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What is Computer Literacy?
August 9, 2013 6:54 PM   Subscribe

People spend more time on computers than ever before, but Marc Scott, a computer teacher and writer for Coding 2 Learn, says computer literacy is at an all time low.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia (162 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
General computer system literacy went downhill fast when peoples' first exposure to an operating system was a GUI that they never looked underneath, vs. starting with a command line user interface. I'm a person whose first OS was MS-DOS 3.3, and I think starting from a CLI gave me a huge advantage in understanding what's really going on in the guts of an OS.
posted by thewalrus at 6:58 PM on August 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


Uh, "all time"? Doubtful.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:00 PM on August 9, 2013 [16 favorites]


She handed me her MacBook silently and the look on her face said it all. Fix my computer geek, and hurry up about it.

Ask her to teach you about appositive commas.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:04 PM on August 9, 2013 [110 favorites]


This is like a mechanic writing an article about how nobody knows how to change the oils in their cars.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:08 PM on August 9, 2013 [24 favorites]


He can't use a computer ... She can't use a computer ... Neither her nor her husband can use computers.

I could happily read more of these all day. Made me think of South Park:

"We're headin' out Californie way, heard there might be some Internet there!"
posted by mannequito at 7:08 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe she needed her computer geek fixed? You don't know. You weren't there!

The other side of thewalrus's point is the article reads a little like the classic old-time mechanic complaint about automatic transmissions: if you don't know how the car shifts gears, maybe you shouldn't be driving.

[Edit: dammit oceanjesse]
posted by bodega at 7:09 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


All these people who can't do this thing that I can do are stupid.
posted by octothorpe at 7:09 PM on August 9, 2013 [51 favorites]


I'm a person whose first OS was MS-DOS 3.3, and I think starting from a CLI gave me a huge advantage in understanding what's really going on in the guts of an OS.

Baloney. I started out on a Mac in college as a failed art student, and now earn my bread dealing with big-money "information appliances."

Progressive disclosure is awesome, a human-oriented UI is awesome. Look, unless you're coding to the metal in machine code, you're using a metaphor-based interface. Denying human spatial and visual instincts for the "purity" of the CLI is dumb.

The real problem is that Apple has not been advancing the tech on the general purpose workstation lately as much as they have on their iDevices. An end user should not need to delve into the guts of her computer to "fix it" - smart, adaptive systems should have twigged to what was going on from the get-go. The real problem is the lack of sensible defaults, and a way to communicate which set of them everyone should be using on the network.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:11 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Would you rather that your Linux sysadmin started gaining experience with a CLI in 1998 or from a Gnome2 GUI on Ubuntu in 2008?

I am not saying that GUIs are bad. I am saying that for the majority of ordinary users a $2000 Macbook Pro is nowadays a glorified facebook terminal/network application terminal and they have very little motivation or inclination to dig deeper.
posted by thewalrus at 7:13 PM on August 9, 2013


He still makes a very salient point about how bad it is for the people making policy in our computerized world to know absolutely nothing about how computers work. This also extends to things like, say, someone's innocence hinging on getting a highly technical explanation across to a judge and jury.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:14 PM on August 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


if you don't know how the car shifts gears, maybe you shouldn't be driving.

this is the general western European view of the American popularity of automatic transmissions, no?
posted by thewalrus at 7:17 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Guys, I've just realized I'm toaster-illiterate. NO MORE TOAST FOR ME!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:21 PM on August 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


After working in the industry for years - Intel, Apple - and then moving on to a dental school where "real" people all had computers, I was shocked at how fundamentally ignorant they were in just basic use of their machines. Including the IT staff. I have dealt with most of the same things as the author. We are surrounded by technology which few really comprehend. And they don't seem to mind...
posted by njohnson23 at 7:24 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Look, alright, here's the thing: the fewer people who have a solid understanding of how computers work, the more I look like a wizard. The more I look like a wizard, the more I get paid.

Also I really like looking like a wizard.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:28 PM on August 9, 2013 [93 favorites]


One of the comments to the blog was to the effect that expecting people to know how a computer works would be ... like expecting them to fix their own plumbing! I bet he couldn't replace a flap valve if it would save him $1000 a year in water bills ...

(damn kids, lawn, etc.)
posted by mr vino at 7:31 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Do not meddle in the affairs of auto mechanics, for they are subtle and quick to anger.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:32 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


The conclusion that I takeaway from his anecdotal evidence is that computers are just too damn unreliable and confusing for most people. Hell, I have an undergrad in CS and a graduate degree in software engineering and do QA on supercomputers and I still have trouble getting my damn Windows laptop to do things like print. Seriously, it took me hours of Googling to get my HP laptop to print to my HP Laserjet. Turned out that I had to go to Printing Preferences -> Advanced and change Document Options -> Advanced Printing Features from Enabled to Disabled and then I could print. This setting periodically reset itself back to the broken setting. How would you expect anyone to figure that out?
posted by octothorpe at 7:33 PM on August 9, 2013 [31 favorites]


They even know how to use Word and PowerPoint and Excel.
This man has not met my undergrads. I would love for him to meet them so he can teach them about how to get text to appear somewhere other than the left side of the window without pressing the spacebar a buncha times.
posted by quiet coyote at 7:34 PM on August 9, 2013 [14 favorites]


A teacher brings me her school laptop. ‘Bloody thing won’t connect to the internet.’ she says angrily, as if it is my fault. ‘I had tonnes of work to do last night, but I couldn’t get on-line at all. My husband even tried and he couldn’t figure it out and he’s excellent with computers.’ I take the offending laptop from out of her hands, toggle the wireless switch that resides on the side, and hand it back to her. Neither her nor her husband can use computers.

Why should the wifi be controlled by a tiny, invisible, unlabeled switch that nobody knows is there?


He explains that the Internet used to be on his desktop, but isn’t any more. I close I.E and scour the desktop, eventually finding the little blue ‘e’ buried amongst some PowerPoint and Excel icons. I point to it. He points to a different location on the screen, informing me of where it used to be. I drag the icon back to it’s original location. He’s happy. He can’t use a computer.

Um, ok, but why can't the icons just stay in the same place?

It's unfortunate that the field of User Experience hasn't been taken seriously until recently (and even now, it has a long way to go) but/and/therefore all of these examples are the fault of the designers. It's really not the fault of consumers that they've been presented with shoddy shit for the last 30+ years, starting with the first computer/typewriter hybrids. Rant and rave all you want but at least rant and rave about the cause of the problem, not the symptoms.
posted by bleep at 7:37 PM on August 9, 2013 [32 favorites]


Just replace "rare tech savvy high school student" with "high IQ" instead of spouting on about ignorance.
posted by Halogenhat at 7:37 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am saying that for the majority of ordinary users a $2000 Macbook Pro is nowadays a glorified facebook terminal/network application terminal and they have very little motivation or inclination to dig deeper.

But there's no need for them to dig deeper. The car analogy is pretty good here, I think. You can be a pretty good driver without understanding how an internal combustion engine works. Many people don't need to do anything but use a web browser these days. Thats an easy skill to pick up and theres no particular reason to learn more if its not your interest (this is why I gave some very non-technical friends Chromebooks, as they don't have to deal with all that OS mucking about you occasionally have to do on other machines -- if youre just going to use a browser, then dont add on a bunch of stuff that can only cause problems).

For _programmers_ (of which I am one) this is obviously different and I think no matter what level you are coding at you should have some understanding of the whole stack you are sitting on (from hardware to software). I'm more concerned by the lack of that than I am by regular users not understanding computers.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:39 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


wildcrdj, don't you think that the phenomena you observe in your first paragraph is something that actively prevents many young people from becoming engaged with the world of computing as anything other than passive content consumers? yes you can upload pictures to your flickr account, but the amount of "make new things" work you can do within a web browser is pretty limited.
posted by thewalrus at 7:42 PM on August 9, 2013


TL;DR? Why not just go watch another five second video of a kitten with it’s head in a toilet roll, or a 140 character description of a meal your friend just stuffed in their mouth. “num num”. This blog post is not for you.

Okay.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:46 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


wildcrdj, don't you think that the phenomena you observe in your first paragraph is something that actively prevents many young people from becoming engaged with the world of computing as anything other than passive content consumers?

But I'm saying why would they want to? Is there any need for them to? Most people don't ever want to become mechanics. Similarly, it makes sense to me most people don't want to become programmers or sysadmins. Technology isn't that interesting to many, many people (other than what they want to do, which is create and consume content -- I would argue against 'passive' since Facebook / YT / etc are all about user-generated content which doesn't require knowing how computers work).

And programmers of my generation or older mostly grew up without any computers (I had a computer since age 3, but since that was 1980 that is obviously a very rare scenario). They learned in school / college and are now ridiculously good at it. I think I had some advantage having an early exposure, but some of the brightest people I've worked with started in college.

I mean, I like watching movies but I'm not interested in screenwriting or directing. I like cars but am not a mechanic. And so on. While technology/computers are fascinating to me, I see how most people glaze over when the mere topic comes up, and I don't think it's just a question of modern UIs discouraging them, as I saw that same reaction in the 80s and 90s.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:49 PM on August 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


I think one difference between the car or plumbing analogies and computers is the rate at which minor (or even major) problems which require fixing occur. If my car or plumbing broke at the same rate I have wifi issues or memory issues or any of a myriad of other basic computer problems you can bet I'd want to develop at least a basic competence in fixing those things. There are people who need help "fixing" their computers all the damn time.
posted by Justinian at 7:52 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Ask her to teach you about appositive commas.

Also, maybe sit in on the freshman comp lecture about pathos/ethos/logos--or, how to write an article that makes a point instead of just making you look like a seething jackass.
posted by kagredon at 7:53 PM on August 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


This man has not met my undergrads. I would love for him to meet them so he can teach them about how to get text to appear somewhere other than the left side of the window without pressing the spacebar a buncha times.

Oh man, you just gave me a flashback to my first job. Someone asked me to finish putting together a MS Word document that was all tables of dollar values, and the half she had already done had been all been carefully sort-of-aligned using the spacebar. I set up some tabs for my half of the document and was done with it by the time she got back from lunch. She had spent all morning fighting with her part of it...
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:53 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are people who need help "fixing" their computers all the damn time.

Using a car, plumbing or similar analogy, there are people who despite operating their engine without oil until it fails catastrophically and catches on fire, continue to blame the manufacturer of the car for its shoddiness. Or people who repeatedly and willfully flush large tampons down their toilets and then complain when their plumbing system is broken. This is the state of modern desktop support.
posted by thewalrus at 7:56 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think one difference between the car or plumbing analogies and computers is the rate at which minor (or even major) problems which require fixing occur.

Oh definitely. Thats why I've been happy with the Chromebook solution --- other than maybe setting up WiFi, no one I've given one to has required tech support, which is a far cry from Windows / Mac. Obviously they are limited, but its really true that many people never leave their browser.

So basically -- the answer is to make computers that break less. One way to do this is to _not_ give everyone a general purpose computer if they aren't going to use it. Just like I wouldn't give someone an expensive, high-maintenance sports car to commute 5 miles.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:56 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


For about the last ten years I have held in my mind a mental division between two categories of Internet users:

If a magic genie snapped his finger tomorrow and http, https, http daemons, browsers and all associated software all magically ceased to exist (and people somehow had no knowledge of the concept in general), who would still be able to use "The Internet"?

Some people seem dumbfounded when I try to explain that the Internet is more than what can be experienced through a web browser. How many people would be capable of somehow finding their way to an ftp site, downloading a copy of an IRC client (or fire up the one they already have) and immediately begin getting together in online communities to rebuild the world of http-like things from first principles?
posted by thewalrus at 8:00 PM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I teach in a high school without a single computer class, and I think it's shameful. Not so much as a typing course. We're turning out high schoolers who, if you gave them a computer, couldn't do anything more complicated than hunt and peck their way to facebook, youtube, or a online flash game site (as long as the browser icon is in its usual place). When one of them sees me type (80-90 wpm), they act, no joke, like cavemen who've just been shown fire for the first time. When I want my students to do something in the computer lab that involves finding a website, I have to allow a good 10 minutes before all my students have found their way there.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:01 PM on August 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


If a magic genie snapped his finger tomorrow and http, https, http daemons, browsers and all associated software all magically ceased to exist (and people somehow had no knowledge of the concept in general), who would still be able to use "The Internet"?

