“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
That pithy statement is referred to as “Hanlon’s Razor“.
It keeps coming to mind as I hear from people who are absolutely convinced that malice is at play in whatever they’re experiencing. That’s rarely the case.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Hanlon’s Razor extended
When it comes to computers and technology, I extend the aphorism a little further.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, error, or failure.
Just as it’s rarely malice at play, it’s not always stupidity either. All people, smart and stupid, make mistakes. Failures — particularly hardware failures — happen.
Any or all of those can be used to more than adequately explain the various and sundry problems we experience with technology.
My ISP is blocking a website…
This topic came to mind recently when I received a question about an individual’s inability to access a specific website. He knew that other customers of his ISP also could not access the site, whereas customers of other ISPs could.
Clearly, to him, his ISP was blocking the site.
That could be.
However, there are other more likely explanations.
More likely, his ISP’s DNS had a problem and couldn’t resolve the IP address for the website in question. It’s also possible that the website in question experienced something it mistakenly interpreted as an attack1 and blocked the ISP. It’s possible that the website’s DNS was misconfigured, and due to DNS caching, his ISP was the first to see a problem that would eventually affect everyone.
Or it could be something else.
Malice is possible, as might be stupidity somewhere along the line; but errors and failures are much more likely.
My computer is behaving oddly…
Whenever someone’s computer behaves in an unexpected way, many people’s first response is, “Oh my God, I’ve been hacked!”
No. Just … no.
Seriously, hacking as an explanation for odd computer behavior is so rare, I’m quite comfortable just saying “No.”
Software bugs, hardware failures, failed updates, flaky internet connections, worn-out batteries, exceeded disk capacities, and much more are much more likely. All of these manifest in obvious ways that make it clear what’s going on, or in ways that appear completely random, as if the machine is “possessed” — just not by hackers.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch on what we lovingly refer to as “operator malfunction”: mistakes made by the person using the computer.
Ads are stalking me…
I have to include this class of behavior here, though it may be the most difficult to accept.
Without doubt, there are privacy issues on the internet. But ads following you around is not one of them. Showing ads for something you’ve seemed to express an interest in isn’t malicious; it’s marketing. It’s nothing more that salesmanship using current technology.
Creepy? Maybe, if you don’t understand what’s happening. But malicious? No. Not in my book.
Speaking of marketing…
Things change just to piss us off…
I hear this one after any major change to an operating system, application, or web service. Things looked one way yesterday, and look different today. Companies must be doing this just to annoy us, right?
If you think about it, that doesn’t even make sense. Change intended to annoy your customers is business suicide, as is change for the sake of change. No company wants or does that.
If your favorite OS, app, or website never changed, it would be just as bad for business. Never changing means not keeping up with current trends, taking advantage of new technologies, and adapting to new ways of doing things. You may be happy with an operating system that works the same way as it did 20 years ago, but the company that made it would be out of business if that’s what they offered.
Businesses that don’t change, adapt, and grow die. It’s a simple as that.
Growth is not malicious. Bad decisions about how to grow are not malicious — they’re just bad decisions. To refer back to my extension of Hanlon’s Razor, they’re errors or failures.
That you’re pissed off is certainly not intentional.
So, is there malice?
My point here is that when you experience something unexpected with your computer, technology, online experience, or data, unless you have real data that says otherwise, malicious intent isn’t the place to start looking.
The actual causes are usually significantly more mundane.
And, honestly, that’s a good thing. More mundane causes are easier to deal with.
1: Every website, server, and device connected directly to the internet is under some form of nearly constant attack. Really. Any server operator can find the evidence in their server logs. This is something you can attribute to malice.
2: Interestingly, the two are not synonymous in either direction.