The anthropomorphization of computers

You know what’s funny? A lot of my blog posts have to do with ideas of mine likening humans or human activities to computers or software phenomena in some way. But it is quite common to do the opposite: to view computers as being like people.

A computer with a faceWhen’s the last time you heard somebody say (or you yourself said), “This computer doesn’t like me”? Or “It doesn’t want to do this”? Or “It’s thinking”?

Not that this is necessarily specific to computers, of course. We do this with cars, TVs, microwaves, basically every mechanical and/or electrical thing in our lives. But I think computers are in a league of their own, probably because we view them as machines that do work our brains would normally do (e.g., perform calculations). This makes it seem sometimes almost as if they have wills. And that’s when we start to get a little ridiculous.

I recently developed a small program for my wife to use at work; it simplifies some of the mundane everyday stuff she otherwise had to spend an hour or so doing from time to time. It’s nothing special, but it’s useful enough that she shared it with a coworker.

A sick computerHe was apparently quite enthusiastic to start using the program… until it didn’t work on his computer. Hearing my wife tell the story, it was really quite sad to hear: he would watch her use it on her computer, then go back to his own computer, follow exactly the same steps, and nothing would happen. It wouldn’t do the work it was supposed to do.

My wife’s coworker then made a joke about how I must’ve engineered it specifically to work only on my wife’s computer. Or anyway, not on his computer.

Obviously, he was joking. We’re always joking. But as they say, behind every joke there’s a small piece of truth.

I think that, in all honesty, we all find it a little bit unnerving how human-like our computer friends can sometimes be: seemingly intelligent and able to perform complex tasks, yet at the same time fragile, temperamental, and easy to confuse.

So I’m going to fix the problem that’s keeping the software working on my wife’s coworker’s machine (I actually already know the cause; fortunately it’s about a 5-minute fix), if only to silence that uneasy feeling I know he has: Does my computer just not like me?

It’s not a person. It doesn’t “like” or “dislike” anything. I swear.

I think.

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One thought on “The anthropomorphization of computers

  1. Kathryn says:

    This reminds me of all of the teachers in the ICDL classes in Namibia, whenever they were stuck: “OOOH, it doesn’t want!”

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