Go into any of the little cafés or horlogeries on Paris’s Left Bank…and sooner or later you will hear someone say, “ Les choses sont contre nous.” “Things are against us.”
Our lives are immeasurably easier and more connected than we could ever have imagined just 20 years ago. But to reap these benefits, we’ve had to cozy up to our tech. So close, in fact, that it has become personal, almost a part of who we are. But every now and then, that closeness enables us to see a darker side of the relationship: Sometimes, it seems, our devices are actively working against us. The phone that spontaneously reboots just when you need it most; the computer that crashes only when you have unsaved changes; a bug that suddenly appears when you demo your code.
This tendency for things not just to fail but to seemingly fail out of spite was labeled Resistentialism by the British humorist Paul Jennings back in the 1960s, but similar terms have been coined in the years since. We are often FOBIO (frequently outwitted by inanimate objects) or FOILED (frequently outwitted by inanimate, lame electronic devices). The editor and writer Edward Tenner coined the phrase revenge effect to refer to an unintended and negative consequence of some new or modified technology: Get everyone on e-mail and the result isn’t a paperless utopia but soaring consumption of office paper; give everyone faster Internet connections and the result isn’t a boom in leisure time but a dearth of time away from work. Programmers talk of Heisenbugs, software errors that disappear or change their behavior when the programmer tries to trace them or examine them (incorrectly named after the physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose Uncertainty Principle states that we can never know perfectly the position or momentum of a particle beyond a certain minimum level, and which is often confused with the Observer Effect, where the act of observing a particle alters its properties).
It’s nice to have a world of information in your pocket, but make devices too small and you get the fat-finger problem: the tendency to make errors on a device where screen elements are too small for human digits. (Scammers are taking advantage of the related problem of fat-finger dialing by setting up toll numbers that differ by one digit from popular numbers, so as to glean money from misdials.) The solution is phone software that checks our spelling, but this in turn has created the autofail, an indecorous or nonsensical error introduced into a message by such software. A synonym is the Cupertino effect, so-named because early versions of Apple’s spell-checkers would often change the word cooperation to Cupertino, the location of Apple’s headquarters. The equivalent for an error created by voice-recognition software is the speako (a play on typo).
The profusion of options offered by a digital technology can make it harder to use. In particular, when it becomes difficult to discern the exact state or mode of the device, the result is called mode confusion, which has been observed in situations both serious (airline accidents) and trivial (trying to enter a password with the Caps Lock key inadvertently on).
We live in a world increasingly run by complex systems in which multiple technologies not only interact but work properly only if all the other technologies are working correctly. (Such a system is said to be tightly coupled.) Most complex systems have redundancies and fail-safe mechanisms to prevent failures, but the interactions between technologies in a complex system are so, well, complex that it isn’t possible to predict all the ways any one failure will affect the system. Therefore, problems in these systems are more or less inevitable, a phenomenon called, oxymoronically, the normal accident. This isn’t strictly Murphy’s Law. Instead, it’s a variation on the theme: “If something can go wrong, it usually won’t, but eventually it will.” Things, after all, are against us.