Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fear of the Machine

Snowpocalypse, from Wednesday night

One thing I've noticed from observing students at the reference desk is a common apprehension surrounding interactions with computers. I say computers, but I'm thinking about the photocopier and the printer too. We gather internal statistics to count the number of times we are called upon to support these technologies, which is nice to know, but I wonder if this is common everywhere, or whether it's more typical at a community college where students are often coming from a lower-than-average socioeconomic background.

I'm not claiming to always be savvy when interacting with new technology (I'm quick to ask for help when the supermarket self-checkout machine fails, for example), but I watch students who are unwilling to take the first basic steps of interacting with the photocopier, and I can't help but wonder what's going on. 

It might be a combination of variables such as age, past experience with technology, and the appearance of a machine. But what is it that allows some people to be willing to walk up to certain technology, interact with it, and learn how to get it to work, while other people immediately look for a human to guide them? Even if personal assistance is not immediately available, some students will spend more time tracking down a library staff member than it would have taken them to figure out the machine. Does it come down mainly to personality? Some people seem to assume they need permission to use a machine and that they will be held responsible if it breaks; others just seem lazy. Some people seem unwilling or unable to read instructions; others seem to prefer a human connection as they accomplish their tasks.  

It gets more interesting when wondering whether this is even a technology question at all. Maybe some people automatically seek others to explain whatever system they are interacting with, regardless of the task they are trying to accomplish. Then again, I don't think so. I see far, far fewer people asking for help with how to take a book off the shelves. But there could be a scale of complexity, and certain people might be more likely to look for human assistance when the task reaches a certain point on that scale.

Oh, to be a researcher and have time to explore this.  


  1. I've worked at both a community college and a major research university and the CC students did seem to be more hesitant with technology. At RU, students just walked up to the copier and assumed they could figure it out, but at the CC people would come to the reference desk first to ask for instructions. This is just anecdotal, certainly not empirical research, but it does seem like a trend.

  2. Our students (even techy ones) are scared of the stapler. It's an electronic stapler which means that without a bit of practice (and it's a bit ludicrous to require people to practise using a stapler!) it's not quite intuitive either where the staple will end up or exactly when it'll get put there with a loud bang.

  3. Interesting comments, thanks!

    That sounds like a villainous stapler. Another variable could be the perceived likelihood of success using a technology.

  4. I work at an elite graduate school library and there are plenty of patrons who have trouble with machinery. Not that there's any shame in that although there is a certain level of people just not wanting to have to do things themselves.

    Thanks for the article. I too think it would be worthwhile research.