The tech trauma divide: Are men or women more stressed by gadget disasters?
Rhodri Marsden and Harriet Walker go head to head to find out who copes best.
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 03 January 2013
Anyone who's ever initiated a panic-stricken search for a laptop charger, howled into the pages of an impenetrable printer manual or squealed as their phone drops into an unflushed toilet will be well aware of our reliance on technology in the 21st century. So many of our everyday activities depend on processors, code and data; a malfunctioning GPS chip could easily cause someone to burst into tears and start praying for a kindly policeman to turn up and dispense directions.
But how do these technological stresses match up to traditional ones such as losing a passport, ruining an outfit or filling in a tax return? Mindlab, a Sussex-based firm which specialises in emotional analysis, has developed a series of tests to assess precisely this, and ever the willing lab rat, I agreed to undergo them. Their initial findings had indicated that men find technology-related mishaps more upsetting than women, so I asked my colleague Harriet to come along, assuming that I'd crumble into a pathetic heap while she stoically pressed ahead with the experiment.
We were asked to imagine ourselves in 19 scenarios, assisted in our daydreams by a gentle voice-over and a series of images. Our responses were measured in three ways: subjective (rating our own level of distress from 1 to 10), physiological (via a sensor placed on our fingers to measure sweat levels), and neurological (via an unattractive Lycra cap wired up to an electroencephalography device that measured brain activity). By combining these three measurements, Mindlab reckons on being able to judge the intensity of our discomfort – though I was already feeling pretty stressed at having electrodes placed on my scalp by a researcher in a white coat.
But I soon got used to it, and as the tests proceeded it became clear that some scenarios were as unmoving to me as a Commons debate on fish-quota allocations. One of them, a tender retelling of the tale of the death of Bambi's mother, provoked zero emotion – probably because I've never seen the film Bambi, but come on: Bambi's mum is just a drawing, while an iPhone left on a bar in a drunken moment of forgetfulness is a terrifyingly real prospect.
Some of the tech-fail scenarios seemed to me to be easily preventable and I couldn't really muster up much concern. Data loss from a computer or a phone might be something that strikes fear into your heart, but I'm good at backing stuff up and so the test just provoked in me an unbearable level of smugness. The same went for scenarios involving things getting broken or damaged; I don't get emotionally attached to gadgets – and in any case I have insurance.
Richard Quinto from tech-support company geeksquad.co.uk sat in on our tests and agreed that many of the smartphone scenarios that can cause such distress can be easily avoided. "A screen protector is an inexpensive and essential safeguard," he said. "Downloading a tracker app is an easy way to find your phone if it goes missing. And if you back up your phone regularly, the most-prized parts – your personal photos, music and contacts – will never get lost."
The final analysis from Mindlab showed that I'm far more sanguine about stressful situations than the average person is, which will be news to both my doctor and my therapist. Apparently I became strangely worked up during the scenario that involved coping with tricky tech jargon; as a tech enthusiast my only explanation is that I immediately imagined myself in a Geek Squad role, having to explain said jargon to someone at the edge of their tether. Mobile-phone loss ranked highly among my most stressful situations, which didn't surprise me; I pat my pocket so often to check it's there that it's almost become a nervous tic. But my most dreaded scenario was assembling flat-pack furniture. Which sounds about right. As we all know, physical exertion plus screwdrivers plus uncertainty equals misery.
When someone nicked my phone last year, my first reaction was not the collected, rational annoyance of someone who realises they've lost not only a fairly expensive bit of kit but also a bunch of numbers and some photos they would have quite liked to keep.
No, my reaction was more of the wailing and teeth-gnashing kind – of total panic, of feeling as if I had been marooned, Swiss Family Robinson-style, and that I might never be OK ever again. Perhaps that was because it was stolen in Los Angeles, where not having a phone marks you out as someone who really, really doesn't matter.
But having had an electrode cap strapped to my head and my brainwaves monitored during a series of panic-inducing scenarios, I think it's because losing my phone – to my mind – is the ultimate indication of a life disordered, of potential planning chaos. And I can't think of anything more stressful than that.
I suppose that's why the moments in the test which unnerved me the most were losing my wallet, my passport, an unsaved dissertation and, er, breaking my telly. Each of these situations has a sort of self-flagellatory aspect (oh goody, my favourite) because they shouldn't ever happen so long as you are careful.
What mattered less to me, according to the scans, were things I deem beyond my control, such as not being able to do a Sudoku puzzle. Why should I be able to do one? I'm terrible at maths, and came to terms with that years ago. No probs. Ditto my placid response to baffling tech jargon – I've never known what any of it means, so any attempt to harsh my high by confusing me with it is about as efficient as having a philosophical debate with a sleeping donkey.
I could perhaps assuage some of my phone anxiety by taking a similarly laid-back tack. "It's the will of the gods," I'd shrug, feeling smug about my insurance policy when it goes astray, about having invested in a screen protector when I drop it.
But clearly what I truly care about is not the potential for being put out or the hassle involved in losing one's phone, but the feeling of "ohhhhhjeeesussthatissoannoying why didn't I look after it properly?" It's so instilled into me to care for my belongings – and my phone especially – that I even found myself reaching for it at one point during the test.
But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm any better at coping with a phone loss than Rhodri. Because my enormous stress levels at the reminder of the fate of Bambi's mother (I had only just managed to get over that) prove I am a hysterical fool, unable to separate reality from a sketched picture of a bereaved deer.
And actually, that's pretty much how I felt when someone nicked my phone: a bit wobbly on uncertain legs; lonely and with nobody to text. Lost, in short, and utterly bereft. I've got a new one now, though.
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