Does NNTP still work? If so at least we'd still be able to get our porn fix.
posted by Justinian at 8:07 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I teach in a high school without a single computer class, and I think it's shameful. Not so much as a typing course. We're turning out high schoolers who, if you gave them a computer, couldn't do anything more complicated than hunt and peck their way to facebook, youtube, or a online flash game site (as long as the browser icon is in its usual place). When one of them sees me type (80-90 wpm), they act, no joke, like cavemen who've just been shown fire for the first time. When I want my students to do something in the computer lab that involves finding a website, I have to allow a good 10 minutes before all my students have found their way there.

I managed to grow up in a sweet spot when elementary schools (3rd grade, mostly), thought that typing was a thing kids should learn. Most of the people I know from my age cohort (20-30), type quickly with 2-4 fingers but much slower than is reasonable.

Lots of my co-workers (30-40), type much the same way. A thing I'm starting to realize is that regardless of my abilities as a programmer, boss types automatically assume I'm somewhat competent because I can use a CLI and know how to type properly.

Thank you Council Rock Elementary.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:09 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


As a lifelong tinkerer, I totally get the desire to turn people on to general purpose computing. Over the years I've developed a vague sense of how code permeates virtually every facet of modern life, and I imagine that as a programmer that sense must be magnified a thousandfold. It's only natural to want to shake people vigorously while shouting, "Can't you see, it's everywhere!" To that end, though, I would have opened with the last paragraph instead of one defying the very people you wish would take an interest to read the article.
posted by Lorin at 8:09 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't really know. I'm mixed, because I'm simply stunned at the number of people I encounter who literally have no idea what's going on in their computer--not at a low level, but within the applications they supposedly know how to use. His example of the woman running a PowerPoint presentation from a USB drive who didn't know that an embedded video wouldn't work because streaming sites were blocked is a good example. Maybe some day computers will become so appliance-like and simple in their operation that ignorance is unimportant.

However, that certainly isn't the case today. Comparing computer ignorance with car ignorance either means that you're just yelling at the kids to get off your lawn, or that you don't really understand computers either. Compared to a computer, a car may as well be a toaster; if it doesn't work, you fix it or get another one. Beyond that, they only do one thing. Cars move place to place; toasters toast bread. Computers, on the other hand, do hundreds of thousands of things, many of which can be done without your knowledge and at great harm. There has never been such a complicated multi-purpose tool available, with so many ways to metaphorically hit yourself on the thumb.

As an aside: How many of the people snarkily dismissing this post had great fun mocking the senator/rep for the "Series of Tubes" fuck up a few years ago?
posted by Ickster at 8:11 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


As an aside: How many of the people snarkily dismissing this post had great fun mocking the senator/rep for the "Series of Tubes" fuck up a few years ago?

This guy basically isn't much better than Ted Stevens, as far as making Great Pronouncements about $SUBJECT (in this case, tech education) and how people are Doing It Wrong based more on his intuitive feelings and anecdotes and contempt for his job than out of any evidence or research about how UX and computer literacy works. My favorite part was where he mocked the young lady for not knowing the same thing that he didn't know.
posted by kagredon at 8:13 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think he was mocking the young lady for not having the basic problem-solving skills to first attempt to locate the thing that she didn't know.
posted by thewalrus at 8:17 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


if you don't know how the car shifts gears, maybe you shouldn't be driving

I know how the car shifts gears. I also let it do it for me. I am not a race driver, so I don't see the problem.

This is an imperfect analogy, though. For it to be more exact, the person getting behind the wheel of a manual would not even be able to find the shifter, despite being told exactly where to look for it. It's often a matter of total inflexibility, incuriosity and just plain not using eyes or reasoning at all. You can't blame that on user experience.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:19 PM on August 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


The thing is, compared to plumbing or even cars, the ability to really use a computer is incredibly empowering. As a programmer, I can take pure thought and use it to build things! I can write simple programs that generate spaces that you can then move around in as if they were real. I can typeset an entire book using a few relatively simple markup directives. I can pull data from a database, run it through a script to generate a set of reports across that data, and then typeset that into a digital file which I can then print on lovely semi-gloss and use for my presentation...

The sheer power of computers for almost every aspect of information-based work and play is incredible, and being a consumer rather than a producer, when producing is so easy compared to all of history... it just seems ignorant and small.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:20 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Put it in H!
posted by Lorin at 8:20 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, being able to use a computer isn't some esoteric skill. It's not at all the same as fixing cars or plumbing. Basically everyone's job in the First World involves interacting with these machines in some way. If you can't figure out your computer, you can't do your job.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:21 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


There has never been such a complicated multi-purpose tool available

Yes, this is the problem. The vast majority of people have no need for a complicated multi-purpose computer. It was all we had for a while, so everyone got one. But really its not what most people need, what they need is a toaster or a car.

Thats the point of the car analogy -- it _should_ work like a car. It should not be full of pitfalls and ways to fuck things up. It doesn't help that the people who make the machines themselves want and need the complicated multi-purpose tool.

. it just seems ignorant and small.

But thats how people who are really interested in anything tend to think about those who are not. It's not true, and its certainly not helpful.

Also, being able to use a computer isn't some esoteric skill. It's not at all the same as fixing cars or plumbing.

Using a computer, yes. Not knowing how to fix esoteric things or understanding the FTP protocol. Most of the problems come from computers being poorly designed and too complicated for what people actually want to do with them.
posted by wildcrdj at 8:24 PM on August 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


I don't see evidence that computer literacy is at an all-time low. There were only a handful of people in my high school willing to become social pariahs and admit to knowing how to use a computer. Now I understand people have them in their pockets.

I think really the author may be saying "the desktop is dying" and he is certainly right. But mobile computers are still computers. People likely function at a higher level of abstraction than they had to in 1990 but that might be a good thing. (I'm kind of wondering how 23rd century warp drive technicians will also learn how to rebuild an engine block)

It's important though we keep things like jailbreaking legal so that tinkerers will still have something with which to tinker, instead of becoming Eloi that are blissfully unaware of how the world around them works.

Certainly the world is different, as computers are so complex now that I find almost any technical problem is usually best solved by Googling rather than debugging or reasoning from first principles.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:24 PM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think he was mocking the young lady for not having the basic problem-solving skills to first attempt to locate the thing that she didn't know.

From TFA: Ironically, if you were to perform a Google search for “proxy settings OSX”, the top results would all be blocked because you used the word ‘proxy’ and that is a filtered word.

Quite frankly, going to see tech support when your computer isn't connecting to an unfamiliar network is a basic problem solving skill. If my computer isn't connecting to an unfamiliar network, then there's many things it could be, most of which require either familiarity with the network in question or internet access to figure out. Which process makes more sense: go find a public terminal, poke around on a poorly-organized university website until I find proxy settings (assuming someone's even bothered to put them on a publicly-available page, and that's not always guaranteed), and enter them in OR go to an office where it's someone's job to do that?
posted by kagredon at 8:28 PM on August 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


Also, maybe sit in on the freshman comp lecture about pathos/ethos/logos--or, how to write an article that makes a point instead of just making you look like a seething jackass.

but if he hadn't been Provocative this wouldn't have gotten linked on metafilter. it's not like this is new stuff.

ahahaha that tldr at the beginning is something else, though. good job following the wiki article on 'link bait' like a style guide, i guess
posted by a birds at 8:29 PM on August 9, 2013


It's important though we keep things like jailbreaking legal so that tinkerers will still have something with which to tinker, instead of becoming Eloi that are blissfully unaware of how the world around them works.

Oh definitely. There will always be those interested in how computers work, and want to tinker, and not having that ability would be bad. We're nowhere near that, of course, nor does it look likely. If anything, the existence of the Internet allows a level of self-education and exploration that would have blown my mind in the 80s going to C64 user group meetings (in _person_!).

[on a side note --- in my experience at work, so many of the people who get frustrated with others not caring / learning how computers work are super-technology-focused people who don't have any real interests outside computers and tech --- which is deeply ironic and makes it hard to take them seriously]
posted by wildcrdj at 8:29 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm surprised people are being so harsh on this article. The point he's making isn't "LOL stupid lusers", it's that the ubiquity of computers means that good computer education is important and that giving schoolkids a superficial introduction to basic applications running on locked-down systems is not good computer education. He's also writing in the specific context of the Gove education reforms.

I think he has a point:
Tomorrow’s politicians, civil servants, police officers, teachers, journalists and CEOs are being created today. These people don’t know how to use computers, yet they are going to be creating laws regarding computers, enforcing laws regarding computers, educating the youth about computers, reporting in the media about computers and lobbying politicians about computers. Do you thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs? I have David Cameron telling me that internet filtering is a good thing. I have William Hague telling me that I have nothing to fear from GCHQ.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:33 PM on August 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


But thats how people who are really interested in anything tend to think about those who are not. It's not true, and its certainly not helpful.

I don't think it matches up. Someone who is really into cars isn't likely to dispute that someone who knows nothing about cars and drives a Civic is unable to achieve the basic goals of car use. One can race, the other can drive to the store and buy groceries. The actual utility gained by being a car fanatic isn't great.

Similarly, knowing a lot about plumbing is not particularly useful. I know about plumbing and I still pay a plumber because there is no way I'm messing around with drains and septic systems.

I can work with electricity because I went through an electronics hobbyist phase, and did small repairs at my parents' house when I was younger. I could probably wire a house well enough to get by. I pay an electrician because they do that; and the knowledge of being able to work with electricity isn't adaptable enough to be really useful elsewhere.

Computers are different.

Typesetting? Computers. Music? Computers. Graphics? Computers. Photography? Computers. Mathematics? Computers. Reporting and analysis? Computers. Data storage? Computers. Communication? Computers.

The knowledge of how computers work, and the myriad things you can do with them, is incredible! Information technology is revolutionary, and I will never understand why people are so blind to it.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:35 PM on August 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


schoolkids a superficial introduction to basic applications running on locked-down systems is not good computer education

this is my primary objection to the "Sugar" UI used on the OLPC laptops. Yes it's linux based, yes it has a CLI, but the custom "Designed for children!" GUI is fully retarded. It is its own form of walled garden. My eight year old niece figured out how to use an Xubuntu 12.04 desktop environment just fine.
posted by thewalrus at 8:36 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


[on a side note --- in my experience at work, so many of the people who get frustrated with others not caring / learning how computers work are super-technology-focused people who don't have any real interests outside computers and tech --- which is deeply ironic and makes it hard to take them seriously]

I am technology focused, but I certainly have interests outside computers. For the most part, I have used my knowledge of technology to enhance those interests.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:37 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


One more thing about the Car Analogy. I'm fairly confident that when Automobiles were first introduced to the public, a much higher percentage of buyers/users/drivers knew more about the internal workings than at any time since. It was new, strange technology - you felt that you had to know what was going on in that engine to use it safely. And each improvement in the Automotive UI (key starter replacing crank starter; automatic transmissions; etc.) made it easier for Car Users to be less 'Car Literate'. It's a technology thing.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:41 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Actually, this is pretty terrifying. That kitten's owner is a monster.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:43 PM on August 9, 2013


Typesetting? Computers. Music? Computers. Graphics? Computers. Photography? Computers. Mathematics? Computers. Reporting and analysis? Computers. Data storage? Computers. Communication? Computers.

These things use computers, but understanding how networking works is not important to being able to do Photography. Understanding memory allocation is not important for typesetting.

People _do_ generally want to learn what is Relevant To Their Interests. But configuring an operating system or debugging a network stack is not relevant, and should not be something people have to mess with or even understand. (If they want to, great!)

For example -- my ex is a photographer. She is wayyy better at Photoshop than I will ever be. But she doesn't know how to fix OS or hardware issues, nor would doing so improve her photography skills.


The point he's making isn't "LOL stupid lusers"

Well, his tone is wayyy off then. The tl;dr, the descriptions of the users, all has a lot of contempt behind it. Especially shit like this:

"To people like her, technicians are a necessary annoyance. She’d be quite happy to ignore them all, joke about them behind their backs, snigger at them to their faces, but she knows that when she can’t display her PowerPoint on the IWB she’ll need a technician, and so she maintains a facade of politeness around them, while inwardly dismissing them as too geeky to interact with."

