You're probably aware of the "Dunning-Kruger effect", although maybe not by that name. It's the psychological effect that shields us all from the ego-devastating realisation of how incompetent we are. It's why we're all, privately, sure that we'd be good at things we know nothing about, like designing websites or running restaurants.
I discovered this the other day while researching incompetence. It's a diverting piece of research. But it's not the kind of incompetence I wanted to write about. As I might have expected of myself, I successfully researched the wrong thing.
Every comic and wannabe from here to eternity has a stock of lines about how some intelligent, articulate, middle-aged professional spends hours trying to figure out their video/voicemail/laptop/Roomba/toaster, while their six-year-old kid only has to sneeze at it to make it sit up and perform tricks that would, in more enlightened times, have got the little brat burned as a witch and serve them right. But only Scott Adams, to my knowledge, has proposed a complete pseudoscientific theory of this widely-observed effect.
Adams (in one of his books, not available online) posited the idea of an "incompetence threshold" - a measure of our own capacity to be defeated by something that's supposed to be simple. This threshold, he says, rises a little with every year of our lives as the world around us grows more complicated, until we reach the point where we're completely flummoxed by tasks that would've seemed trivial to our pre-teenaged selves. And as each new generation grows up in a more complex world, they redesign tasks on the assumption of more complexity, and the "correct" way to complete these tasks slowly grows ever-more-infuriatingly opaque to older people.
Take recycling, for instance. Today's kids seem to have no difficulty at all with the rule that certain types of plastic - identifiable by the number stamped on the base - go into certain bins, and that's the end of it. But me, I can't stop thinking: "How clean does it need to be? Am I supposed to peel the labels off first? How do I know if the lid is the same plastic as the bottle? Can I put the bottles in a bag? What kind of bag?", and when I actually ask about these, or the myriad other questions that no-one seems to have mentioned, I'm made to feel as if I'm personally responsible for muddying the clarity of the basic message.
And so, more and more often, I find myself guessing the answers and hoping for the best. I'm deeply grateful that, for now at least, my wife handles most of the recycling - but, Adams's theory tells me, it's only a matter of time before she's as out of her depth as I am now.
Adams belongs to the Muntz school of philosophy: "people are acting stupid, ha ha". (Although in fairness, he does say that people aren't, on the whole, really stupid - it's just that, in certain circumstances and from certain perspectives, they appear that way.) Another famous blogger, Joel Spolsky, takes a different angle on the same issue. Spolsky, more constructively, tries to explain what it is that makes people seem so stupid, and how to help them.
Spolsky is in a minority. Laughing at people is always more fun than trying to understand or help them. It is, fortunately for us all, an influential minority - because people who think of incompetence as a problem to be solved, rather than a character flaw to be ridiculed, tend to get things done. In politics, however, it doesn't do so well. "Don't laugh, it's not his fault" is an inherently elitist thing to say.
What started me on this train of thought was my own experience, last week, of trying to comment on Nodressrehearsal's blog. Because my valued friend NDR has disabled "anonymous" comments on her blog, you need to sign in either with a LiveJournal account, or with something called "OpenID", which lots of sites, including Blogspot, support.
Now, I already have more Internet service accounts with more people than I can easily count, and I'd really like to minimise the number of these I create. So I decided to create an "OpenID" account, in the hope that it might also serve for other purposes someday.
And this was the task that defeated me. It seems to me that the powers behind "OpenID" haven't read or understood Spolsky's book. In a distracting environment, with lots of things to do at once, the task of signing in to a LiveJournal site with an OpenID proved to be beyond me.
It was quite a shock to learn that my incompetency threshold has reached the point where I am officially incapable of leaving a comment on NDR's blog, but it's just something I have to live with.