When High Tech Goes Haywire

It’s a sign of how advanced our civilization is that ordinary people now own numerous things that fail to work from time to time. A report released last month by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project indicates how commonplace malfunctions are in some technologies that have become staples of modern life.

Among people who have a home Internet connection, 44 percent said it failed to function at some point in the 12 months prior to the polling (fielded between October and December of last year). So did 39 percent of those who have a desktop or laptop computer, 29 percent of those with a cell phone, 26 percent of those with a BlackBerry, Palm or other PDA, and 15 percent of those with an iPod or other MP3 player. When people who’ve suffered such a problem were asked to cite the technology that failed most recently, the home Internet connection was mentioned by nearly half (46 percent), with the computer as runner-up for this distinction (28 percent).

What do people do when one of these devices goes on the blink? According to the study’s polling data, 38 percent contacted customer support for help. Twenty-eight percent said they fixed the problem themselves, while 15 percent did so with help from friends or family. Two percent reported finding help online. But 15 percent were unable to find a solution to the problem. Cell phones were the devices most apt to resist efforts to fix them: 23 percent of respondents with a broken cell phone said it stayed broken.

Many consumers are perplexed by the high-tech items they’ve bought even before these have had a chance to malfunction. Thirty percent of respondents said they’re described “very well” by the sentence, “When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it.” Another 18 percent said this describes them “somewhat well.”