Is he in Mean Girls or something? This just makes him look angry and spiteful and certainly has nothing to do with promoting computer literacy as some sort of civic virtue.
posted by wildcrdj at 8:43 PM on August 9, 2013 [21 favorites]


Plus, not to harp, but for someone who apparently teaches computing, he doesn't seem to be all that interested in teaching. Pretty much every problem he mentions are things that can be explained to people, even very tech-naive people, within a few sentences. I know because I've done that for most of these problems, either for family members, or for kids who were flailing around trying to get Word files to load back when I tutored writing, or for the freshman undergrads in the one computer-based experiment in the genchem curriculum. Yes, it's sometimes exasperating to explain the same thing over and over again. Yes, there will be some people who fail to internalize it at all, or some who will only memorize it as a rote troubleshooting step rather than an insight into how computers work. Welcome to the wonderful world of education.
posted by kagredon at 8:48 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


These things use computers, but understanding how networking works is not important to being able to do Photography. Understanding memory allocation is not important for typesetting.

No doubt, but there's a certain set of knowledge which is common to it all. The manipulation of files; what your operating system is doing; the relation of hardware to what you see on the screen; boolean and procedural logic. They're applicable in every discipline that has been computerized.

I'm fairly confident that when Automobiles were first introduced to the public, a much higher percentage of buyers/users/drivers knew more about the internal workings than at any time since.

Yes, but the "knowledge ceiling" was relatively low. The improved UI still delivers the same functionality that early adopters of the car managed. I can get into my car, start it, and drive somewhere. With computers, this isn't the case. A "computer whiz" who can upload a video he took with his phone to facebook, and play flash games, can't do a tenth of what someone who knows Ruby can do. A hundredth.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:57 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


So basically -- the answer is to make computers that break less.

Or you could give everyone a really super shitty computer*. I learned how to do a LOT of things when the only computer I had regular access to was a piece of goddamn trash.

Of course, that would assume that everyone is a) something of an autodidact, b) insanely stubborn, and c) enjoys swearing.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:58 PM on August 9, 2013 [14 favorites]


I've been working in IT support for nigh onto 30 years now, and my anecdata says that computer literacy isn't at an "all-time low" so much as "never gotten better ever". In general, people have jobs to do that require a certain amount of computer use whether they like it or not, yet their job is NOT "become a savvy computer user" centric. So they learn some basic stuff, then depend on wizards to fill in the rest. Non-story, moving on.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:00 PM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is an article about "computer literacy" that abounds with incorrect punctuation, misspelled words, wrong word, and grammar errors galore.

I could make the same statement about literacy he is making about computer literacy.
posted by CrowGoat at 9:03 PM on August 9, 2013 [14 favorites]


In my field (secondary education) and at my age (60), without elementary computer skills, you could not function. For me, tech support is essential. I am not stupid, but neither did I grow up with computers. None of my wonderful tech support people even used the word "proxy" with me.

Knowing that the guy was advocating for increased computer education for youngsters made me more sympathetic with the guy. I wonder if computer geeks could develop a one-day workshop (or one-semester class for youngsters) to explain the basics to those of us who know computers only as a tool for acquiring knowledge, writing, and reading.
posted by kozad at 9:07 PM on August 9, 2013


Also, for that same 30 years, I've heard dreck about how the next generation of computers will be so simple and foolproof to use that you'll be able to buy them at Wal-Mart, bring them home and unbox them, and start right in using them as easily as you would a microwave oven. 30 years later I'm still waiting...
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:08 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am computer literate and have been for a bit more than thirty years now, though I'm fortunate to have the reminder, every single damn time I get the bug to try to get into using Linux, that there are limits to what I know, because setting up Linux to do the sort of things I need to do is a head-exploding chore that always reminds me why I stay happily in the warm embrace of my Apple overlords.

I have a tendency to think as a techno-utopian daydreamer, wishing everyone was inclined to get into the nuts and bolts of their lives, but it's a delusion borne out of a major misunderstanding on my part—I tend to fall into the one-man anthropic principle trap and mistake my experience, my privilege, and my lucky breaks for things everyone ought to have, and I annoy myself every time I fall into the ego hole of thinking that I'm really just an everyman.

I lucked out in that my father was sufficiently prescient as to drag me to computer class in 1981, thinking that my tinkering and love of science meant I might be a good computer professional one day. In the same way, I lucked out in being born to parents that were both unusually engaged in the nuts and bolts world, who were secret back-to-the-land hippies disguised as respectable citizens, and my mother was an inveterate doer and a patient teacher, while my father was a splendid diagnostician and handyman, so I learned an awful lot about how to respond when I arrived at a problem.

What's that noise?

Eliminate all the things it couldn't be and you'll find the problem. Simple, right?

Except…we don't teach that, or we don't teach it well enough.

That said, I question the need for universal education in the low level operation of things. I'm a huge fan of the tablet model for computing, and I repudiate the bullshit notion that a tablet is useful only as a means of consumption. I've still got my reasonably powerful desktop computer, but most of the creative work I'm doing these days is on an iPad, sitting on a $5 easel in front of a bluetooth keyboard. I'm not so much rejecting general computing as I am putting it where it's needed. When I'm compositing audio and doing heavy duty composition with virtual and MIDI instruments, I head for the ol' Mini and Reason, and when I'm doing web design work, I'll stick with the desktop because those machines are still better for fussy file management tasks.

For someone like my mother, though—I wish tablets had existed before I ever set up a computer for her. Everything about a full-featured desktop machine is pointless for her, when her needs are both basic and straightforward. She does not now and will never need to be able to code in C, or to work with the CLI on her Mac, and some of the general purpose allowances of her computer just exist to annoy me. Open her computer and every application that's ever been opened is still open, and the desktop is a nerve-jangling tangle of folders, half of which are named "Untitled (1)" and so forth. It's all too much, and it's not because she's dumb, since my ma is one of the smartest women I've ever known—it's because it's all completely peripheral to the point of what she wants and needs. These days, I could set her up with an iPad and a $5 easel and a bluetooth keyboard and a wireless printer, but she's already in the mix, so I stop by weekly to close apps, sort out her demented mess of files, and do whatever updating and bookkeeping needs to be done.

Where she's great, though, is in having a lifetime history of problem solving, so when I'm called upon to sort things out by phone, it's very easy to walk her through the steps of figuring out what-is-not-the-problem with a simple series of questions. I don't get impatient with her and she seldom gets impatient with me. Most of the time, things are quickly solved, though she asks me every time why I'm putting on an Irish accent when I ask "Have you tried turning it off and on again?" In all fairness, she defaults to that unless it involves a possibility of losing data.

The thing that those of us with the good fortune to have some basic skills to share with those who are stuck in the general purpose computing world because the marketing departments of countless corporations preached that as the only way to be a truly modern and worthy human really need to share is basic reductive problem-solving. Just being able to navigate this simple question is more than half the battle—"What's wrong?"

My democratic, utopian, communistical core wants everyone to be a superb and skilled generalist, but my profit-making instinct reminds me that it's fine that everyone doesn't know everything, and that my plethora of nuts and bolts skills means there will always be work for me, moreso if I'm able to ply my various trades with a bit of patience, humor, and reluctance to be an eye-rolling dick when panicked, frustrated people act the way panicked, frustrated people act. Sometimes, you just need the basic ability to relate to what it feels like to be stuck with a problem you can't solve, and for me, I just think about trying to make Linux work. Compassion comes quickly.

That said, if you drive and don't want to get ripped off every time you go to the mechanic, some very basic knowledge of how your vehicle works is a very good thing.
posted by sonascope at 9:12 PM on August 9, 2013 [20 favorites]


Also, for that same 30 years, I've heard dreck about how the next generation of computers will be so simple and foolproof to use that you'll be able to buy them at Wal-Mart, bring them home and unbox them, and start right in using them as easily as you would a microwave oven.

Well that's the catch. The next generation of computers *is* your microwave oven, and your TV, and your car, and your alarm clock. You did bring them home and use them so seamlessly that it never occurred to you that you were interacting with a computer.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:13 PM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


I should add that I helped my cranky ex-beau, who's 62 and a hater of pointless modernity, to set up his brand new iPad yesterday, which he bought for his working trips as a dealer in fine antiques so he wouldn't be carting a $2000 laptop everywhere. In the morning, I had to repeatedly explain that "the cloud" is not some carnivorous data-sucking force of evil, but rather a way of moving data around, to a barrage of counterarguments, and I set up the Google Drive app, showed him the basics of how it works, and explained how to check off "Offline" on documents to ensure that a copy would be stored both in "the cloud" and on the local storage on his iPad.

I left him grumbling and cursing, moving photographs of the art furniture he brokers into "the cloud," and returned after an evening gig in a gallery to find him happily organizing files in folders and setting up documents that contained the bulk of the data he normally carries around on his laptop, and his tune had changed completely.

"I'm still a little concerned about being in the whole Google world, as it were," he said, and I shrugged.

"It's a worthwhile concern, but let's get you started and then we'll get to the deep stuff later."
posted by sonascope at 9:20 PM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I met someone who must have used a computer continuously, every day, for the last seven or eight years during the course of her very expensive and very high-quality education. She was able to download and install an application (so far so good) but insisted that it "wasn't working" because she didn't realize that there was a place application icons could live outside of the OS X dock. This happens over and over - people cannot use even the most basic features of the software they depend on and use every single day for their jobs. I've seen an entire team of very intelligent lawyers waste hundreds of man-hours because none of them knew how to use Excel properly. Nor did the paralegals, or the secretaries, or the systems administrator, who all insisted there was no way to automate the task in question. Or try asking a smartphone owner to send you anything, *anything at all*, over Bluetooth. Forget it. Not happening.

Some of this is a design problem, but some of it is a people problem. The approach that stops people from learning how to use the machines on which their livelihoods depend is the same attitude that moves people to make an "Occupied / Vacant" sign out of construction paper and yarn for the broken bathroom door instead of taking any steps whatsoever to fix the damned door. Fine, most people aren't going to learn VBScript to automate their mind-numbingly tedious tasks, but we're not talking about that level of understanding. We're dealing with "what's a file?" or (as someone above mentioned) a person who uses MS Word every single day who doesn't know what the tab key does, or how to make a basic table. It's horrifying.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:25 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


... it never occurred to you that you were interacting with a computer.

This part I dispute, but moving on...

The next generation of computers *is* your microwave oven, and your TV, and your car, and your alarm clock.

I love computers and make my living by them and all, but the day one of those items presents me with a web browser, text editor, and/or email or chat client is the day I decide "enough's enough" and go to live on a remote beach somewhere.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:27 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Man I hate to tell you this but TVs are already there. You can use almost any Android app on a TV with built-in Google TV.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:36 PM on August 9, 2013


When do we get fridges that will search past AskMes and tell us if we can eat this?
posted by kagredon at 9:40 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


BREAKING NEWS: Guy who does computer tech support declares hardly anybody he encounters knows how to use a computer.

Stay tuned for our follow up story about the national health crisis, as evidenced by ER doctors complaining that almost everyone they see has severe health problems.

____________________

Snark aside: I'm inclined to believe that people are generally more computer-literate than ever before. I'm also inclined to believe that the pace at which people are getting more educated about computers is totally dwarfed by the insane pace at which new technological knowledge and devices are being created. I mean, no, I do not know the ins and outs of a smartphone, but fuck, man, 10 years ago there was no such thing. And programming languages? Well, what percentage do you know? How many of them even existed when you were a kid? How many more will there be in 5 years and how much of what you know now will be obsolete by then?
posted by mstokes650 at 9:43 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


How the hell did we get to this situation? How can a generation with access to so much technology, not know how to use it?

We didn't *get to* this situation, we were always in it. You only think it's something new to the 2010s because you weren't doing tech support in the 2000s or 1990s or 1980s.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:50 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


I know waaay more about computers than I did 10 years ago when I got my first laptop.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:01 PM on August 9, 2013


the amount of "make new things" work you can do within a web browser is pretty limited.

A web browser + text editor one of the most amazing programming environments we've come up with.
posted by jjwiseman at 10:10 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Neither her nor her husband can use computers.

Neither she nor her husband...

