kind, but cars have a pretty good head start in development time. Same deal though, it should just work.

    I agree that a nice look/feel makes me feel more attached, but I’m pretty hardcore into functionality, being a product manager guy. Usability is key for me. What the s/w does over how it looks.

    I have used Basecamp and Campfire, and they are nice-looking and functional. Basecamp is pretty thin project management, and I can’t decide if I need more functionality or am just accustomed to having it.

  15. What makes us like things? I think, that we start being emotional about tools when we get used to them. And we get used to them, when they are convenient and make our life easier. Basecamp is easy to use that’s for sure. But it didn’t make my life easier. Just added some pains. I guess, it’s just not for me. I can say that now I’m addicted to Wrike. This tool does a lot for me.

  16. What makes us like things? I think, that we start being emotional about tools when we get used to them. And we get used to them, when they are convenient and make our life easier. Basecamp is easy to use that’s for sure. But it didn’t make my life easier. Just added some pains. I guess, it’s just not for me. I can say that now I’m addicted to Wrike. This tool does a lot for me.

  17. @Andrew: Paul is on a quest to find simple, functional project management s/w so I’m sure he’ll check out Wrike. What do you like about it vs. Basecamp or MS Projects or any projects app Oracle has?

  18. @Andrew: Paul is on a quest to find simple, functional project management s/w so I’m sure he’ll check out Wrike. What do you like about it vs. Basecamp or MS Projects or any projects app Oracle has?

  19. I like Wrike for its flexibility and for its email integration. Basecamp is a good communication tool, but they don’t have any real project management features, like Gantt charts, for example. I know that Basecamp guys have their own “project management philosophy”, but it just doesn’t work for me. MS Project is not about collaboration, it’s about overall control, and I think that collaboration should be the center of the project work. For me Wrike is collaborative project management. Actually, there’s a good post at Wrike’s founder blog. It explains the basic ideas behind Wrike. The post might be interesting for you to read.

  20. I like Wrike for its flexibility and for its email integration. Basecamp is a good communication tool, but they don’t have any real project management features, like Gantt charts, for example. I know that Basecamp guys have their own “project management philosophy”, but it just doesn’t work for me. MS Project is not about collaboration, it’s about overall control, and I think that collaboration should be the center of the project work. For me Wrike is collaborative project management. Actually, there’s a good post at Wrike’s founder blog. It explains the basic ideas behind Wrike. The post might be interesting for you to read.

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