Repair Teams Try to Calm 'Computer Rage'

Repairman Erik Bursch, right, helps Irving A. Marsland of Arlington get his computer working properly. Bursch's time costs $60 to $70 an hour.
Repairman Erik Bursch, right, helps Irving A. Marsland of Arlington get his computer working properly. Bursch's time costs $60 to $70 an hour. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

NOVATO, Calif.-- The young woman at the other end of the phone wept to Kelly Chessen that the world was against her. She had been in a minor car accident. A thief had stolen some things from her house. And now this: The family's computer, which contained her husband's business files, was dead.

Chessen, a crisis counselor who answered the hotline, soothingly assured the caller that such things happen to everyone, that it was no one's fault, that her luck would turn around. It wasn't until 20 minutes into the conversation that Chessen began to address the cause of the young woman's agony.

Send us the machine, Chessen said, and we'll do everything we can to help.

Chessen, who once was a manager for a suicide prevention hotline, now works in customer service for DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc. "This is a lot like my old job," she said. "Oftentimes the most helpful thing we can do is just to listen and to let people get whatever they are feeling off their chests."

Technology has become a bane of modern life. People juggle a mountain of electronic equipment to store their most important records and intimate secrets. But the complicated nature of their machines, with their manuals full with unintelligible acronyms, tangles of cords and invisible wireless signals, means a breakdown is almost inevitable. The loss of a computer, cell phone or other gadget can be so jolting that it is fueling the rise of what some psychologists call "computer rage."

The phenomenon is transforming the nature of technology service, an industry long infamous for being impersonal.

Business is booming for companies with names like Rent-a-Geek, Geeks on Call and Geek Squad that make house calls to fix computers. Television technicians, once near extinction, are again driving to homes to adjust complicated settings on high-definition sets and hook them up to multi-component home-entertainment systems. Some of the world's largest computer makers train their support personnel as much about customers' delicate psyches as they do about technical matters.

"There's this frustration that you are really dependent on these things that you don't understand and that you have no idea how to fix," said Kent L. Norman, a researcher at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Automation Psychology and Decision Processes. "We place so much trust in computers that it gets a little scary."

No one is immune. No device is exempt. Online message boards are filled with rants about iPods -- sold by the millions on the idea that they are easy to use -- freezing up, and $50,000 luxury cars with windows that roll up and down on their own at random times.

The recounting of one's personal technological Armageddon is often desperate and emotional. A recent survey by Norman found that as many as one out of 10 users have hit, kicked or otherwise abused their equipment.

Barbara Gould said that in the past two years her family's computers have broken down six times and her cell phone twice. Then, while she was in the middle of watching the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy one night, her DVD player mysteriously began to freeze every few minutes.

"I was ready to throw everything out the window or burn them or do something violent," said Gould, 53, a contractor for Fannie Mae, who works on manuals and other technical documentation.

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