When Technology Hates Us

There’s a word for when the machines in your life seem to be out to get you: Resistentialism

By Paul McFedries


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 spitewas 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).