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This Is Why Turning Things Off and On Again Actually Works

Our devices need a fresh start after they screw up — just like we do

You ever fucked something up so royally that, despite your repeated efforts to fix it, you only make it worse? It’s like that John Mulaney bit about writing a “Happy Birthday” sign and completely overdoing it right away with the first “H.” You try to squeeze in the remaining letters, and with each it just continually goes downhill. Well, your electronics can essentially have the exact same thing happen to them. They won’t tell you that themselves, though — instead, they make you turn them off and turn them back on again.

Curious as to why the “turn off and turn on again” technique has such a strong batting average in its effectiveness, I reached out to Zack Gaudet, an IT expert. “Errors in software can start piling up and cause failure states that inevitably cause the software to stop working,” he tells me. “Powering off and back on resets the software to its initial working state, thus ‘fixing’ the issue.”

Gaudet also points me to a Reddit thread on the topic, where a user compared it to mail sorting. When one piece of mail ends up in the wrong sorting area, the rest of the mail can be disrupted in attempting to fix the error. In turn, even more mail gets screwed up. Rather than scrambling to solve this one piece of mail and causing more problems, it’s better to un-do the sorting and start the batch all over again. 

Your computer, phone or streaming device essentially follows the same protocol: Its software has become too confused to perform the task at hand and is causing other aspects of its software to become confused, too. Rather than untangling each issue (and likely just making matters worse), it’s better to re-boot it or unplug it and plug it back in again so that it can start from square one. 

It’d be nice if they just admitted all this, rather than freezing up and doing nothing. Honestly, though, I don’t blame them. I basically do the same thing — I’d rather have to start something all over again than let anyone know how badly I screwed up the first time. 

Computers, they’re just like us!