A modern etiquette dilemma

If someone lets you use their computer, and it needs some updates installing – assuming the owner isn’t there to ask – should you do it?

On the one hand, it’s none of your business. It’s their computer, their responsibility to update it. Just say “no” to the pop-ups and continue checking your email. Maybe they know what they’re doing, and have actively chosen not to run the updates: they prefer the version of the program they’re currently running, for example, and are holding off from upgrading to the latest one.

On the other hand, perhaps like most computer users they’re just hopelessly technologically illiterate and don’t realise they’re supposed to say “OK” to all some of the pop-ups that appear every time they boot up. And what if some of the updates are urgent security patches? Without them, the machine could be hacked, infected, recruited into a botnet and used to attack other systems. Like a child without a measles vaccination, increasing the risk of epidemic in the wider population, every second this computer isn’t updated puts every other computer in the world at greater risk. It’s not just acceptable, it’s your duty to update.

Personally, I lean towards the viewpoint that says you should update, although only if you’re sure the computer’s owner is ignorant and you’re acting in their best interests. It’s the classic paternalist position: the more informed making the right choices on behalf of the less informed. Is it patronising? Possibly. Will it backfire? Probably not. Let’s face it, they’ll barely even notice anything’s happened, just that there are fewer pop-ups to deal with for a while: they didn’t know why they started appearing in the first place, they don’t know why they went away again. Another magical mystery of the confusing and inscrutable computer.

The opposing viewpoint says that the moral autonomy of every computer owner is paramount. Everyone should be free to have an un-updated, unsecured crock of a computer if that’s what they want. It’s an absolutist position, like Star Trek’s Prime Directive: never interfere, whatever the consequences. But in Star Trek, they break the Prime Directive all the time for overriding moral reasons,¬†especially when they think they can get away with it without anyone noticing. Installing a security patch would be just like that.

I have sympathy with the absolutist view as well (which is why I posed the dilemma – I’m conflicted). But I think the problem with it is, in general it’s not a choice on the ignorant user’s behalf, it’s a lack of ability and understanding. Letting them remain that way is equivalent to the patronising Western attitude which says, “we shouldn’t help developing countries improve their societies because it’s their choice: they want to live in poverty and filth and disease.”

4 thoughts on “A modern etiquette dilemma

  1. My brother is a ruthless follower of the paternal system of updating without consent. I don’t really understand what those updates do but I do sometimes find that after my brother’s used my computer, it no longer works in certain ways. So I’m against them on the principle that if it works at the moment and I change something, it might stop. And when I tell him that he says “Yeah, but you should do the updates because they’re better” or something. He doesn’t care about the broken computer.

      • Maybe that’s what I mean. I guess all it has to do is be beyond my fixing skills and it’s broken. If you can’t shuffle your playlist then, well, that’s not very good is it?

  2. This question has inspired some heated debate on Facebook. Here are some of the best comments:

    The complications argument (against updating): Even if you’re more knowledgeable than the computer’s owner, an update might remove or alter features, make dependent packages such as drivers stop working, slow the computer down, take up more hard disc space, trigger software copy protection (rightly or wrongly), and / or install other code which does things in the software companies’ or their stakeholders’ interests, without necessarily warning you in advance.

    A response to the complications argument (for updating): Of course, the ignorant user wouldn’t know any of that either (they’d be even less aware of the issues & risks), and if they ever do perform the updates, they’ll have to deal with those problems anyway. The only difference is the additional viruses which have managed to infect their system in the time since you would have updated it for them.

    The plumber analogy (neutral): Imagine you’re a plumber, and you’re using your guest’s loo, and you realise there’s a problem with their plumbing which can be simply fixed by hand. Should you just do it? Or leave them with their under-performing cistern?

    The plumber real-life experience (bizarrely, for updating): The commenter was reminded of a time her friend very kindly fixed a slightly dripping toilet.. which led to mains water gushing into the kitchen of the house where she had just moved in. Despite the consequences, she maintains it was the right thing to do. “It would have been a lovely surprise had it worked. It was hilarious (and expensive) that it didn’t. If asked, I’d have had something along the lines of “oh you needn’t bother”, whilst thinking yes please!”

    The “give a man a fish” argument (against updating): Ask them or tell them. Education is the only way to solve problems long term. AND: It’s better for the computer’s owner if you educate them rather than do it for them. If you do it for them, you’ll solve the problem for a moment, but it’ll recur when the next updates are ready. Educate them and they’ll own the issue of how to manage their own computer on an ongoing basis. Give a man a software update, and you protect him for a day… Teach him to update his own software, and you protect him for life.

    Getting back to the question (undecided): The hypothetical situation, as stated, specifies that you can’t ask them. Installing the updates and telling them later is within the rules. I think it brings it back to an etiquette question though: by telling them, there’s definitely a potential to make them feel stupid or embarrass them, which, given that they kindly lent you their computer, would be a faux pas.

    The green potatoes argument (in favour of updating, and telling): It’s like finding something disgusting in your food, but telling your host you’re just not feeling hungry, to avoid embarrassing them. But suppose you noticed the potatoes are green and would make everyone including the host ill? The need to protect the host from harm overrides the normal etiquette rule of avoiding embarrassment! That’s why you should install the updates.

    The spot of damp argument (against updating): It’s like finding a spot of damp. You say “Hey, did you know you’ve got a spot of damp?” and gauge the response. They might say “Oh yeah, I’ve got my man on it. But I sure am glad you didn’t start applying any of your damn home remedies.” Or they might say “What on earth is ‘damp’?” Either way, you’ve ticked off your moral obs.

    A response to the spot of damp argument (for updating): But you can’t tell them because they’re not there! And you have to sleep in that room tonight, and you have a terrible chest infection which will be exacerbated by the damp. And you have a tool in your luggage which quickly and easily eliminates damp.

    An observation on the response to the spot of damp argument: In that metaphor the chest infection simply equates to how anal you are.

    A response to the observation etc…: Only if you believe the main benefit of installing the updates is the satisfaction of being completely updated. You might have a whole new take on this debate once you recognise that there are actual benefits too, like improved security and fewer crashes.

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