Computers and masochism

This morning’s Observer column on the perennial mystery of why people continue using software that causes them so much grief. Sample:

When friends and family tell me their woeful stories of viruses and worms, I have learnt to bite my tongue and make sympathetic, but incoherent noises. This was not how I used to react. Once upon a time I would say, in a smugly superior way, that if people would insist on supping with the devil then they should expect to get scorched; and if they wished to get off this torture-rack then they should move to a different – Apple or Linux – platform.

But I rapidly learnt this was not what these wretches want to hear. They do not want to be told that they should abandon their Microsoft-ridden machines and worship in a different church. So in the end, I stopped telling them about Apple and Linux and began mouthing the soothing bromides favoured by vicars when dealing with terminal cases.

En passant… This religious dimension brings to mind Umberto Eco’s wonderful essay on the difference between the Apple Mac and the IBM PC, of which the nub reads…

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.