The theory of machine intransigence and human malleability is that, despite the many enabling affordances of computers and computing, at this historical moment the combination of the properties of computing technologies and self-interested, narrowly conceived designs means that most people’s encounters with computers amount to something a great deal like being dominated or bossed around by the machine. Theories such as that of Interpersonal Psychology suggest that interactions with a dominating person call for a submissive reply. Many of the current computing systems, increasingly built into the fabric of our lives, get us used to the idea that our job is to comply with their demands. They offer us little or no meaningful recourse to behaviors that we object to. Theories such as the Looking Glass Self (Cooley, 1902) point out that how we are seen affects our image of ourselves. That is, we comply—and then we see ourselves as more submissive, less capable and more dependent.
This theory is an overarching theory related to large societal trends rather than specific experimental findings or self report. The theory relates epidemiological findings such as the prevalence of anxiety and depression to a variety of factors of which the nature of computers is only one.
The status of the theory is undetermined. It is not proven. However, (1) there are indications that computers may change us in important ways that individuals are inclined to overlook and (2) the argument for exploration of these rests on how serious the implications would be if the theory was correct. After all, when the theory of germs arose, one source of ridicule was the impossibility of such little entitites having power over such large creatures as ourselves.
Furthermore, the design response does not have to await the verification of the theory. One may reasonably argue on other grounds that designers should routinely explore alternatives to coercive computing practices and cultivate practices that offer alternatives. The special force of setting such work inside a theory comes from the need to locate those moments in which it is particularly important that the machine emphasize its own limitations.