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Mars Report:

A Gift for Self-Deception

Published June 18th, 2009

You Can't Get A HorseFor a long time now, I've been explaining why the world would have been better off if Apple's computers had come to dominate homes and businesses. I've focused on the virtues of Apple's software almost exclusively, even though Apple has for most of existence been primarily a hardware company, like Dell or Hewlett Packard. Why? Because it's clear to all us Martians that what makes or breaks a computing experience is the software. To paraphrase one of your ex-Presidents, "It's the Software, stupid!"

I've also come to believe that humans are genetically predisposed to self-deception, allowing them to talk themselves into whatever point of view is most convenient, or is perceived as being in their best self-interest. Thus, argument over the relative worth of one technology or another is pointless, because no carefully researched and supported set of facts will ever be enough to persuade someone with the opposite view. Indeed, the truth of this axiom is encapsulated in the common human phrase of folk wisdom,

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

I've noted that when someone conjures this phrase to explain a colleague or acquaintance's intransigence about something, those listening will nod to each other knowingly and somewhat sadly aver, "So true."

And yet, how many humans really think they're as "stupid" as horses?

The only time a change of opinion occurs is when some circumstance in a person's life changes sufficiently that what was highly dubious before is now patently obvious. This is why you read so many stories of former PC users who, when confronted with the necessity of using a Mac for a period of time, invariably come to understand how far beyond superior the Mac operating system is when compared with Windows.

I spend little time using Windows nowadays, but my wife is still forced to use a PC for her job. As we both work at home, I have become her de facto Help Desk support for tasks that her remote technicians can't handle. So it was that today I managed to raise my green blood pressure far too high for sustainable health, all in the cause of trying to get a scanner to work with her Dell laptop.

Working with Windows is a lot like trying to communicate with automated phone systems. One menu will explain a variety of choices. Then, you find that either none of them are helpful, or some of them promise more than they deliver. For example, in this case Windows let me know that I had attached a new piece of hardware. (Duh!) Then it offered options to (a) let it try to find the driver on its own or (b) insert a CD that contains the driver. I was skeptical of option (a) but decided to try that. Well, of course Windows came back almost immediately to tell me it couldn't find the driver.

On a Mac? Apple keeps hardware drivers current with all of its OS releases, including incremental updates, and I've almost never had to go searching for a driver for common hardware like scanners and printers.  (A Windows user at this point will self-deceptively point out how much more hardware is available for the PC, etc. All I can say is, Mac users have more than enough choices in hardware peripherals, thanks.)

Step two was so infuriating that I refuse to explain it in detail. This involved finding and downloading Canon's driver and software. The finding part was easy as pie thanks to Google and Canon's easy-to-use website. The downloading and installation parts, however, were beyond maddening. The experience exposed so many obvious weaknesses in Windows usability that I had to again wonder how PC users put up with it. I said I wasn't going to go into detail, and I'll try not to. But here are a few observations:

  1. Clicking download doesn't just download the file, as it does on a Mac. Instead, it spawns a dialog box that requires a choice: Download, or "Run". So, I ran. (Again, a Windows guru would say, "But you can avoid having to make that choice each time by..." And I say, "Yes, but you forget how clueless most computer users are. Even though you can do this, it's not the default experience that it should be.")
  2. So, after running, nothing happened. Nothing. I thought I'd done something wrong, so I downloaded again. My wife noted that Canon's site suggests saving the file rather than running it, so I did that. But where to save it? From the file browser it took far longer than it should to locate the Desktop, which I assumed would be the default location. Even if it's the default, I had to manually choose it. *Groan*
  3. So once the file was downloaded, I just wanted to click it on the desktop. Guess what? There's no obvious way to expose the desktop. My wife, a 20-year PC user, says she always minimizes all the windows to get there. Good grief. Think of all the lost time in corporate America with clueless users trying to find their desktop. Scary.
  4. Having installed, I then had to go through another wizard that wanted to help me help Windows connect the hardware with the driver. To get to the wizard, I had to find the control panel for scanners, another task that all its own makes using Windows look hard from a Mac perspective.

Why does this seem ridiculous to Martians? Simply because, using Mac OS X, you just plug your scanner in and... there's no step two. The Mac's built-in Twain driver typically can pair with the scanner even if the company-specific scanner is unavailable. And since this is a core service of the operating system, it works with any Twain-aware software. Isn't that an obvious approach?

This lengthy and agonizing task (don't even get me started on the Windows user interface, and I'm not talking about its relative beauty) reminded me of another tragedy of modern computing, which I've written about before. Namely, the institution of a "Help Desk" in all companies today is not one of the inevitable costs of having computers on every desk. It is quite obviously the result of having IBM PCs running DOS or Windows computers on every desk.

The process of setting up a scanner should be in the skill range of every computer user. In the Mac world, it is. In the PC world, it isn't. It's as simple as that. And you can extrapolate that observation to nearly every other aspect of office computing we have today.

The Help Desk is a huge revenue drain that every PC user simply assumes is necessary, because it has evolved to be so. Today, Help Desks are self-perpetuating organizations, typically driven by contract companies with a clear incentive to make themselves seem indispensable. These folks (or at least, the companies they work for) are at the forefront of the anti-Mac coalition devoted to doing whatever it takes to keep Macs out of the enterprise.

And who is the company that hires the Help Desk to question what the "experts" say? After all, these are the guys who daily keep their computing environment running. Business managers simply aren't qualified to make decisions about their computing infrastructure, so they rely on outside contractors for recommendations. And guess what? Those are the same guys who regularly argue for expanding the Help Desk and who regularly explain why it would be a mistake to let employees start using Macs at the office. (For more on this subject, refer to the third section of my earlier article, Protecting Windows: How PC Malware Became A Way of Life. The third section is called "Change Resisters In Charge.")

In this case, the advocates for the Help Desk aren't deceiving themselves. Many of them fully understand that if Macs came in, many of their jobs would go away. But somehow, the business managers and computer users continue to spend most of their time struggling with simple tasks rather than actually getting work done, all because they're convinced they have no choice. And having to use Windows, the average user continues to perceive their PC as this unpredictable, inscrutable, frustrating device whose only virtue appears to be access to the Web and to iTunes.

I'll never forget my highly intelligent disk jockey friend who purchased a high-end PC with all the bells and whistles for recording and editing audio and video. Not only did it cost more than an iMac with the same basic capabilities, but it sat in his house for over a year before he had the nerve (and time) to figure out how to use it to do the things he bought it for.

I tried to explain to him that... But you know how it goes. Tell a PC user how simple something like recording and editing audio is on a Mac, and either their eyes glaze over or they start to look at you suspiciously. And that's if they're already a friend!

But I'm done with trying to persuade humans of anything. They'll either figure it out, or they won't. Unfortunately, another observation I've made isn't good news for any human figuring out that they're wrong about something:

Changes in human understanding, and the policy implied by that understanding, only occur through crisis.

This observation is directly related to the original premise, because if it's impossible ever to "prove" an idea or even a set of facts to another human or group of humans through cogent argument, how do you manage to change awareness of the virtue of alternative perspectives? I'm taking back to Mars the theory that such changes are only possible after a human undergoes some life-changing crisis, or after a community of humans does the same.

In a followup essay, I'll discuss several other current controversial topics that have quite obvious answers, yet which humans--quite often on both sides of the debate--keep viewing from obviously kooky perspectives.

Well, obvious to any Martian I know, anyway.

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