High-tech gifts elevate post-holiday stress

Setup: Trying to make things work tips love-hate toward hate.

December 29, 2004|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

On Christmas night, Kevin Colohan found himself suddenly dusted in white.

The sprinkling, alas, was not a holiday snowfall but rather the powdery insides of an exploded stress doll. Colohan squeezed it to death while attempting to set up his Christmas present, an 80-gigabyte external hard drive that resisted installation.

Seated in front of the computer monitor, the 18-year-old Towson resident spent "two hours straight, squeezing as hard as I could," he said. "It was the only thing I could do to keep from punching my keyboard."

Of course, the keyboard was imperiled anyway when the doll -- emitting a pathetic "puff" sound -- expired, engulfing man and machine in a chalky cloud.

Such are the consequences of techno rage, a form of anger that is particularly prevalent this week after one of the most high-tech Christmases ever.

The satellite radios and LCD TVs have all been unwrapped, and America is strangling in a post-Christmas snarl of Mp3 player wires, modem lines and extension cords that won't quite reach the outlet.

"People are opening up all this technology," said Kent Norman, a University of Maryland, College Park psychology professor who studies computer rage. "When people sink three grand into a new plasma TV and something goes wrong, sometimes a killer instinct takes over."

Christmas presents are notoriously annoying to assemble, with mummifying plastic wrap and slots and tabs galore.

But Norman, who researches human-computer interactions, said a digital Christmas taps into something much deeper -- our reverence for, and visceral fear of, machines.

Partially because many people now feel defenseless without laptops and BlackBerries, the computer has become "almost this hallowed object," he said. "So precious. So expensive. People say, `Be careful, be careful, don't get crumbs on the keyboard.'"

Handling automated objects with excessive care suppresses gradual frustrations that might ultimately bubble into rage, he said.

This furor arises during all seasons, not just the holidays.

Eighty percent of respondents to a continuing international survey that Norman designed acknowledged cursing out a machine at least once in their lives, and 20 percent confessed to intentionally dropping a computer on the floor.

The urge to throw

Local repair shops have seen Nintendo systems that have been tossed out apartment doors and computers pushed out of windows.

Mike Menefee, vice president of A-Plus Computers in Baltimore, remembers one aggravated customer who pitched his virus-ridden PC down a flight of stairs.

"I was like, `Hey, we'll give you a discount for that,'" Menefee said.

Techno toys can reduce quality of life, according to Jonathan Lazar, a computer science professor at Towson University who tracked computer frustration among Baltimore office workers as part of a study, and found that people's moods often darken after using the computer.

"A lot of digital cameras, hand-held devices, are designed to make you mad," Lazar said. "These things can actually raise your blood pressure."

Despite this, well-wishers stocked up on high-tech items for their loved ones. About a third of items bought online during the holiday season were computers or electronics, according to comScore Networks, a consultant group that tracks consumer behavior. All of the top 10 most-searched-for items were gizmos of some kind, such as Playstation 2s and Bose sound systems, a comScore spokesman said.

To be sure, many people are on edge during the holiday season, with extravagant meals to cook and unwelcome relatives underfoot. Part of the problem might be that consumers have even less patience than usual for alien technologies that looked so cute in the box.

Also, there seems to be a cultural phobia -- perhaps digitally conditioned -- of printed instruction manuals.

"They give you a book in Spanish," said a bewildered Jim Hossback of Lutherville, who has relinquished all hope of transferring the Christmas pictures from his brand-new digital camera to his computer screen. "They give you a book in English, and a book in Chinese."

To make matters worse, new technology in a household can reveal the limits of older, formerly reliable equipment. Only after oohing and ahhing over her new iPod did Stacey Schaech of Sparks realize that it wasn't compatible with her family's computer.

The gift of an iPod cost her mother about $300, but "now I have to spend $2,000 on a new computer," she said. "I was really mad."

So was Ben DeRose, a 17-year-old from Street who struggled to install software for his deluxe model iPod on Christmas morning. He spent more than an hour in front of the computer monitor, which flashed mocking messages.

"Do not disconnect, do not disconnect," DeRose mimicked, his voice rising.

Do not disconnect, indeed. To his family's horror, DeRose hurled the intractable iPod against the wall, shattering the screen.

"I wanted to finish it off," he said.

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