What would a civilian do?

On my last trip through Logan airport my laptop ran afoul of a DHCP provider that handed it a duplicate address. Although I didn’t notice it right away, because I hopped onto a long flight and then spent the following day with a wired connection, the wireless capability of my Vista laptop had been turned off as a result of this incident.

When I realized what had happened, my first instinct was to start spelunking around in various administrative nooks and crannies of the system. It reminded me of another incident where Phil Windley went into overdrive to debug a display problem on his Mac. As Reed Hedges wrote in a comment:

…it’s as if you were the engineers building the MacOSX operating system and the only way to figure out problems is to rebuild it, and isolate causes.

Mindful of this, I asked myself: “What would a civilian do?” Then I took a deep breath and clicked on the Diagnose and Repair link. And lo, Vista said: “Wireless service is turned off. Would you like to turn it back on?”

Why yes, thanks, I would.

And lo, it worked.

Of course I couldn’t just carry on without knowing what had been turned off and on. For future reference, it was the WLAN AutoConfig service, which “enumerates WLAN adapters, manages WLAN connections and profiles” — something I’d forgotten about, or possibly never encountered, but that a civilian would hope never to meet.

It was a nice glimpse of how things ought to be.

That said, I’m wondering how the explanation that I found — using the ipconfig command, and the event log viewer — could be translated into something a civilian would find intelligible and useful. Recall that there was a long delay between the incident that triggered the wireless shutdown, and the appearance of the problem. I was able to figure out what had happened, but a civilian wouldn’t associate a transient popup message in an airport with a problem manifesting 18 hours later.

It’s wonderful to know that somebody can (in certain cases) wave a magic wand, say “Yes, please fix this,” and make it so. But absent a rational explanation for what went wrong, this can become a recipe for superstition. A civilian would be highly likely to attribute the whole incident to something that he or she did wrong, and then to fear doing that wrong thing again.

Of course we’d like things to always just work. But our systems are complex artifacts and things will go wrong. Intelligent diagnosis and repair is a daunting but worthwhile challenge, and it’s nice to see evidence of progress. Communicating helpfully to users about that process is an equally daunting but worthwhile challenge.


  1. My most frustrating experience w/ Windows has always been the wireless management – competing services for managing it (Windows, different vendor tools (chipset, manufacturer, etc.) a complete lack of transparency of what’s actually going on without resorting to ipconfig – but most importantly in this context, the utter unreliability of “click to repair” at least in XP Pro. My civilian response doesn’t work in this case.

    Default solution has always been “reboot” – my telephone advice to requests from home is “turn off the router, turn off the DSL modem, reboot” (at least until we installed Ubuntu, that is, but that had its own “civilian” problems with graphics drivers).

  2. You’ve nailed it with “attribute the incident to something that he or she did wrong”. The gold standard for “what would a civilian do?” is my wife. No matter how many times I tell her that computers are evil and they hate us, and that when they appear to be working they’re really just waiting for the most inconvenient time to stop working… she always concludes that whatever problem she is having must be her fault. Always.

  3. Here at the college library where I work, I am the “magic wand” that my patrons wave to fix a tech problem. Because of staffing contsraints, I spend the majority of my time helping students format papers, fixing their monitor display settings, and showing them how to find the printer-friendly version of a website. Providing actual reference services takes up very little of my time.

    Most of my patrons are of non-traditional age, in their thirties or older, many earning their B.A. for the first time or beginning a second career. They are not interested in learning why something went wrong on their computer (“intelligent diagnosis”), or in troubleshooting the problem (“repair”). They want it solved, and they want it solved five minutes ago. And so they call me over.

    As a person whose job it is to show people how to find and use information, I struggle with this. I have to consciously and constantly strive for a balance between showing my patron how to avoid the problem next time, and just solving it for them so they can finish writing their paper.

    This is especially challenging because the students here are so technologically uncomfortable. They use computers because it’s an easy way to find research, and because their instructors require it. They want computers to perform perfectly at all times, and don’t want to hear that “our systems are complex artifacts and things will go wrong.”

    It’s interesting to note that when something does go wrong–for example, when our wireless connection in the library cuts out–the room clears in about two minutes flat. Patrons vacate, despite the fact that the library is chock full of print material. If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.

  4. “They want computers to perform perfectly at all times, and don’t want to hear that “our systems are complex artifacts and things will go wrong.””

    And they are, of course, right to expect that.

    “Patrons vacate, despite the fact that the library is chock full of print material. If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.”

    Yep. This is why I hope that your role can evolve from the kinds of support tasks you describe to one where you coach your patrons not only on how to effectively navigate online spaces, but also how to effectively create their own.

  5. To run with that idea of students effectively creating their own online spaces…

    I envision a utopia where all information is free, findable, and equally accessible to everyone. I imagine what students’ online spaces could look like–personalized networks of blog entries, geocoded photos, and del.icio.us lists, as well as scholarly articles, classmates’ wikis, podcasts of instructors’ lectures, etc.

    Then I snag on the thought of the slow-moving behemoths (a.k.a. publishers and database vendors) clutching their licenses to scholarly and archived material. I have to hope that they, like major record labels, are beginning the descent into obsolescence. We need more of the academic world’s equivalent to Radiohead; more creators of information with the means and vision to offer their original research directly to the consumer.

    In the meantime, I lead students through the labyrinth of library databases. Occasionally we jump into Google Scholar, and the difference in interface and ease of use between the library databases and Google is remarkable. It should always be that easy to find and access peer-reviewed, full-text articles.

  6. @Richard S…
    Since I’m the ‘home tech support guy’ and I try and keep things up to date (ie, I’m always doing ‘stuff’ to my wife’s pc), when something breaks, it’s always MY fault…how did you get your wife trained?


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