I'd write a screed, but I can't get the fucking internets to work.
posted by R. Schlock at 10:49 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I rather suspect that the author is wrong about the "all-time low" thing, in that there are far more people using computers today than ever before, so that even if a fraction of a percent of them are reasonably skilled at figuring them out, that's probably more skilled computer users that have ever existed previously.

On a percentage basis, sure, most of them probably have no goddamn clue how the blinky box works. But that's mostly a function of how cheap they've gotten and how hard it's become to not have a computer.

Though I find learned helplessness to be as irritating as anyone, there are still a lot of people around who resist learning anything about computers because they resent having to use a computer in the first place. They probably didn't want one until something came up where they suddenly couldn't get along without it, maybe at home or more likely at work, and so they sucked it up and made a halfassed effort, but have little or no fundamental interest in it.

That's less of an issue today than it was a couple of decades ago — the biggest batch of unwilling computer users probably happened in the mid-90s, when corporations started rolling out desktop PCs to everyone — but it still lingers. Because in response to people who really didn't want to use computers in the first place but had to anyway, various design decisions were made in the name of "user friendliness"... which in many cases we're still stuck with.

Skeuomorphic designs are probably the most obvious example, but I think it's more fundamental than just skeuomorphism; the mid-90s Eternal September of angry, clueless corporate-desktop users — most of whom probably just wanted their typewriters or Dictaphones or paper filing cabinets back — changed the target to which software was designed. Everything got dumber as a result. And in many cases, unnecessarily so. The disaffected users (source of a thousand "retractable cup holder" jokes) eventually learned to live with their computers, just as they had their word processors and correcting typewriters and a thousand other things before, but the damage was done: commercial software become something that had to be idiot-proofed. But that damage wasn't the result of the hapless users; it was a decision made by and large by software companies and developers.

The result is a sort of two-tier system where you are either an idiot user or a wizard, and software is designed for either one group or the other. Idiot users, even ones who might be perfectly capable of figuring things out, are stuck in an artificial playpen with extra layers of abstraction to keep the scary bits out of sight, meaning that they're terribly positioned to actually solve anything when it does go wrong. They learn very quickly that when something breaks, the solution is to find a wizard who can fix it.

The solution to all of this is to quit dumbing things down. If you're a person who writes software, or better yet someone who designs it or creates requirements for it or otherwise participates in the process, and you find that your hypothetical users, the mental image that you have in mind and are designing for, are a bunch of slack-jawed droolers barely worthy of contempt, realize that you are almost certainly the problem.

Most people are not stupid. Most people, however, are lazy, and if your software is designed to be used by the braindead, and coddles the user and protects them from ever having to think or make a decision and generally treats them like a child most of the time, then it's unfair to expect them to be able to fix it when it breaks or when an unexpected situation happens.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:55 PM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


I wonder if he typed his rant in a word processor or just poked at a hard disc until it said 0 and 1 in the right combinations?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:56 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


This post is amazing. Makes me want to reread Foundation.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:14 PM on August 9, 2013


I probably wasn't dismissive enough of this article. "Oh you don't know how to do something? Well you probably look down on me for knowing how."

Actually, most people don't. That look you think you see in their eyes? It's not there. It's your own insecurities. Or they are the rare complete dickheads who are probably overt about it. No one I meet seems to dismiss me out of hand for knowing a specialized thing they don't.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:18 PM on August 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ok, I'm going to be charitable with whiny computer teacher guy and come down on his side. I am darn annoyed by people who accept the necessity of and want to use "computers" yet are entirely incurious of how to make them serve their purposes. I think it's a great point. You can argue that software companies should be finessing their interface and dumbing down the tech support. The fact remains that 90% of the people using computers today are able to do so because the other 10% of us are fixing their computers, buying their computers, and generally telling them what to do with their computers. And I think it's fair to argue that maybe this was a mistake.

Any time a family member visits, or I visit them, I can be assured I will spend at least one 6 hour stretch doing tech support while everyone else goes to a ball game or the zoo. Sometimes, this is something somewhat "fun" like buying sis (I am also the family's chief purchasing officer) a new MacBook and migrating files and configuring settings. Sometimes it's trying to disinfect my Dad's computer for hours before realizing its going to take a total reinstall. (Fortunately, I spent all of last Christmas configuring a back up system at my parents' house, so the only thing he lost was everything since Christmas because he hadn't backed up anything on his own since I last saw him.)

I created and fed this monster. I got great educational deals on computers when I was academic staff. My mom told me about all the sewing software she could use, my dad became an avid digital photographer, my sister bemoaned the fact that none of the inner city third graders she teaches has ever seen a computer. Great, Bartfast Family! Lets get you set up, it's easy and you'll get the hang of it quickly and do greatness. Laptops and tablets for everyone!

Now that I'm overwhelmed trying to make all of their laptops, iPads, networks, and devices work all the time, I realize the problem was that they were never curious enough to go out on their own and learn about computers and decide on their own that they could make these things work. Yet their lives are now totally dependent upon using power point in the classroom, or doing FaceTime with their grand kids, and sharing photos on Facebook.

I have tried to teach them. I have tried to demonstrate the way I'd go about googling an answer for "canon mp130 printer network connection problem." I've threatened to stop helping them, but ultimately that results in my dad using a laptop that's running so hot it burns his thighs with all the malware he's got.

No, the problem isn't lack of knowledge, but a lack of curiosity to find the answers to questions you encounter using these things. Either they're really guilty of intellectual laziness or they have hardware that is way beyond their needs. There are actually very few grandmothers in the world that need more than an iPad or tablet, and certainly not a MacBook Pro.

The car analogy is apt -- you don't need to know how spark plugs generate ignition and compression that drive a cam shaft in order to drive to the store. But I'd argue that the questions most of us are being asked are akin to -- "what do I do if my tire is flat?" or "I want to drive to Los Angeles, but my tank won't hold that much gas." If my family started asking me those questions, you can be sure I'd stop buying their cars, washing them, keeping them filled with gas, and sending them maps of cool places they could drive. They'd find some other way to get to work.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:22 PM on August 9, 2013 [20 favorites]


You should tell your family to learn or stop using computers. Really. Just have a conversation with them.

People are not as fucking stupid as this article implies.

Or if they are, well, move on.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:24 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then you get to this guys rant about deleting his dropbox account to keep those work related .docs out of government hands and... this guy is a nut.

This makes tech people look bad.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:31 PM on August 9, 2013


I bet This guy knows next to nothing himself.

It's always the people who know a little more than nothing that talk the loudest. If he knew anything about computers he would know he doesn't know shit.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:46 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't keep reading past all the "He can't use a computer." crap. The problem is not with people's computer literacy. The problem is that computers are terrible and it's insane to expect everyone to be a highly sophisticated computer user.

Seriously, computers suck. Macs suck. Windows sucks. Linux sucks. iPads suck a little bit less but they still suck. Physical wi-fi switches suck. The hierarchical filesystem sucks. Anti-virus sucks. Browsers suck. Security sucks.

There's no Moore's law for human-computer interface design, and the state of the art now is so bad that many computer enthusiasts prefer the command line, an interface first developed for electromechanical teletype terminals about 50 years ago. This is obviously insane.

People don't know how to use computers because they are (with a small margin of error) impossible to use.
posted by silby at 11:58 PM on August 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


The thing is, compared to plumbing or even cars, the ability to really use a computer is incredibly empowering. As a programmer, I can take pure thought and use it to build things! I can write simple programs that generate spaces that you can then move around in as if they were real. I can typeset an entire book using a few relatively simple markup directives. I can pull data from a database, run it through a script to generate a set of reports across that data, and then typeset that into a digital file which I can then print on lovely semi-gloss and use for my presentation...

The sheer power of computers for almost every aspect of information-based work and play is incredible, and being a consumer rather than a producer, when producing is so easy compared to all of history... it just seems ignorant and small.


Well you certainly sound like a wonderful person, but my eyes glaze over reading about all the wonderful things you can do. I find programming dull and meaningless. I have no interest in spending hours and hours of my leisure time in front of a computer screen. I just want to get my work done, do a little socialising and browsing, then close the laptop lid and go do something fun. I've found my superficial knowledge of computers to be perfectly fine for that.

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I do not feel that I am "small and ignorant" for not sharing it.
posted by Greener Backyards at 12:28 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Mobile

This ones tricky. iOS is a lost cause, unless you jail-break, and Android isn’t much better. I use Ubuntu-Touch, and it has possibilities. At least you feel like the mobile phone is yours. Okay, so I can’t use 3G, it crashes when I try to make phone calls and the device runs so hot that when in my jacket pocket it seconds as an excellent nipple-warmer, but I can see the potential.


What is...Mobile Idiocy?
posted by oceanjesse at 12:35 AM on August 10, 2013


It's always the people who know a little more than nothing that talk the loudest.

It's because the people who know a little more than nothing are the people who work in tech support, and are most directly exposed to people who want the benefits of computer use without any of that dirty working or learning. If you know a lot, the people who know a little more than nothing are insulating you from the masses. Tech support gets to spend all day dealing with people who are ignorant and belligerent about it, and on the other side getting shit on by people with better tech jobs.

But the people who know a little more than nothing are vital- I dunno what other institutions and firms are like, but where I work, we have a large number of people who ought to be fucking fired because it's obvious from a trawl through their ticket histories that they don't have the first idea of how to use any of the technology necessary to do their jobs. Somebody who wanted to be a delivery driver but doesn't want to learn how to drive? You'd laugh him right out of the hiring office. Somebody who wants to do office work but doesn't want to learn how to use Office and whatever other software is necessary? Fuck it, hire them and have them spend eight hours a week on the phone with tech support.

I get sick of the dismissal of this, the proud ignorance. If your job doesn't require you to use any tech, fine. Good for you. But the idea that getting frustrated with people who never, ever learn and depend on other people to perform the duties they're getting paid for is somehow elitist or assholish? It's gross as hell and dismissive of the experiences of people who are doing a shit job for shit pay.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:46 AM on August 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


First off, no one should be a dick to someone else.

Second off, this article is stupid because it's completely ignorant of hard skills vs. soft skills. We do not all need the same skillsets and indeed, hard skill are the backbone that make stuff possible for the soft skill people some of whom are visionary leaders.

And the two aren't mutually exclusive, btw.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:49 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


An honest, non-trolling question: why is a society of hackers good, and why is it better than the present society?

As a programmer, I can take pure thought and use it to build things!

This is what everyone who makes anything does, save that, unless you are coding in a language you wrote, yours is not the pure thought that builds, but the translator that interprets.
posted by Errant at 1:07 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am afraid he is quite mistaken about Michael Gove's plans to reform the computing curriculum. I think Gove's proposal is a sham, which many frustrated techies have fallen for. They have taken the announcement of intention at face value, because it matches what they have long wanted. Furthermore what they want to happen - a curriculum which closely matches their personal interests and skills - is not a good curriculum for the whole population to be required to follow. And finally, it is not possible for this specialist computer-science curriculum to be delivered and mastered by the entire school population, so none of this will happen, whether it is sincerely meant or not.

In general the move is towards a narrowing into technical training, and a removal of generic skills to do with assessing information sources, selecting appropriate tools, using technology in context. In contrast there is an increase in abstract issues such as (for example) binary mathematics and Boolean logic. I agree these are interesting I do not believe they are more important than practical skills to do with effective use.

For example the proposed key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11-14) requires that all schoolchildren learn two different sort algorithms. However it does not require that they learn what a Tab key is, which is a particular issue mentioned above, a lack of understanding which I encounter as a problem almost daily.
posted by communicator at 1:08 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am terribly disappointed and frustrated by the technology community in the UK. There is a terrific polarisation between the IT advocates who are currently in retreat, and the computer science advocates, who are currently riding high. What they should realise is that they would be stronger if they found common cause. Instead each side is delighted in turn as they gain supremacy over their rivals, and set about recasting education, and tearing up what went before.

The IT crowd emphasis applications, and are guilty of disparaging programming, technical and hardware skills. The computing science crowd typically advocate abstract computational theory.

Like the Judaean People's Front vs the People's Front of Judea . Like any set of marginalised and under-appreciated people, they turn their frustrations on each other. If they worked together they might affect real change.
posted by communicator at 1:17 AM on August 10, 2013


Sorry this is my last comment, but this has touched on an area I know something about. My job prior to the last election was to translate advice from computing experts into more accessible language for Michael Gove's predecessor to read, to underpin policy decisions. Gove dismantled this infrastructure of support making himself highly dependent on commercial interests. He gets a lot of advice from Google, Apple and Microsoft. His officials are not technically savvy enough to resist their biased advice.
posted by communicator at 1:22 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, being able to use a computer isn't some esoteric skill.


