Monday, December 06, 2010

Technological superstition

Those of us who work in technology get perhaps the best and most crystal-clear demonstrations of the mental processes which lead to superstition and all the resulting forms of illogic. Maybe that's why there seems, at least to a casual consideration, to be a higher incidence of immunity to (or at least awareness of) the kind of fuzzy thinking that superstition leads to.

The fact is, none of us really understand all of what's going on in even a simple computer these days. There's millions of lines of operating system code, countless more going on at the servers and web sites, and an ever-increasing range of ways for hardware to cause issues since more devices are more connected over more pathways. We all have to troubleshoot via trial and error, educated guesswork, and the inevitable tactics of reboots and reinstalls.

But it's really striking to be someone who does understand at least a particular piece of software, and listen to other people who don't. This will happen when you hear users talk amongst themselves, or tell you why they do what they do, or even when you hear tech support being given by other IT people who don't know nearly as much as they think they do. Time and again people talk about doing things for reasons that are clearly nothing more than that they imagine a pattern which may or may not actually have anything to do with what's really going on. More often not.

Some of that, of course, is people realizing they don't really know what's going on, and just trying things that work. Particularly amongst the tech support people. But surprisingly much of it comes down to people really thinking things do work that way, that there's real causal connection between things that are entirely unrelated, or related in a way that's absolutely completely unlike what they imagine. And even IT people do it sometimes, which means it probably follows that I do, too, and don't notice.

If you watch for this on any subject you really understand, and then investigate how certain people can become about their misunderstandings about things they don't understand, it's really amazing how intensely strong these inferences and pattern recognition assumptions can become as they turn into beliefs.

And if this is how people react to systems that are not only actually understandable, but which were designed by other members of their same species, and thus orders of magnitude more comprehensible than natural processes, then little wonder that the most elaborate and complex patterns of supposition turning into superstition can build up around far less comprehensible concepts over the course of thousands of years. If anything it's a wonder humans have ever managed to break even a little free of superstition enough to discover anything.

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