When You Hit Your Thumb With a Hammer, Your Learn to Fear the Hammer

Chris Sells posts a story about how his son learned to fear a computer’s ability to throw away work.

Tonight, my youngest was working in Word, writing a paper that’s due tomorrow (of course). After he was finished digging through the thesaurus on the right-hand side, he wanted to close that part of the window, but accidental pressed the X to close the document he was working on (which, of course, he hadn’t saved). When he was asked if he was sure, he thought he was being asked if he was sure he wanted to close the thesaurus, so he pressed “Yes.”

The moment his document disappeared is when he learned to fear the power of the computer to throw away his work.

Chris asks, “What did we do wrong as an industry to teach my son to fear a tool meant to help?” Most of the comments discuss particular changes to the software that are necessary to make such an event impossible, or at least less probable. A couple of the commentors notice that he failed to follow the instructions, and so suffered the appropriate consequences.

At first take, I haughtily cheerlead the latter position, if only because I have spent countless hours troubleshooting computers for otherwise fully literate friends and relatives who never read the messages the computer displays. However, after my emotional outburst subsides, I think that the point here is far deeper and philosophical than mere UI widgets and computers.

We have a funny relationship with our tools. We invent them to solve a problem, but often fail to either notice or comprehend the unintended consequences of their actions. The hammer is perhaps the simplest of tools - an extended arm with a weight at the end that 1) allows a person to hit a target with a sturdier proxy for their own hand, and 2) increases the force applied by increasing both the length of the arm and the mass at the end of the arm. It is perfectly suited to pounding nails. We humans, though, are an inquisitive species, and will immediately begin thinking of other things to pound. We’re bound to go pound everything in sight, even just out of sheer amusement, unless there is some compelling reason preventing us. We have to not want to use the hammer on certain things. We have to fear using the hammer on certain things.

I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of hitting my thumb with a hammer. It’s pretty much the fear of pain for me, but there’s also the whole nail-turning-black-and-nasty-and-falling-off thing, not to mention the ridicule-I’ll-receive-from-my-wife thing. That fear comes from two places: I’ve hit my thumb with a hammer enough times that I know to be afraid of doing so, and I take appropriate caution when wielding a hammer towards its intended purpose; or I can use my rational mind to comprehend the designed purpose of the hammer, and infer the probable consequence of smashing my own thumb. It might even be both!

Computers are fantastic at information processing. As such, they are designed to do a multitude of things with information. One of their designed-in purposes is to throw away information irrevocably. I use this function all the time - after a week, emails in my trash folder are permanently deleted. It helps me to purge my mind of things that are no longer relevant and allows me to focus on the present and the future. Anything truly important gets remembered, saved in another folder, or blogged. If you lose data this way, it’s not the computer’s fault - it’s just doing what it was designed to do.

Fortunately, computers are extremely flexible, and can be easily re-designed to do different things by changing the software. If losing one’s thesis the night before it’s due is considered a Bad Thing, then perhaps the right solution is to attempt to prevent that by implementing an auto-save-constantly feature. Then when Chris’ son reaches college, he won’t have to fear accidentally losing his thesis the night before it’s due. Instead, in exasperation at 4:00 in the morning, he’ll pound out a few choice expletives on the keyboard describing the professor’s relationship with his mother. Of course, he’ll delete them after his cappuccino break and turn it in the next day without any such vulgarity. He’ll learn to fear the computer’s ability to remember information when he discovers that it saved those revisions and the professor happened to go back and read them.