Man, I don't know. Today I found out that people at work have been asking around for new employees' email addresses, because entire departments worth of people haven't noticed the "Address Book" option in Outlook's compose window. No one ever told me about that button (I just clicked it one day because I needed someone's address), so I always assumed everyone else figured it out too.

So much of what I do each day is just clicking around on things to use software I've never seen before. But then I BS my way through building an interface to an undocumented API and singlehandedly save our database migration, and I realize that I might be the "all things electrical" version of three blind mice's chess playing friend. I've slowly been realizing that I'm just operating on a fundamentally different level - the way I (and probably many others commenting here) approach a computer is an esoteric skill. We'll be forever giving people fish, as it were, because they don't get why fishing could ever work.

‘What was the error message?’ I ask, and he shrugs his shoulders

And then this happens every week, and I go back to thinking people are dumb.

Which of course illustrates that disconnect again. If "regular" people aren't reading error messages, maybe something needs to change with the computer.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 1:30 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


We do not all need the same skillsets and indeed, hard skill are the backbone that make stuff possible for the soft skill people

We don't all need the same skillsets, but at the same time I don't think anyone would say that, for example, knowing how to write is an optional skill you can just skip if it isn't to your taste. The question is whether "computer literacy" (however you define it) is one of these foundational skills like writing, or a specialization like plumbing.

For example the proposed key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11-14) requires that all schoolchildren learn two different sort algorithms. However it does not require that they learn what a Tab key is, which is a particular issue mentioned above, a lack of understanding which I encounter as a problem almost daily.

It seems like the same kind of debate that there is about how to teach math: do you start with practical, rote-heavy learning or with less immediately applicable abstraction? The problem is that what you're trying to teach is not a discrete set of facts, but a kind of thought process or attitude, and that's a difficult thing to do whether you start from the top or the bottom.
posted by Pyry at 1:53 AM on August 10, 2013


We could do more though. We should be teaching kids not to install malware, rather than locking down machines so that it’s physically impossible. We should be teaching kids to stay safe on-line rather than filtering their internet.

Does that really seem unreasonable?

Even if the author's prose and attitude rubs people the wrong way, I think that it IS absolutely vital for citizens to understand a few core things about the computers they use every day. Things like: I think the final item listed above is an important mindset to have - to not panic, just quietly and calmly research the problem, and see if there's a simple tutorial online. Of course, if you're unable to connect to the net, this point is moot, and that's when you're very welcome to hassle tech support!

And to the people in this thread who (understandably) refused to read beyond the first few paragraphs, because of the author's snark, I reiterate his conclusion, with which I agree:

Tomorrow’s politicians, civil servants, police officers, teachers, journalists and CEOs are being created today. These people don’t know how to use computers, yet they are going to be creating laws regarding computers, enforcing laws regarding computers, educating the youth about computers, reporting in the media about computers and lobbying politicians about computers. Do you thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs? I have David Cameron telling me that internet filtering is a good thing. I have William Hague telling me that I have nothing to fear from GCHQ.
posted by Sedition at 2:26 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


In reverse order:
Sedition, Pope Guilty, 1adam12, sonic meat machine, louche mustachio, Greg_Ace, sonascope; you are all my people, and I am heartened to see others who work in the same realm I do.

As for anyone bothered by this little rant, well, just be thankful that you do not have the experiences necessary to sympathize with it. More later.
posted by daq at 2:44 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


it IS absolutely vital for citizens to understand a few core things about the computers they use every day

I agree Sedition, but these are exactly the skills that are being removed from the curriculum, in favour of NAND gates and two's complement.

People need to know what 'wiki' means, what 'cloud storage' means, what wifi is, really basic stuff, and there are no plans to teach them this. Not in the UK at any rate.
posted by communicator at 2:45 AM on August 10, 2013


Summary: Computer Guy is irritated about rampant ignorance of basic computer operation. I am irritated about Computer Guy's rampant ignorance of basic grammar.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 3:31 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or try asking a smartphone owner to send you anything, *anything at all*, over Bluetooth.

To be fair, I'm pretty comfortable with my smartphone--to the point where I've rooted it, written a tiny single-purpose app for it, and loaded custom Android installations like CyanogenMod on it--but it would take me a few minutes of poking around to figure out how to share something over Bluetooth. It's just not a thing that usually comes up in my day-to-day usage.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:05 AM on August 10, 2013


How much does this guy know about the quantum effects in the transistors of the chips used in his computer? Everyone just needs to know enough to make machines useful to their own lives, no more. Why expect more?

Also, there is nothing wrong with, "the Internet is broken", really. It is shorthand for "I can't access the Internet using this machine", which is more or less what anyone would say if they were asking help to get their machine connected on an unfamiliar system. It's churlish to act as if the request in itself is ignorant.
posted by iotic at 4:35 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Everyone just needs to know enough to make machines useful to their own lives, no more. Why expect more?

For myself, at least, I don't. It's just not my experience that knowing even that much is anything like as common as it ought to be in a world where computer skills aren't becoming less important.

Also, there is nothing wrong with, "the Internet is broken", really. It is shorthand for "I can't access the Internet using this machine", which is more or less what anyone would say if they were asking help to get their machine connected on an unfamiliar system. It's churlish to act as if the request in itself is ignorant.

It's less cute when they've diagnosed the problem as being with the network and refuse to troubleshoot.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:57 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well you certainly sound like a wonderful person, but my eyes glaze over reading about all the wonderful things you can do. I find programming dull and meaningless. I have no interest in spending hours and hours of my leisure time in front of a computer screen. I just want to get my work done, do a little socialising and browsing, then close the laptop lid and go do something fun. I've found my superficial knowledge of computers to be perfectly fine for that.

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I do not feel that I am "small and ignorant" for not sharing it.


I was probably a bit too belligerent last night. I'd had a bit to drink and I am passionate about basic information literacy. Furthermore, if you're competent enough to get your work done, and learn new things that you need in order to get your work done, you are not the technologically illiterate that the article and most of the people in this thread are talking about. I love programming; it was my hobby before it was my career, and I really do think it opens new horizons of problem solving ability. (c.f. the project at my first real job where my predecessor took 3 weeks and I took 2 days, then less than half a day the next time I have to do it.) That said, it's only a part of computer literacy, and not one that everyone needs. Instead, something that programming shares with, say, working with sophisticated applications, is algorithmic thinking. Every competent computer user can do this, whether they're a programmer or not.

Maybe if you haven't worked tech support it's impossible to understand, but the sheer depth of incuriosity and ignorance in computers is frustrating. I've had bosses who couldn't make a table in Word. What do you think happened to them in the economic downturn?
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:58 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


They got bonuses while the people who walked them through making a table three times a week got downsized.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:00 AM on August 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


Part of the problem here is that there's two different meanings at-work of "using a computer".

The people he has such disdain for do know how to use a computer. They use it daily and do great things with it. The write novels, create music, design logos, email photos to grandma. They know how to use computers very, very well.

But, that's not the world he works in. In his world, knowing how to use a computer is about all those lower-level functions that enable those people to do the things they do. The hidden infrastructure of "computing". I know it's overused, but sometimes the automotive analogy is apt. He's arguing that people who drive cars to run errands, deliver groceries, race, take kids to school, drive the truck to the fire, etc. are terrible drivers because they don't know anything about valve clearances, timing, compression, plug gaps, gear ratios, and on and on.

His argument has been with us practically since the day the first computer was placed on some non-nerd's desk in an office. It was put there so the person at that desk could perform a particular task, and not for them to tinker or write code or whatever.

It's like the relationship between the sword maker and the samurai. The samurai needs the sword maker. But the samurai doesn't need to know how to make a sword. He may understand the process at some high-level, but he doesn't know the intricate details of ore selection, smelting, forging, assembly, and so on. Understanding these details is not germane to the samurai's job. They may, or may not, come to understand some of these things over time, or merely appreciate the details, but it's not important to the accomplishment of their task that they do so.

This is the rant of a sword maker who has lost sight of his relationship to the samurai. Yes, he performs a task without which the samurai could not function. But, he's arguing that the samurai is somehow inept because he does not know how to make his own sword, or how to repair a poorly-made sword.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:03 AM on August 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


They got bonuses while the people who walked them through making a table three times a week got downsized.

Nah. That takes a certain level of seniority and connection within the organization.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:05 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the final item listed above is an important mindset to have - to not panic, just quietly and calmly research the problem, and see if there's a simple tutorial online. Of course, if you're unable to connect to the net, this point is moot, and that's when you're very welcome to hassle tech support!

In my experience, a lot of people are afraid of "breaking" their computers, which makes them freeze up and not attempt anything. Conversely, resolving the problems you have created is a great way of boosting your confidence next time something is amiss.
posted by ersatz at 5:08 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is the rant of a sword maker who has lost sight of his relationship to the samurai. Yes, he performs a task without which the samurai could not function. But, he's arguing that the samurai is somehow inept because he does not know how to make his own sword, or how to repair a poorly-made sword.

I like your analogy, but I don't think there was an epidemic of samurai who went back to the sword maker (or more accurately, for the metaphor, his apprentice) and said: "MY SWORD IS BROKEN!" because they hadn't taken it out of the sheath. Or who hit something with their sword, had the blade break, and then picked up the blade to try to keep using it and then came to the apprentice with half their fingers cut off and said: "MY SWORD DOESN'T WORK."

If you're truly good enough to be a samurai with your tools, you're not going to arouse the ire of the sword-maker. Think of it as akin to "You're not even worthy of a Hattori Hanzo blade!"
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:09 AM on August 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


Or try asking a smartphone owner to send you anything, *anything at all*, over Bluetooth.

Why use Bluetooth when there's email?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:40 AM on August 10, 2013



Things this writer is more or less ignorant of and which nonetheless are used by pretty much everyone in the world/ are descriptive of such use/ whose judicious use would make many lives undoubtedly better: education theory, psychology, sociology, fields of inquiry which focus on language and its use; then compassion and the ability to get off his high horse. Just a few. Some of which actually get taught in schools.

It just blows my mind that so many people seem to assume that knowing everything, or even what someone else might deem "enough", about computers is something that is feasible for any human being, techie or not. Computers and their use are so complex these days that any claim to complete knowledge is ridiculous. And if we accept that there are degrees of knowledge, and areas of knowledge, why is it so difficult to accept that for some people an absolute minimum is what mostly serves their day to day needs best? For many non-techies, a computer is just one of the dozens of tools they are required to have some knowledge about, and which don’t necessarily have a direct relation to their interests or field of expertise. Just as an example – pretty much everyone will at some point chop something without necessarily being a chef, and without having to know anything about the physics that goes into chopping, or knife- making, or even how exactly to repair the knife should it break.

Computers are similar. Someone may know the ins and outs of x software, which is opaque to Ruby programmer y because they have no need for it, another person might know a lot about connectivity issues but not so much about programing in a particular language etc. It’s NOT trivial to keep track of developments in the software any given user might use. Even learning the Office package from scratch is not a mean feat, but we tend to forget that because it has become so de rigeur that we treat it as though it was as natural as walking upright. For example, at uni, we had a one-semester course (one hour a week, so about 10 – 12 in total) on using Word, and I realised since that we only learned the mere basics, and nothing at all about trouble-shooting. Since then, I’ve learned to use, as a more or less sophisticated user (mostly less), quite a few different packages, and they each required some time and effort and energy (though it seems to be the case that the more you learn the easier it gets, a bit like with languages, up to a point).

I know people who went to computer operator training (in the ‘80s, and this was Romania, so it may well have been lagging behind); computer programers, of whom there were probably just over a hundred in the country, were a mysterious, privileged class most people had not even heard of. Operators and programers alike were highly trained, highly paid and highly regarded (programers more so than operators). The upshot of this is – there was a time when computer operation was a far less complex proposition, and yet it was normal to go through fairly extensive training JUST FOR OPERATING A TERMINAL.

Also, being able to use a computer isn't some esoteric skill. It's not at all the same as fixing cars or plumbing. Basically everyone's job in the First World involves interacting with these machines in some way. If you can't figure out your computer, you can't do your job.

