4.2 Selfish Software


Selfish software is software that acts as if it were the only application on your computer, just as a selfish person acts as if only he or she exists. It pushes itself forward at every opportunity, loading at start-up and running continuously in the background. It feels free to interrupt you at any time to demand things or announce what it is doing, e.g. after I (the first author) installed new modem software, it then loaded itself on every start-up and regularly interrupted me with a modal window saying it was going online to check for updates to itself. It never found any, even after weeks. Finally, after yet another pointless “Searching for upgrades” message that I had to click “OK” to dismiss, I uninstalled it. Selfish apps going online to download upgrades without asking means that a tourist with a smartphone can find themselves with high data roaming bills for downloading data to update software they never even use.

People uninstalling software because it is impolite represents a new type of computing error – a social error. When a computer system gets into an infinite loop and hangs it is a software error. When a person cannot understand what to do on a screen, it is an HCI error. When software offends and drives users away, it is a social error. In HCI errors, people want to use the system but do not know how to, but in social errors they understand it all too well and choose to avoid it.

Socio-technical systems cannot afford social errors because in order to succeed they need people to participate. In practice, a web site that no-one visits is as much a failure as one that crashes. Whether a system fails because the computer cannot run it, the user does not know how to run it, or the user does not want to run it, does not matter. The end effect is the same – the application does not run.

For example, my 2006 computer came with McAfee Spamkiller which then overwrote my Outlook Express mail server account name and password with its own values when activated. I then no longer received email, as the mail server account details were wrong. After discovering this, I retyped in the correct values to fix the problem and got my mail again. However the next time I rebooted the computer, McAfee rewrote over my mail account details again. I called the McAfee help person, who explained that Spamkiller was protecting me by taking control and routing all my email through itself. To get my mail I had to go into McAfee and tell it my specific email account details, but when I did this it still did not work. I was now at war with this software, which:

  • Overwrote the email account details I had typed in.
  • Did nothing when my email didn’t work.

The software “took charge” but didn’t know what it was doing. Whenever Outlook started, it forcing me to watch it do a slow foreground modal check for email spam, but in two weeks of use it never found any! Not wanting to be held hostages by a computer program, I again uninstalled it as selfish software.