Friday, February 4, 2011

Why are so many people so bad at computers?

Why is it that even today, decades after computers were invented, so many people have no idea how to use them?

Think of this riddle.  If a plane is on a conveyor belt and the conveyor belt is traveling backwards at the same speed as the plane is pushing forwards.  Will the plane take off?  Think about that for a little while before continuing to the answer.

Some probably instantly say “Mythbusters did that, it’s not a good riddle any more”, but a lot of people still get this wrong.  The plane takes off without a problem.  Why do so many people get this wrong?

The human mind cannot remember everything we see and learn, it would probably be a living hell if we did.  So when we learn something we put it into mental molds.  Newly learned item “B” is like previously learned item “A” so the two are grouped.  Most people get the plane question wrong because they’re use to thinking of how cars work.  The engine spins and puts force on the tires that push against the ground.  If the car was on a treadmill going 50mph and the treadmill was going in the other direction at the same speed, the car would go nowhere.  A plane, on the other hand, spins it’s engine in turn spinning the propellers pushing against the air, not the ground.  The tires spin freely and just spin faster with the treadmill beneath it.

Most people get this wrong due to accidentally putting planes in the same mental mold as cars.  But, I would bet that an aerodynamics expert would just shake his head to the question.  To him the answer is so obvious.  He has a separate mold for planes.

How does this relate to computers?

Computers are unique in the world.  There’s nothing really like them other then more computers.  Where else can anything be copied infinitely without degradation?  Where else can information travel between the US and China in the blink of an eye?  Where else can we take pulses of electricity and turn them into so many things?

People try to put computers in the same mold as things they’re use to; phones, TV, newspapers, letters.  But computers are so much more that, like planes, they can’t be put in the same mold.  You end up with people trying to use a computer like a TV or a phone.  Worse, you end up with people using them like some kind of magical device that can do anything.  They can’t.

A few helpful tips to try and avoid this problem:

1)  Computers are created by people, not fairies.  People are fallible, thus computers are too.
2)  Computers will do everything that the user tells them, to the letter.
3)  200 or so other users have already told the computer what to do before the box is opened.
4)  Computers can only do what they’re told to do, no more.
5)  The Internet is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of cultures including it’s own.

Edit: 02/14/10
6) Diagnosing a computer is surprisingly like diagnosing an illness.  Give your tech support the symptoms, not what you think is wrong.


  1. I'd like to point out that cell phones are computers, and they do work in similar ways that computers do. But I realize that you could be talking about landlines. People who are bad with computers likely still use landlines.

  2. Please rephrase the riddle. I got it confused because I thought it was the jet engine was pushing the plane at the same speed.

    1. I changed the riddle around and I think it's easier to understand, but I'm not sure where the jet engine is coming in.