Several years ago, when The Washington Post news department made the switch to personal computers from specially built word processing terminals, we piled the old computers at one end of the newsroom and from the other, amidst much cheering, took turns hurling bowling balls at them.
The big old machines, huge hulks of metal and glass, refused to break. Those heavy balls would come crashing down the length of the makeshift alley, smash into the terminals with great sound and fury, but leave them essentially intact, unbroken and unbowed.
How perverse, I thought at the time. The things are mocking us. They had crashed so often at times not of our choosing -- like on election night -- and now here we were, trying to destroy them and getting nowhere.
I remember getting only madder and madder and madder, finally standing astride one of the terminals, striking it repeatedly with a blunt object.
Why was I so angry? I have no memory of smashing typewriters when we dispensed with them. What was it about those terminals?
We didn't fully understand the answer then. But now, thanks to the latest research out of Britain, we know that we were among the victims of "technology related anxiety," specifically, "computer rage." We also know that "TRA," as the researchers call it, is widespread and very, very ugly.
The survey was conducted by the highly regarded London-based opinion research firm MORI for Compaq Computer Corp. among people who work with computers. Respondents reported high levels of PC-related abuse by colleagues "as a result of frustration" with information technology. The abuses included "swearing at their PC," kicking it, "bullying the IT department," absenteeism and bad-mouthing the company they work for.
(Parenthetically, how does one kick a PC, unless it's on the floor? I would have thought slugging or slapping it more common. Also, parenthetically, I would discount, for the moment, absenteeism and bad-mouthing as "abuse." I suspect this is Compaq's way of suggesting to companies that they better go out and buy everyone a new Compaq or they'll lose money and/or customers.)
That said, the causes of TRA, as suggested in the survey, are intriguing:
Fourteen percent of the respondents said computer problems interrupted their work more than once a day.
Seventeen percent said it often takes more than an hour to resolve the problems.
Twenty-one percent claimed to have missed work deadlines in the previous three months because of computer or software problems.
Forty-six percent were unhappy because error messages appeared in technical jargon rather than plain English.
The BBC Web site reported the survey and solicited comments from computer users and IT professionals. The stories got wilder and wilder.
"It's a good thing Canadians don't have the same gun rights as Americans," wrote a Canadian, "because I would have blown this computer away months ago."
Another guy reported slamming a heavy dictionary against the side of his monitor.
Almost everyone reported swearing at the computer. This, by the way, is a reason why voice-activated systems could be a problem.
One IT professional reported, however, that most of the swearing he hears is directed at him. This led to a discussion of the real problem in contemporary workplaces today: the growing hatred between the people in "Systems" and computer users.
Systems people reported that too many users made no attempt to learn how to use their computers effectively. "Ask any computer professional, they will always be able to name at least one person who phones up with the same problem day after day. The fact that the solution has been explained to them several times doesn't appear to matter."
One user responded that what annoys him is the attitude of "the IT experts when you ask them to fix a problem. They treat you like a moron because you don't know what `runtime error 354x' means."
Swearing. Kicking. Slapping. None of these approaches, of course, solves any problems. In fact, they all just generate more rage, more anxiety.
The solution I recommend is to grab half a grapefruit and smush it in the face of your computer.
Fred Barbash's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.