A System of Singularities

The systemIf you've spent any time in help forums or discussion groups searching for answers to software problems or hardware malfunctions—or maybe just insight before you plunk down your money for a new widget of some sort—you've probably noticed a nearly universal oddity. For every person whose experience with Product X has been nothing short of hellish, it seems there's someone with exactly the opposite experience. Assuming both are working products—i.e. one of them isn't simply defective—there has to be more than mere coincidence to account for this disparity.

One thing I've noticed is the distinction between User A, who seems inclined to read instructions, FAQs, and other documentation, and User B, who generally does none of those things. For this reason, User B is also more likely to immediately ask for help, even though the solution is probably in that aforementioned FAQ, or has otherwise been previously illuminated. This scenario eventually results in a loss of patience by those in the User A group, and may also have a chilling effect on the good will of forum administrators, or designated assistants. Sadly, this state of affairs also seems to induce paranoia in certain Users B; some begin to suspect a general conspiracy, which only perpetuates their cycle of unsolved problems.

Naturally, not every problem is caused by an unwillingness to self-educate; some are the result of genuine failure of one kind or another. However, the real reasons for these failures aren't always communicated to those who are expected to fix the mess. For example, where the mess involves a Web site—or perhaps more to the point, a blog—that's been hacked and modified with third-party enhancements, the actual reason for its failure may have nothing to do with the original design, much less those tasked with maintaining its day-to-day operation. I'm continually amazed at the explosive reactions of people who've just experienced a significant problem with their site, and immediately launch a salvo of rage-missiles at the site host, even when the reason for the destruction has nothing to do with the host, and everything to do with imprudent—and sometimes incompetent—modifications to the site, or blog, or whatever happens to have melted down on that particular day.

If patience is a virtue in general, it's an absolute necessity in the world of computers. In the context of software, the odds of a perfectly functioning system—by this I mean one able to endure every possible circumstance—are exceedingly slim. Even the robust UNIX systems that keep the Net running 24/7 can't cope with every situation, although they're far better at it than certain unnamable alternatives. But eventually there will be a problem that affects your own site, and with any luck there will be a concerted effort to correct the problem as soon as is humanly possible. In the meantime, patience is a virtue; firing off a dozen messages to the support team won't help any more than repeated phone calls to the utilities department will restore your electricity after a storm. About a week ago, a popular site-statistics provider experienced a glitch of some sort, resulting in a temporary lapse of service to some of its subscribers. One guy freaked out and reinitialized the service from the ground up, completely wiping his accumulated site statistics in the process, not to mention passwords and associated user information. Had he only waited another hour or so, the service would have returned and he would have lost nothing. When it comes to computers, patience is the remedy for many ills. Sometimes it's the only remedy.

Still, I think there must be other, more mysterious reasons for the disparity between user experiences. It has to be more than mere serendipity, but what, exactly, to place in the equation instead? A combination of things, I suppose, which seems to satisfy the equation in most other cases as well; it's always a system, not a singularity. There are identifiable reasons, I'm sure, for the general lack of problems with computers, or other technological tools; there are equally identifiable reasons for the general lack of success with those things. Time is one element; it takes time to learn anything. On the other hand, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. Desire is an element, too; it's far easier to absorb information when it's interesting. On the other hand, simple necessity often dictates what we learn. Education fits the equation; the foundation of knowledge has to be sufficient to allow construction above. On the other hand, some people instantly grasp new concepts with no obvious exposure to commonly accepted prerequisites.

Or maybe it's something else entirely.


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