Violence against technology has psychological roots


by OWEN LEI / KING 5 News

Posted on November 4, 2010 at 10:50 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:44 AM

Have you ever gotten so mad at a piece of technology, you broke it?

SEATTLE, Wash. -- One of the oldest viral video clips circling the Internet shows a man in a cubicle who suddenly starts slamming his fists into his keyboard in frustration, then swinging the keyboard like a baseball bat into his monitor, which crashes to the ground.

It's a video Dr. Andrew Ko likes to show his class on human-computer interaction, and a perfect example of what some tech circles call "Hourglass Syndrome."

The name may come from nothing more than a 2010 marketing campaign by computer chip maker Intel, but researchers at the University of Washington Information School say the "syndrome" definitely has scientific roots, even if it is not an officially classified psychosis.

"It's very much a social thing," Ko said.

Reactions range from computer rage, smart phone fury, to even acting out at a simpler home electronic device, like a cordless phone.

Frank Catalano, a Seattle technology consultant, said that is exactly what happened to him a few years ago.

"I was sitting at a garage sale on my driveway in my chair and I picked up my portable phone," he said. "And it kept cutting out and cutting out repeatedly when I was making calls," Catalano recalled."I just basically slammed it to the ground, and smashed the heck out of it."

Twice, actually, since it didn't really break the first time, he said.

It's not just dropped calls, which JD Power and Associates say are growing more frequent, up to six per 100 calls made, from just four per 100 a year ago.

Intel's campaign included a survey that showed waiting associated with buffering, loading, downloading and uploading can waste three days of productivity a year for the average American.

That survey, by Harris Interactive, also said at least one out of four of us have acted irrationally at technology -- that is, cursing, hitting, and destroying something in the process.

"Once things become really widespread, like computers [or] software... people expect it to work all the time," said Dr. Ko.

It's because, like our pets and our cars, we tend to treat our gadgets as if they are human.

But a "person can say, I can almost do that for you, I can do that for you later," he said, while oftentimes, with a computer "the best explanation you get is an hourglass or a spinning beach ball... something to say, 'you have to wait until I decide I'm going to interact with you again.'”

In other words, if another person just stared at you and gave you no clue as to why or what was wrong, wouldn't you find that annoying?

"It's not surprising that they get frustrated when machines behave in those socially inappropriate ways," Ko said.
How you keep people from lashing out at your product is a question Ko said his department helps companies like Microsoft answer.

And the answer, he said, appears to be simple: Apologize.

"Companies are starting to realize that they don't just need to collect that data from users so that they can fix the problems," Ko said. "But they also need this to be a two-way conversation where a computer is not just saying give me your information, but it's saying, 'I'm sorry, here's a resource where you can fix these problems.'"

A study earlier this year from Stanford University concluded that, "participants behaved toward the computer in the same way they do toward other people. That is, they gave significantly more positive responses than when they were asked the identical questions in the identical order by either a computer on the other side of the room or via paper and pencil."

The study also found the same pattern held when people used less human-like, text-based computers.

Ko said he works with software teams to help them understand feedback from consumers.