Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) June 2010

My Rage against the Machine (and what Healthcare can Learn from Steve Jobs)

Neil Seeman

“If your computer’s noise level is still unbearable after you’ve re-installed a new fan, then it’s a freak of nature.” The gentle-voiced technician, a rare live voice from 24/7 customer service (on a Sunday!), told me “it would then be a one in a million machine” if the fan replacement failed. His name was Julius; he gave me his phone number. If he proved correct, I promised I would call to thank him. He said no one ever thanks him.

I didn’t call Julius back – mine was that one in a million machine.

I’m a fan of technology that simplifies my life, but I detest gadgets when they malfunction. Apple said it sold more than 1.7 million iPhone 4s within the first three days of the product’s launch. A large part of this success is due to the singular personal charm of Steve Jobs, who pulled off a tech-era Phil Donahue phenomenon: The iPhone 4 launch was interrupted by technical glitches during Mr. Jobs’s presentation. He had trouble getting Web pages to load. The crowd fell silent for a few seconds but did not snicker.

Evidently, Steve Jobs is not prone to computer rage. With aplomb Mr. Jobs said: “I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to show you much.” He then asked the audience to disconnect their gadgets and laptops to give him the wireless-network bandwidth he needed to use his device properly while on stage. The audience roared with applause.

What Healthcare can Learn from Steve Jobs

Healthcare’s technical complexity – and stress levels – could benefit a great deal from mimicking Mr. Jobs’s composure. Steve Jobs sells simplicity – even when he experiences a glitch at product launch. So enamoured are we with the power of Apple that we give him the benefit of the doubt. When we reach a point in healthcare IT when product launch snafus are tolerated, we will have succeeded. At that point, we will have reached a stage where we accept imperfection – when the promise of healthcare IT far overshadows its defects.

We are not there yet.

John Charlton, a psychologist at the University of Bolton, found the majority of people succumb to anger three or four times a month, and more than ten percent report get angry ten times a month or more. Overall, around 54 percent of people have expressed this anger in verbal aggression toward their computing equipment. Forty percent of the participants in Charlton’s study had engaged in physical aggression aimed at their computer. Treating a computer like a boxer’s double-end bag was most often linked to two triggers: unsatisfactory work progress and time pressures. The problem is often the amount of time needed to fix the snag.

I admit to having hurled various bits of computer equipment at the floor.

When any of us takes out anger on the computer by physically banging it or kicking it or verbally abusing it, it is called computer rage. In most cases, the abuse is verbal.

I am not alone. I take solace in a growing genre of YouTube™ videos of people who blow up their computers, destroy them with weapons and drop them from the top of a parking garage.

Work interrupted

Commissioned by Compaq, one poll questioned 1,250 workers in the UK. Almost a quarter said their work was interrupted every day because of computer crashes and other IT glitches. The result: higher stress levels, and demonstrably measurable business costs. Deadlines are missed, contracts canceled, customers incensed. Add in the internal costs. The Confederation of British Industry says that it costs businesses about £25,000 per person per year for each hour lost in a work day.

Lack of IT support

For those afflicted by computer rage, new-age clinical psychologists work at computer helpdesks. I pour my soul out to Bangalore-based technical support offices whenever my laptop goes amok. Always congenial, IT departments don’t get the respect they deserve for their unbelievable patience. Still, not everybody is convinced that IT departments are doing their job. Three quarters of those questioned in the UK poll said that their IT managers failed to fix the problem. And even if tech support gets the machine running again, more than a fifth of those interviewed experienced the same fault again – because, apparently, IT addressed the symptom, but not the underlying problem.


The message from users worldwide is clear: Manufacturers and installers of computer networks should do more to deliver a stress-free computer experience. (For iPhone users, the product delivers just that). Before blaming others, know this: about half of all calls to a typical company's help line are from users who are locked out of their computers because they have forgotten their password.

I used to lecture with a state-of-the-art touch computer system. On my first day of class, there I was, staring at a black screen even though I’d been through the tech tutorial. I began to sweat. I called tech support. They advised me that the solution to my seemingly insurmountable problem was to touch the screen to enable it; hence the name “touch-screen”. About half of all calls from new instructors, the technician gently consoled me, were due to ignorance of this simple fact.

New technologies such as using fingerprint identification to clear PC access can make password problems a thing of the past. Unless the network is defunct. But until fancy gadgets make computers much easier to navigate than they are now, computer users’ families and co-workers will have to resign themselves to hearing unmentionable expletives. It may be a pure coincidence that my computer blue-screened twice while this essay was being written. But my wife did not need to stuff her ears with cotton. Nowadays I am calmer: I visualize Steve Jobs on stage whenever my computer crashes.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto.


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