No. Leaving the whole ‘“using a computer” is not one set of skills, but many, of which no person is fully cognisant’ line of argument aside, one of my jobs – which has me sitting in front of the computer all day, is to translate text from one language into another. The skills I NEED absolutely are a good working knowledge of the two languages and the mental flexibility to adapt passages which don’t allow for literal translation. Sure, my life is made immeasurably easier by the computer and more specifically the internet: I can work for clients anywhere in the world, I have a host of dictionaries and forums at my fingertips, I can make and correct mistakes without thinking twice about it, I can keep track of past jobs without trees having to die for it etc, so the computer is a hugely useful amalgam of tools for me. But, unless I live in the Gobi desert, I can do all these things without knowing very much about computers, since I live in society where other people's livelihoods actually depend on me and others not being omniscient. This goes pretty much for everything – unless I am obliged to do so, I don’t need to sew my own cloths, make my own shoes (both, arguably, still more ubiquitous than computers and also, depending on climate, more useful), diagnose and cure my own ailments, build my own house with my own two hands etc.

This doesn’t mean it I don’t think it would be great to have a knowledge transplant on all sorts of issues, not just the computer, and yes, that would include the mechanics of a car, the human body and its workings etc. One of the things which would help with acquiring this knowledge is a primer for the uninitiated. And no, the Idiot’s guide to computing isn’t it, nor is Wikipedia. If your mind doesn’t function in specific ways, be it because nature or nurture, doesn’t matter which, these are pretty much useless. For example this:

No doubt, but there's a certain set of knowledge which is common to it all. The manipulation of files; what your operating system is doing; the relation of hardware to what you see on the screen; boolean and procedural logic. They're applicable in every discipline that has been computerized.

Has me go to Wikipedia to check what exactly “operating system” is (someone retrofitted that term onto my previous use of Windows, so I have a hazy idea), and I get this:

An operating system (OS) is a collection of software that manages computer hardware resources and provides common services for computer programs. The operating system is an essential component of the system software in a computer system. Application programs usually require an operating system to function.


Great! Now, as a neophyte, I only have to go figure out what software is (as it happens, I now DO know what it means, but that wasn’t always the case, and I functioned really well for years without this knowledge), what computer hardware is, then how anything might manage it, how “resources” used here compares with other uses of the word, so I can figure out how to parse that phrase, then how “common services” compares with other “services” I know of, what a computer program is etc, and that just for that one sentence (and of course, the definitions tend to be sort of recursive, which is no help).

I’m not an idiot, but half of this thread is like a foreign language for me, which means that I have no hope understanding what is going on, since I don’t even get the terminology – and this is made even more difficult by the extensive use of acronyms. This, too, can lock you in a loop: in order to remember the terminology and to be able to operate with it (as in build on previous knowledge, use it for things like troubleshooting etc), I have to develop a grasp of that which it names, so, in order to understand something like “operating system”, I need to have a concept of what kind of thing is meant by it. If I am to develop that concept just by way of hearing that name or others like it, it won’t happen.

And this is an issue with a lot of education, so the problem won’t go away just by throwing some courses into the curriculum, or by ranting sarcastically on the internet (especially as the “educational” rant has little or no chance to get back to the people it is about, since they don’t have the know-how to get to it, as argued by the rant). Like many other things, computers are not intuitive for a lot of people, and neither is the culture around them (the lingo, the close interaction with the computer etc). Things that work: an approach which is designed around learners and their learning styles (for example, I learn a lot via analogy – the hardware is like the brain and the OS is like the nervous system - or by doing, so someone SHOWING me an ms-dos command panel + action and the equivalent in the normal environment did wonders for my understanding of GUI and what it is, etc), building on learners’ previous experiences/ knowledge, and an ability on the part of the expert to go out of her/ his own comfort zone and try to cognitively empathise with the learner, an understanding of what the learners’ current frame of reference is and how the new knowledge can best be integrated etc. (some discussion in this Wikipedia article, but there are tons of resources out there). On the other hand, sarcasm and condescension might fire some people up in an “I’ll show you” kind of way, but, on the whole, agreement tends to be that as an educational method it’s got limited utility (not being … sarcastic here, there are a lot of people who believe that it will stimulate the contrarian centres of the brain, but it is increasingly seen as demotivating and counter-productive).

I am darn annoyed by people who accept the necessity of and want to use "computers" yet are entirely incurious of how to make them serve their purposes.

Sometimes it's trying to disinfect my Dad's computer for hours before realizing its going to take a total reinstall.


Here you are asking a layman’s layman to know how to do something which took you six hours to discover DOESN’T WORK. I get that it is frustrating to waste your Christmas on someone else’s computer, but what would you say to someone who’d say “If you’d only gotten better education on human anatomy, you’d be able to perform your own appendectomy?” or “If you want to use your heart, you better be ready to do your own heart surgery?”, or “If you’re willing to use language, you’d better be up on the latest developments in linguistics, rhetoric and literary theory, rather than be so utterly incurious about how it works”.

We're dealing with "what's a file?" or (as someone above mentioned) a person who uses MS Word every single day who doesn't know what the tab key does, or how to make a basic table. It's horrifying.

This, to me, is like saying "We're dealing with "what's glucagon?" or (as someone above mentioned) a person who uses their pancreas every single day who doesn't know what alpha cells do, or how to regulate their epinephrine synthesis. It's horrifying."

I don't know, this just reads like a vent-o-fest, which is something many people, myself included, do when frustrated by the ignorance of non-experts. This doesn't make it any more realistic to expect the object of your frustration to morph into amateur-level expert, nor is it particularly useful, pragmatically speaking.
posted by miorita at 5:41 AM on August 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


It's less cute when they've diagnosed the problem as being with the network and refuse to troubleshoot.

I recently promised myself that I'd give up on network problems much quicker after I realized they were one of the few things that can almost cause me to cry with frustration. I have trouble understanding how someone could design such systems and not make the whole process simpler to deal with. I'm sure I'd understand it a little more if I was proficient in the field, but at least for now I get the visceral sense that smart people did everything they could to make life easier for a specific set of people/needs that doesn't include me. Not a happy thought.

In my experience, a lot of people are afraid of "breaking" their computers, which makes them freeze up and not attempt anything. Conversely, resolving the problems you have created is a great way of boosting your confidence next time something is amiss.

If there was a consistent protocol of feedback people got from "experts" and computer system designs I think that would go a long way towards making people more comfortable with learning about technology. That's not really possible though. And computer "experts" are an incredibly mixed bag.

Basically the reason I'm not a programmer today is because my brother took to it, and socially speaking it was impossible to learn in his footsteps. He had that kind of personality. (great person in general though)

I have a lot of empathy for people who freeze up when using computers. Computers are not humans, when they do something wrong it's either your fault or the fault of something that isn't even something. It doesn't react. It's not a good way to learn.

I feel lucky I know enough to swear at programmers and designers, but even then Network issues get to me.
posted by tychotesla at 6:08 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's because the people who know a little more than nothing are the people who work in tech support, and are most directly exposed to people who want the benefits of computer use without any of that dirty working or learning. If you know a lot, the people who know a little more than nothing are insulating you from the masses. Tech support gets to spend all day dealing with people who are ignorant and belligerent about it, and on the other side getting shit on by people with better tech jobs.

Yeah maybe I was being a snob.

Thanks tech support people, for fixing people's wifi so I don't have to.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:13 AM on August 10, 2013


Even if the author's prose and attitude rubs people the wrong way, I think that it IS absolutely vital for citizens to understand a few core things about the computers they use every day. Things like:
That popup is not your virus scan. It's a trick to get you to download Malware or pay for an unnecessary program
Don't disable your antivirus software
Please don't use password as your password
If you are consistently getting an error, read the error. If nothing else, it will be useful to whoever has to fix the problem.
If you have a problem, but have access to the internet, google the problem, and see what other people have done to solve it.


See, these aren't at all vital for people to use computers. Or at least they shouldn't be.

I wasn't able to find a single anecdote in that post that couldn't have been avoided with better systems design and HCI. And given that a vast majority of people have no interest in understanding the ins-and-outs of network infrastructure, why isn't the ire focused towards the fact that our desktops and laptops are so bloated and confusing that users can't easily treat them like automobiles?

Knowing that some virus scan popup is a scam has absolutely no fundamental relationship to the things people actually want to accomplish with their computers. And the whole "the problem is between the monitor and the chair" mentality is so insanely blind to that fact that I don't know where to begin.

That is never, ever true.

tl;dr: Don Norman wept at the self-righteous blog post written by Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy.
posted by graphnerd at 6:30 AM on August 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


(none of which is to say that we shouldn't be encouraging -or even requiring- students to learn programming. That's a great knowledge set to have. Maybe it'll even inspire enough professionals to help prevent IT problems from happening for everyone else.)
posted by graphnerd at 6:35 AM on August 10, 2013


In my experience, a lot of people are afraid of "breaking" their computers, which makes them freeze up and not attempt anything. Conversely, resolving the problems you have created is a great way of boosting your confidence next time something is amiss.
posted by ersatz at 5:08 AM on August 10 [+] [!]


As someone who while trying to work out what was wrong with their video card disabled its drivers, and then for some reason the default vga drivers as well, I can attest to this. After a bit of googling on another computer I found out what a linux boot disk was, which has come in handy a few times since.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:47 AM on August 10, 2013


I know plenty of people who don't know jack about programming who use their computers to showcase things they create - their photography, their knitted hats, their jewelry, wooden bowls, their music recordings, etc. People who don't know about programming and who don't use their computers to "create" are not simply all passive consumers; they may just be using their ability to create in a different medium.

One thing I wish is that I'd taken some computer science classes in college. It was the mid-80s and my school had (maybe still has? I don't know) an excellent computer science reputation, thanks in large part to a longtime prof and college president who co-created BASIC.

But I had some hazy idea that computer programming was all about math, and I was not very good at math. I also had this hazy idea that it was a Thing For Boys, which I am not.

It's really only now, as I teach myself a few basics thanks to the zillion online tutorial sites and all the .edu online courses, that I can see that if someone or someones had explained to me that it's language! It's communication! It's a thing that accessible to everyone, no high-level math skills* or special genitals needed! I would have been much more likely to jump into that pool as a freshman in college.

* Unless and until you get into certain kinds of programming, I suppose. And, it turns out, I'm actually pretty good at certain kinds of math I thought I was bad at if I can see how it can be applied.
posted by rtha at 7:05 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Imagine having to teach a person how to tie their shoes.

Every day.
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:32 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


What about this semi-famous counter example?

I also like the car analogy because, I think it's fundamentally the same problem. I've got several friends who have never read the owner's manual for their car, don't care why oil needs to be changed once in a while, and have zero comprehension of what goes on between the gas pedal/brake/light switch and the expected effect. Would you be surprised to learn that they're the same people who can't find the wifi button on their laptops, or don't know how to turn on the GPS in their smart phone? And they're not stupid people, although one of them told me that he's basically above having to solve problems related to cars or computers.

We live in an environment we've created because it brings us endless benefits and drives our economies, but we can't bother to learn some basics of the technology that underlies all this great stuff? We're handing over a lot of power in our society to wizards of one kind or another.
posted by sneebler at 7:50 AM on August 10, 2013


The modern computer is heading towards becoming an appliance. The writer hates Windows 8 specifically because it is heading towards an experience similar to tablets and phones, which are already appliances.

That alone explains his attitude.

PCs are poorly designed for today's tech-savvy population. The modern computer is transitioning to a KISS state that avoids PEBCAK (he didn't even get that acronym right) and he resents it.

Look at his examples of people not knowing how to use a computer.
* The state of OSX and Win7 provide too much user control and so too much exposed, exploitable input that even techs end up with infected computers.
* People are used to using the screen and input devices to toggle the WiFi, not expect the manufacturer to put a physical toggle.
* A computer at school sitting in a computer room should have its ethernet cable plugged in.
* The teacher using the desktop improperly is simulating a physical desktop and the computer lets him.

Are there some things people should genuinely know in order to use a computer? Sure. But the majority of his examples and what he is writing about? No. He's just being a snob.

