Learned helplessness and the hacker mentality

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 08, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Like anyone with even a modest claim to computer expertise, I am often asked to help neighbors and friends. I tend to mutter about the blind leading the blind, because what small expertise I've accumulated is in GNU/Linux, not Windows nor OSX. Yet, a surprising amount of the time, I can help, generally not because of any prior knowledge, but because I have absorbed enough of the hacker mentality that I'm a systematic troubleshooter. That used to be a given among GNU/Linux users, although lately I've worried how much longer that will remain true.

The difference between me and the average Windows user is not that I have any arcane programming skills. I know no scripting or development language well, although I can often reverse engineer what others have done and adapt it for my own purpose. Nor have I systematically sat down and learned how any operating system is constructed (although I did once document the GNU/Linux boot process for a client).

However, what I do have is the expectation that, when a problem arises, I can do something. If an Internet search fails to uncover a battery of solutions, then, browsing through /etc, I can usually find a relevant configuration file with which to experiment. I know, too, either to backup the files with which I'm experimenting with, or to comment out the original fields so that I can return to them if I get really rash. Most of all, I know to work systematically, so that if I don't immediately find a solution, like Thomas Edison trying to invent the light bulb, I can at least know what does not work, and slowly start to eliminate possibilities.

These seem a modest set of skills and attitudes. They work, not with any flashes of insight, but by unglamorous plodding through possibilities, armed largely with the conviction that a solution is available. I may not find the solution immediately, but I remain convinced that it is there.

Learned helplessness is everywhere

I know, however, that these are not skills or attitudes that I had thirteen years ago when I was a Windows user. Nor are they usually possessed by those Windows or OS X users who ask my help.

Some of those who ask for help are literally scared to touch the keyboard once a problem emerges. "I have a virus!" they usually tell me -- apparently because that is the worst event they can imagine. When I sit down at their computer, they hover behind me with an anxious look in their eyes as though they expect that a wad of plastique has been secreted in their computer cases, and that anything but the most gingerly of movements will be the end of all of us.

Needless to say, they never have backups of their files -- not even old ones. That would be taking responsibility for anticipating potential problems.

Others who ask for help are less extreme, but show the same tendency to stop thinking when their computers are in crisis. I've been called in to plug a monitor into the active video card, to install firmware with instructions, to remove the case of a computer that wasn't booting -- to do, in other words, a dozen trivial tasks that the friends and neighbors should have been able to do for themselves, but never thought of doing.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised. Computer stores regularly charge $60-80 an hour to create a set of Windows backup disks using a wizard. I also used to have a neighbor who made a good living in retirement driving around to people's homes to do backups, remove DVDs stuck in a drive, and all sorts of other things that people should be able to do for themselves, but can't.

These are all examples of learned helplessness, a deeply seated reflex or conviction that a person can do nothing to help themselves. It is a condition that you normally find associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, which arises in situations where people feel unable to control or cope with their surroundings. Yet here it is, apparently endemic in dozens of computer users, many of whom live comfortable, comparatively unchallenging lives.

This learned helplessness, I suggest, is the result of thirty years of the personal computer being dominated by Apple and Windows. Thirty years of having even the slightest complexity hidden from users, of requiring special tools for all except the most basic of modifications, of proprietary specs and codes, and the result is end users who are afraid to go beyond these restrictions. The only difference is that, while Windows users are simply helpless, Apple users have been convinced that their state somehow makes them superior.

In some ways, I feel that this is the worst thing that the computing monopolies have done. I am not surprised when mega-corporations act like mega-corporations, and find every last bit of advantage, ethical or not, against their competitors. That is what mega-corporations do. But to inflict users with a condition more common to the battlefield or abusive relationships -- that is unnecessary, and harder to forgive.

How long will FOSS be an alternative?

Free and open source software (FOSS) is an alternative to such used helplessness precisely to the extent that it makes resources available so that people can solve their own problems. Lately, though, I've been wondering how prevalent the hacker mentality is these days among GNU/Linux users.

