[Paleopsych] Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Call the geeks when computer rage boils over

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Tue Jun 28 01:08:54 UTC 2005

Call the geeks when computer rage boils over

    Thursday, April 21, 2005


    It was early evening by the time the rental geek headed to his last
    job at the end of a rough day. He was behind schedule and, worse, he'd
    lost his cell phone, the lifeline that connected him to his stable of
    clueless clients.

    "It's been a damage-control week," he said, the closest he gets to

    His motto, after all, is, "We've wasted countless hours learning this
    stuff so you won't have to." This "we" is Alec Bennett, proprietor of
    Rent a Geek, the business he founded four years ago after his dot-com
    employer succumbed to the dot-com crash.

    It didn't take long after losing that job for him to realize his
    plight wasn't so bad. There were lots of digitally challenged people
    out there who needed him. They had computers suffering from viruses,
    e-mail problems and inexplicable crashes that eradicated their tax
    records, calendars or address books.

    In fact, there was too much business.

    Computer frustration has become a modern plague, aggravated by a
    proliferation of computer-chip-driven gadgets, all with disparate
    multipage directions, cords, vocabularies and manufacturers, some with
    24-hour help lines that require that much time to reach. Together,
    they've fueled a cottage industry of home geeks, computer technicians
    who will make house calls.

    About two-thirds of Americans used the Internet in 2003 -- 87 percent
    of them through connections at home -- according to the Pew Internet
    and American Life Project. Though there is no estimate of the number
    who couldn't master their computers, academic and anecdotal evidence
    abounds. Anger and frustration with computers can even escalate into
    what one psychologist calls "computer rage."

    "Computer rage is becoming a big problem in our world today,"
    University of Maryland professor Kent Norman says on a section of
    [1]his Web site devoted to the subject. "Men and women are taking out
    their frustrations on the computer; and unfortunately, sometimes
    misdirecting it to other people."

    Norman, who directs the Laboratory of Automation Psychology and
    Decision Processes at the university, conducted an online survey last
    year in which nearly 20 percent of respondents admitted they'd dropped
    a computer on the floor out of anger. They described smashing,
    microwaving and cursing at their computers. One confessed to urinating
    on his. Another said he had thrown his laptop in a fryer. At least
    three claimed to have shot at hardware.

    None of this was shocking to a man who studies computer-human
    interactions. So Norman developed some techniques for handling the
    rage, which, bottled up, can lead to "techno-frustration denial" and
    inappropriate behavior, like taking anger out on a spouse. He
    advocates some healthy "vicarious venting," which he demonstrates in
    video clips in which he bashes, burns and barbecues old computer

    "You really have to be careful with this stuff," Norman said in an

    But he understands what drives these cathartic acts. Computer programs
    being used at home were generally designed for business use, he said.
    Only a geek would have the knowledge and patience to fix programs,
    eradicate viruses and rescue data after a crash.

    "It's this incredible amount of frustration trying to deal with
    something that's not designed well and is in fact incredibly
    unreliable," Norman said.

    Robert Stephens, who believes he was the original home geek, began
    tapping into the cauldron of frustration 11 years ago as a student at
    the University of Minnesota when he founded the Geek Squad. By the end
    of the 1990s, his clients included the Rolling Stones, U2 and Madonna

    Best Buy, figuring he'd come up with a good idea, bought the business
    and in 2004 installed rentable geeks in all its 668 stores in the
    United States. Called Double Agents, they follow a geek dress code,
    accented with clip-on ties and white tube socks and drive VW Bugs
    emblazoned with the company logo.

    "Not all geeks are created equal," Stephens said. "We like to think we
    attract the best ones."

    Bennett sees the proliferation of geek services as "a good thing.
    There is enough work out there for everybody. It's just that it's like
    the Wild West. You never know what you're going to get."


    Respondents to [2]the computer rage survey conducted by Kent Norman, a
    psychology professor at the University of Maryland, had these
      * "I often show my PC the middle finger!"
      * "I'll admit it, I'm always swearing at my computer."
      * "I once shot a computer with a .50-cal BMG sniper rifle."
      * "I took great pleasure throwing an old monitor into a dumpster
        hard enough to smash it completely."
      * "I often just squeeze my mouse real hard when I'm angry at
        something on the computer. Then when I'm more angry, I start
        smashing it on the table. And when I'm even more angry, computer
        gets a kick on the side."
      * "I once was so frustrated that my laptop was going so slow, I
        threw it into a fryer when I was a manager of a restaurant. It
        melted all the parts, and we had to replace the fryer."
      * "Taking a hockey stick to an old monitor is VERY SATISFYING."
      * "Poured gasoline on a computer and set fire to it."
      * "Throwing keyboards into the swimming pool (kinda nice watching it
        sink, and the joy is after it dries out and it carries on
      * "Struck mid-size tower with car going 25 mph, propelling it 15-20
        feet forward: Note this causes damage to car but troublesome DVD
        drive finally ejected jammed disc upon contact with pavement.
        Afterlife: yes, but HDD (hard disk drive) reported errors and case
        wasn't attractive. Sold on eBay ..."

    Katherine Seligman can be reached at at [3]kseligman at sfchronicle.com.


    1. http://www.lap.umd.edu/computer_rage/
    2. http://lap.umd.edu/surveys/computer_rage/index.html
    3. mailto:kseligman at sfchronicle.com

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