I know how to build a PC, set up networks and install OSes, but that's because I enjoy computers beyond what is needed. I also replaced the capacitors on my busted TV and installed a new engine mount in my car. A couple nights ago I duped my car key using a rotary tool then paired the new key's transponder to the car, which to me was an awesome combo of mechanical and technological interest.

Do I expect most people to have to know how to do any of this? Of course not. They've got other interests.

The car analogy doesn't quite work anymore as cars are much more KISS than computers. No one needs to know how to pump the brakes because ABS does it for you. But if you have to explain to a person why the automatic transmission has D, 3 and 2, then yes, that person needs to learn about their car.

Most appliances in the home can have their life extended if you just know how, but most appliances are designed to be affordable enough to simply replace; and you want the newer model anyway. It's just hobbyists like me that go through the trouble of fixing the TV: we do it because we like doing it, not because it is expected (quite the opposite, I break warranties left and right).

So yeah, I found the whole article to have this whiny, know-it-all voice that irked me. Especially the one about the teacher using the desktop like a real desktop. No, really? He can't use it that way? Really? Because he's doing it and the computer's letting him. What now, jerk?
posted by linux at 8:09 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


No, the problem isn't lack of knowledge, but a lack of curiosity

My wife is the poster child for this problem. How apt is the car analogy? She once destroyed our car by continuing to drive it when it was overheating. She was astonished when I told her I sold it to the mechanic for $200 because for our purposes she had destroyed it.

She is definatly incurious about the workings of any machine, and does not seem to understand that there is a difference between out of adjustment, broken, and ruined. It finally got her to stop saying "the computer's broken" when her problem was not being able to get on the internet but it took several years of refusing to fix the problem until she described it correctly.

Computers are today much like cars in the 1910's, balky and eccentric and you pretty much need to be a mechanic or have one on staff to deal with the random problems that will pop up in the course of ordinary use. It's stupid that computers are that way, because they don't need to be, but the market has been driven by features rather than reliability, even to some extent at Apple. Most people don't really need a computer; they need an appliance that is as reliable as a modern car. But nobody makes those, and they wouldn't be useful to those of us who need more.
posted by localroger at 8:12 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Imagine having to teach a person how to tie their shoes.

Every day.


Imagine being a person who needs to have the same skill taught every day. And all of your teachers act like it's because you're stupid, and never consider that perhaps their teaching methods are flawed.
posted by rtha at 8:12 AM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Or try asking a smartphone owner to send you anything, *anything at all*, over Bluetooth.

I have literally no idea why I would ever want or need to do this.

In this thread there seems to be a lot of diversity of opinion among the more computer-savvy about what really are the essentials to being "computer literate" that every person needs to know. I really, really, really would like to get better at Excel - it's something that would be regularly useful to me at my job. Some of the other deficiencies of the less computer-savvy mentioned in this thread are completely "meh, who cares?" to me. So it is a little more complicated than just "People need to care about their computer skills"/"No they don't."
posted by naoko at 8:31 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Imagine having to teach a person how to tie their shoes.

Every day.


imagine having kids
posted by pyramid termite at 8:32 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


i received a phone call from "microsoft windows support" this morning, claiming that i had just downloaded a virus

he rapidly became annoyed and dissatisfied with me when i kept asking him if he had my email - or IP address

i hung up on him after telling him i thought it was a scam - which it certainly is

but i wonder how many non-computer literate people fall for crap like this
posted by pyramid termite at 8:38 AM on August 10, 2013


In this thread there seems to be a lot of diversity of opinion among the more computer-savvy about what really are the essentials to being "computer literate" that every person needs to know. I really, really, really would like to get better at Excel - it's something that would be regularly useful to me at my job.

Excel is a fun example. Learning how to use Excel's functions makes the spreadsheet blossom. Going into developer mode and making programmatic functions as well as tying it via ODBC to a database? At that point I start to groan as there you have a classic example of having a hammer and everything looking like a nail.
posted by linux at 8:41 AM on August 10, 2013


Imagine being a person who needs to have the same skill taught every day. And all of your teachers act like it's because you're stupid, and never consider that perhaps their teaching methods are flawed.

Imagine hiring that person to do that skill, and then employing somebody else who knows that skill to show them how to do it. Multiple times a week.

This is probably as far as I can go in giving specifics, but we have a guy who at one point over the course of two months racked up twenty tickets, in between his other numerous calls, asking how to change cell widths in Excel. Including twice in one day. Not various issues with Excel, not doing different things in Excel. He had to ask, over and over, including twice in a single day, how to change the width of cells in Excel.

But we're the assholes for objecting to this. It's somehow not his responsibility to know how to do his job, it's our responsibility to know how to do his job. It's apparently also not his responsibility to learn how to do something that is part of his job even after he's been shown how to do it over and over and over and over again. Malice or stupidity? Who even cares after a certain point?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:46 AM on August 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I run into that kind of thing a lot too, Pope Guilty, but it's not computer-literacy stuff. It's not (solely) a computer-ignorance problem. It's a management and hiring problem, and a dash of lazy, and a few teaspoons of this person never having learned how to learn.
posted by rtha at 8:58 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whoops, post instead of preview.

Meant to add: of course, there comes a point when someone ought to be expected to take responsibility for their inability (in this example) to retain information or take good notes or learn how to fucking google something. But that's not something that being computer literate can solve.
posted by rtha at 9:01 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


he rapidly became annoyed and dissatisfied with me when i kept asking him if he had my email - or IP address

Wait till you see how annoyed he becomes when you let him lead you through the entire script and then balk at actually signing on to what they're actually selling, or tell him that you think he's lying*. Or wait till they're about half way through, and then tell him you think he's wrong about what OS you're using. I kept one of those guys on the phone for 30 minutes once, and man was he pissed. They deserve it because I do try to reason with them politely first. What a job.


*A good source of incoherent swearing like, "You are fuckman!" lol
posted by sneebler at 9:10 AM on August 10, 2013


Obviously, this guy is completely wrong. I only forget to check if my monitor is turned on every few months or so because of forgetting! Not because I don't know!

Other than that, though, I have noticed and bemoaned this trend.

People tend to blow a lot of smoke up kids' asses about how technically savvy they are, to the point that the kids start to believe it and get that particular stubborn type of self-confidence that makes them immune to actually learning anything new. I have quite a few friends with teenaged sons (I don't know if that's significant, but I barely know anyone with girls for some reason), and they all seem to have this notion that they're technical whizzes because they are familiar with how to navigate various consumer electronics.

But most of them don't know what an operating system is. One lectured me firmly about Wikipedia literally always being wrong, then proceeded to look up a question on YAHOO ANSWERS. He also once informed me that a gaming keyboard was a "hacking keyboard," and that I could get in really big trouble having it in my house.

And he thinks (less so now) that he's somehow preternaturally technically adept, based apparently on the fact that his parents tell him he is because he knows how to use XBox Live.

Worse yet, his and other parents of my generation often seem to hold onto the idea that working in technology is still optional. It really isn't. Sure, with the advent of more and more user friendly and task specific devices, you can use technology without really understanding it, but that's always going to leave you a little behind.

A related phenomenon I've noticed is that in recent years, the technology adoption dynamic has changed a lot. The least technically knowledgeable people I know buy the most computing devices now. They make sloppy purchasing decisions in the first place because they don't know how to evaluate things and end up basing their decisions on slick marketing material; and then, once they get a device, they have no idea how to troubleshoot it. I have rescued quite a few almost fully functioning devices from the trash or donate piles because people throw things away the minute they stop working, even for easily fixable problems.

And to be clear, the people tossing their computers aren't rich, and are not just looking for an excuse to upgrade. They really just have no notion of how their devices work or how to troubleshoot them. All they know is that something is broken, and they lack even a basic understanding of the components the components that make up their devices.

I know a lot of people really don't like working with computers. I understand. I don't like working with cars. And I usually don't! But I know how to change a tire, and I know how to do the basic maintenance I need to. I don't change my own oil because I hate it, but I have done it. I know how. I know how to tell if my oil needs changed, I know how to find someone to do it, I know about what they should charge, and I am familiar with some of the most frequent mechanic scams and how to avoid them.

And the car analogy I think understates the significance. Computers are more pervasive even than our cars (and our cars are, increasingly, computers too, so there's overlap). There are probably fewer actual life threatening risks unless you have an insulin pump or pacemaker or something, but computers can ruin your life in all kinds of new and innovative ways, and not understanding those risks can be very dangerous.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:16 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Pope Guilty, what you're talking about there is basic competence/job fitness, and not at all related to the 'computer literacy' question in the post.

But damn if that doesn't sound frustrating.
posted by graphnerd at 9:27 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think of computer literacy as the basics of usage: Click, select, drag, cut-copy-paste, the file system, copying files and so forth. Using office software and not being able to cut-copy-paste is computer illiteracy.

I wouldn't expect most people to be able to troubleshoot them, I have many years of experience doing this and it often involves knowing what to search for on Google, then finding the right search result, then finding the right post in the forum thread, then being able to execute the instructions.
posted by zebraantelope at 9:28 AM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I kept one of those guys on the phone for 30 minutes once, and man was he pissed.

heh - i'm pretty sure i could have reeled him in to "fuckman" levels of rage if i'd worked at it, but i had things to do and he'd already gotten 3 more minutes of my time than unsolicited phone calls like that usually get - (5 seconds)

i'd amused myself at his expense enough
posted by pyramid termite at 9:35 AM on August 10, 2013


I think these concerns for "literacy" boil down to people being complacent in the way they get things done, scared of breaking something, and overwhelmed at the potential time required to learn something well enough to fix it.

This is the same for computers, cars, home repairs, and so many more things. People learn some process that works for them, and it might not be the way their tools should be used, but it gets the job done. Maybe they were taught by someone who did the same process, and no one has questioned the how or why, just taking comfort in the end result.

I've been the unofficial tech guy in many circumstances: my brother and I are long-distance tech support for my parents, and I was the first line of defense at my prior job for a dozen different little computer issues, as the IT folks were overworked and it took them a while to get back to us. But most of my solutions were things I knew from years of trial and error, or 5-10 minutes of searching online. But I was a minor wizard. Oh, and I knew a lot of hotkey short-cuts, so I could get some silly little tasks done really quickly.

But I don't have any formal training. I grew up a the time when PC computers were pretty standard, so building a system without knowing a ton was do-able. And I approached computer issues as a puzzle to be solved, instead of an insurmountable hurdle, with instructions written in a foreign language.

On the other hand, I'm a complete home care and car maintenance noob. Both things scare me, because I worry about doing something wrong. I know enough about computers that I'm fairly comfortable about what I can do without a second thought, and what I should do with care. But cars? Especially my hybrid car? I've wanted to learn, but I foresee a learning curve of months, instead of 15 minutes on Google.

I think there are a ton of things that are easy for most people to do, be it in their homes or on their laptops. But because they are these mysterious systems, it's easier and (in their eyes) safer, to call in a professional, even when they think of the professionals as lowly workers.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:43 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of people think of being really into technology as meaning, they spend all day on their phone. But listening to them boast about how technological they are, you'd think they were building a working time machine in their garage.
posted by thelonius at 10:00 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't expect people to code, or know about Outlook settings they've never had to use before, or even to type with more than 2 fingers (especially if that's not a major part of their job). But sometimes....

I might say, "the network just went down and that's why you're unable to log onto those 2 computers at the moment" when I notice they're having issues, and one user says "well, why can HE log onto THAT computer???" So I ask that user "how long have you been logged on?", he says "2 hours", "and are you experiencing network issues? (internet, Outlook, etc)" and he says, "Yep."
And I just say as gently as possible, "Ah, well, there you go" and politely try not to hear the first user's "oh."

or...when a user calls me, almost yelling, because he's not getting emails from certain coworkers in his inbox. Turns out he created a rule for emails from those users to be set to certain files under his main Inbox, went on vacation, and came back to "missing emails".

or...when I reset a user's password 4 times in one night, each time waiting for them to tap.....tap.....tap their password in, having already offered the second time to assist them in creating a long, complicated, personalized but -easy to remember- password.

or...when I'm about to take a computer away for reimaging and I've made my speech and say for the final time "Everything you've placed on this computer is about to be wiped. Are you sure that you've backed everything you want onto either your ext harddrive or a disc?", they say "yes", I reimage and return the computer, and 10 minutes later they call to yell at me for their missing documents. "IF I WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BACKED THAT UP THEN YOU SHOULD'VE TOLD ME."

or...when I've told users that they can't move computers to completely different ports without asking us first, but they still do so and then wonder why those ports get locked out.

or...the numerous times that a user purposefully chooses a setting, or spills water on their keyboard, or does something else they're usually not supposed to do but waits until after hours of troubleshooting to offhandedly tell me "Oops, oh yeah, no big deal" but still complains that I'm wasting their time.