In the rush to marketability, commercial distributions sometimes seem to be recreating the same conditions that have encouraged learned helplessness elsewhere. Some of this tendency, no doubt, is due to user expectations. Yet the point is, only a handful of projects, such as Sugar Interface, are even trying to create desktops that are both easy to use and encourage exploration.

In other cases, such as GRUB 2, which features an emphasis on scripts and the addition of configuration files, the tendency -- perhaps unconsciously -- appears to be to exclude any except experts from tinkering with their own system. Instead, users are asked to trust the software to do everything for them.

I'm not saying that FOSS should not become more usable. But I worry that, in the rush to increase its popularity, the equally important principle of user accessibility and control may be overlooked. If FOSS reaches its goal of world domination only by becoming like its rivals, then an important aspect of its past -- and, even more importantly, of human dignity -- could easily be lost.


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  • Re: Don't attribute to evil what stupidity and laziness will explain


    I wish it were as simple as showing people that they can't do any harm. The trouble is, it goes deeper. I've showed people that they couldn't do any harm, and even made a backup and explained how easily I can restore things to the way they were -- and my efforts have still been met with a paralyzing look of fear.

    That's what seems so strange to me. A surprising number of ordinary users expect not to understand their computers, and are utterly convinced that they never can.

    As for your retirement plan: If you want, you can buy into my retirement plan, and claim the franchise for my repair business in your area. happy
  • Don't attribute to evil what stupidity and laziness will explain


    Thirty years ago I taught freshmen in college Introduction to Computer Science. It was a different world then, and most of them had never touched a computer keyboard before they came to my class. I would give them a problem, and they would sit in front of the monitor, hooked to a RSTS/E PDP-11 timesharing system, and not type anything. When asked why, they would say that they were afraid of breaking the computer.

    So the first lesson devolved into showing them that no matter what they typed as a beginning system, including garbage, they were not going to break the system. Sure, if they typed the "wrong thing" they might erase whatever files they had, but since they had no files, they were not going to harm anything.

    The students went wild, and never looked back. Most of them graduated after two years knowing how databases, compilers and operating systems worked, and even built simple examples of those.

    Fast forward to the PC era. With the lack of security and robustness of DOS and early Apple products this was not necessarily true, and with the lack of source code to allow people to "de-mystify" the system, computers got more mysterious.

    People could not understand the concept of "shutting down a system", and would simply pull the electric plug. I was in a university one time and saw a sign on the wall behind three system boxes: "These are Unix systems, do not turn them off or unplug them."

    Of course that same sign implied that it was O.K. to simply turn off a Windows or Apple system, and for the most part in those days, it might have been. Not so much these days.

    "Familiarity breeds contempt?" Only to a certain point. I am familiar with rattlesnakes, but don't really want to handle them much.

    I worked for Digital for sixteen years. We created reams and reams of documentation to tell our customers how to use their systems. We wanted them to be able to solve some of the problems themselves, because every time they called us for small things, it cost both of us money.

    But people did not want to read that documentation, or even use the great indexes that we put together. They wanted to call our support line, where they would be asked if they were holding their mouse right and if their system was really plugged in.

    When Altavista, one of the early search engines, came out I would use it to find information on the 'net.
    People soon found out that I could come up with answers in a moment, so they came to me to get "the answer". I would take the time to show them how to use Altavista, but that was not what they wanted. They wanted "THE ANSWER".

    And so it goes...but have hope! I know that while there will be the same type of people start using Linux that use Windows and Apple products today, there will also be legions of people who want to know and understand (and like that neighbor of yours, make a good living in "retirement"blunk who will look beyond the scripts and GUIs to learn how the system really works.

    Warmest regards,


    P.S. Please stop giving out copies of my "retirement business plan"....I NEED those people to pay me big bucks showing them how to open their DVD drives.
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