If you accidentally hit a key and don't know how to fix the issue it caused and you've tried to figure it out but you're afraid to make it worse, that's totally cool! I've done that, I understand, don't be embarrassed!, I've got your back. When you accidentally hit a key and not only don't care to try to fix it, but don't care to tell me what might have caused it or maybe learn how not to do it again (and god do you keep doing it again and again and again - I mean, seriously), then I despise you and all of those like you. Especially when it's an application you use every day FOR YOUR JOB.
When I get these issues, I want to make these users, who are often upper level management, give up their personal work computers and forever afterward utilize a carefully regulated computer lab environment.
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


people I encounter who literally have no idea what's going on in their computer--not at a low level, but within the applications they supposedly know how to use. His example of the woman running a PowerPoint presentation from a USB drive who didn't know that an embedded video wouldn't work because streaming sites were blocked is a good example.

Actually, that is a perfect example of bad design and stupid policies being blamed on a user who is just trying to give a presentation. Obviously the PowerPoint interface is designed to make people think when they embed the video that it lives in the presentation. That isn't nuts. And it works as long as you have a normal internet connection that IT dudes, who know soooooo much better than normal people what those people need, haven't broken for "your own good."

— signed a UX designer who forbids anyone on my team from calling users stupid or ignorant, ever
posted by dame at 10:20 AM on August 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


Here's a short on the chasm between computer users and non-computer users, and the frustrations of doing tech support for parents.
posted by miorita at 10:21 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know about other work environments but a good 75% of my interactions begin "I know I did something stupid." We've created this mindset of "computer literate" and "computer illiterate" nowhere the twain shall meet.

I have tried to help train my users but without fail the same problems pop up on schedule every month, week, day. It’s no reason to get angry (hey job security) but is a tad frustrating when people don't know, don't want to know, don't care to learn.

I suspect telling someone they are computer illiterate is a little like telling someone they are bad at math. Those two statements drive the air right out the room and the desire to learn with it.
posted by M Edward at 11:23 AM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love computers and make my living by them and all, but the day one of those items presents me with a web browser, text editor, and/or email or chat client is the day I decide "enough's enough" and go to live on a remote beach somewhere.

If you've been doing this long enough you know that no computer program is ever finished until it reads news.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:36 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't agree with the author to the extent that everyone needs to know at least 2 sorting methods in 3 different languages, but have some BASIC curiosity and willingness to do troubleshooting.

All I'm asking is that people just check that's something is plugged in. Don't tell me "COMPUTER DOESN'T WORK AND I'M NOT GOING TO CHECK TO SEE IF ITS PLUGGED IN CAUSE THAT'S AN IT JOB". I love driving to a remote site 3 hours away only to find it wasn't plugged in and when I say it wasn't plugged in I'm just met with a "Oh ho ho, I just don't get computers tee hee".
posted by Snuffman at 12:38 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


when I say it wasn't plugged in I'm just met with a "Oh ho ho, I just don't get computers tee hee".

I think I've told this before, but one time I got called over to a building because someone's "printer wasn't working." We had a few older HPs still running so I figured something just needed to be reset.

Nope. I arrive on site and it turns out the user had been relocated because their office wing was being remodeled. They had a temporary desk and their regular office printer was in storage on the other side of the building. Had they thought to mention that, I could have just walked them through picking another printer over the phone.

I'm pretty sure they failed the common sense test for the day, but I don't even know where the line should be for computers any more. Don't expect anything and you won't be disappointed, right?
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 2:35 PM on August 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Knowing that some virus scan popup is a scam has absolutely no fundamental relationship to the things people actually want to accomplish with their computers.

And yet if they consistently fall for such scams and download/install malware, their machine will become unusable. Meaning that it DOES have a relationship to what they want to accomplish, if what they want to accomplish involves using their computer.


Sorry to contradict you on this. But I really feel that something important is being missed by insisting that if computers just worked better and were designed better, noone would ever need understand anything about them.



If people are determined to use analogies which compare computer use to other things, consider that you'll not long survive if you stick a knife in a power socket. Nor will you get very far if you consistently fail to put petrol in your car. And your computer will not work as intended if you consistently run it without a virus scanner while browsing shady sites, and installing malware.



Day after day, we get posts on Metafilter where public policymakers misunderstand a fundamental part of the scientific method, in favour of introducing horrific legislation. Because understanding that method has no visible relationship with benefiting from that method.

And the same is happening with IT - often neither policymakers nor voters are in a position to make an informed decision when it comes to quite important questions, such as mandatory filtering, IT infrastructure etc. And sadly, the next generation will likely not be any better, despite having been told otherwise about themselves.
posted by Sedition at 4:38 PM on August 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm the world's worst teacher, and get frustrated with trying to provide tech support, too, though that's not my job and I certainly lean on others for more esoteric problems, from which they can only conclude that I am a simpleton.

I'm going to guess that when a fragile technology gets widely adopted quickly, you find that those users who were forced to use it without having a real interest in it are very gun-shy about trying to solve problems, especially when the wrong idea can have awful consequences. I'm sure everyone has had the experience of being told "they shouldn't have done that" when they take what seems to be a perfectly logical step to try and fix their problem, whether it's computers or cars or whatever. That "tsk tsk" and often very real pain of lost work or money sticks with you.

And realistically, it's the sign of a technology which isn't very mature that users can make decisions post-malfunction which make things worse. If the car overheats--a generally no-damage scenario if caught early--you can argue that it shouldn't be possible to make a decision which completely ruins the car (certainly in modern computer-controlled cars, that's laughably easy to prevent).

Compounding that, most computer applications are absolutely horrible at relaying useful information to the user about what went wrong and the likely causes (or couch that message in such awful prose that it's worse than meaningless), and often times the "wizards" they offer to solve the problem are completely hopeless and never fix anything. What exactly is the learning moment offered here? "I'm smarter than you and you're a dumbass" isn't going to get anyone to pay attention.

(For example, I have a workshop with a wireless repeater in it. About once per month, that wireless repeater loses contact with the main wireless source, subsequently reconnects but internet access is lost--no access to the outside world, despite being connected to the wireless router. The only thing that fixes it is rebooting it, or rebooting the main wireless router, or both...and it's not consistently the same trick. As a networking layman, my contention would be if you're a wireless repeater, your one job is the repeat the wireless. If all your little lights tell me that you're connected, and my computer shows five bars of signal, why wouldn't you give me internet access, or tell me why it's not happening? The Windows connectivity wizard is hopeless here, too. It makes me feel like an ass, as a semi-proficient computer user and halfway decent programmer to toggling the ON/OFF register, but trying to find out what's really going on is an absolutely uninteresting rabbit-hole.)

Coders and the companies who hire them, hardware designers and the people who engineer the boxes we all use are absolutely complicit in this state of affairs. Throwing something out the door that is bug-laden and half-assed may make your CEO and shareholders happy in the short-term, but it's teaching your end-users that computers suck and what seem like simple tasks are hopeless. People then dig trenches, and you end up with them using inappropriate tools because when they upgraded that new browser that one time it lost all their bookmarks or when the office upgraded to a new version of word every menu was changed, not something you need to see when your boss is shouting "where is that report?"

So I'm with all of you about the dumb-asses, but I'm also one of them, too, on occasion, and sometimes it's just not their fault.
posted by maxwelton at 4:40 PM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't agree with the author's point, but in his defense, here's a comment from the Hacker News thread:

"Author here.

Thanks for the up votes and the comments - both positive and negative. I'll take all feedback into consideration when I next post anything. I didn't post this on HN myself, just added a link in a comment to another post.

Just to clarify - I do want to try and fix what I perceive as the current problem. I'd hoped the post ended on a positive note, but maybe people stopped reading. (It was rather long)

The TL;DR did have a question mark after it (although the rest of the punctuation left little to be desired). I've had positive and negative feedback with regards to this, so I'm leaving the post alone, warts and all.

I completely acknowledge that my post comes across as arrogant and condescending at times. Please realise that I spend all day being patient, polite and helpful to both my students and colleagues. My blog allows me to blow off a little steam every once in awhile.

Anyway, I'm very flattered to have made the front page of HN and I'm sure it'll never happen again. I love this site and the community. If you want to berate me or support me then feel free to do so by replying to this thread and I'll endeavour to reply."
posted by archagon at 4:47 PM on August 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sticking a knife in a power socket is not a good analogy. A better one would be if you were able to ruin your toaster (or die!) by plugging it into a wrong but otherwise identical socket unless you were wearing special glasses, which made most--but not all!--of the bad sockets appear to be painted red.

Why are those sockets are even there? What fundamental design flaw was ignored--or completely foreseeable circumstance laughed at--when wiring the house, that resulted in those sockets being available in the first place?
posted by maxwelton at 4:49 PM on August 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Just to clarify - I do want to try and fix what I perceive as the current problem. I'd hoped the post ended on a positive note, but maybe people stopped reading.

No, I read the whole thing, I just thought the post mis-identified the cause of the problem that needs fixing, which is people like him designing piece-of-shit interfaces and blaming the innocent people who are forced to use them.

And yeah true computer literacy is also problem too but blaming the victims just isn't the right way to communicate that.
posted by bleep at 5:03 PM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is something irritating about people who claim that they're not "computer-people", as if it's a genetic disability.

And for everyone going all grammarian in this thread, please understand that programmers are used to writing in grammars that are far more exacting than natural English.
posted by zscore at 6:03 PM on August 10, 2013


Late to the party here, I have two conflicting trains of thought:

1.) person does X. In order to do X effectively, person should know Y. So if you're a professional somebody that needs to know how to basically run a few programs on the computer, yeah you better.

2.) person does X, which is contractually or otherwise defined. Suppose it is defined such that person must effectively do X however (s)he can, and that it does not necessarily require the union of all other things but X. So if person can do X effectively, without much computer expertise (maybe email), great, and let someone else handle the supporting roles. Person thus gets paid for X and only X, and thus the payer gets no more than what they paid for.

I suppose these days is trying to figure out the right balance between them, and it might have to do more with the interpersonal chemistry between people than anything.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 6:26 PM on August 10, 2013


Many people would become a great deal more effective if they had a little more computer knowledge. This in no way contradicts the idea that we have built unnecessarily confusing systems for users. Why would we waste so much time insisting that the difficulties users face must be wholly attributed to either the users or the developers?

There's an incompatibility between normal users and the systems they use, which has arisen (or rather has not yet been corrected) because of the particular histories of the development and use of computers. Of course the situation can be, and is being, attacked from both ends.
posted by Jpfed at 12:23 AM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Tech support gets to spend all day dealing with people who are ignorant and belligerent about it, and on the other side getting shit on by people with better tech jobs.

But you repeat yourself. Half of the people with "better tech jobs" don't actually know that much about computers. They've just been in the field longer.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:14 AM on August 11, 2013


I used to do tech support for a school. If I started to get annoyed at the simplest of problems that I was presented with (and there were a few doozies), I'd just remind myself that the teachers knew more about, say, French, or geography, or bits of history than I did. Plus, they were teachers for classrooms full of students. I've tried that, and it's definitely not my forte.

There's a great many people who regard computers as magical boxes that they're slightly afraid of. To them, computers are erratic machines that can suddenly stop working for no apparent reason, and to fiddle with them is to invite potentially destroying the whole thing, possibly even with just an accidental keystroke. Computers seem unfathomable, so it's hard for information about computers to stick in their minds. There are, of course, people who are just completely incurious or lazy, but in my experience most difficult users are more intimidated than anything else.

The problem with the article, for me, is that even though I agree with some of the general points he made, he wrote with such contempt for the uneducated who had the temerity to have problems that any validity to his argument was lost. I'd have presumed the disdain he saw in other people's faces was purely from his own insecurities, but if he actually treated people the way he says he did, I can see people disliking him purely for embodying all the worst stereotypes of the arrogant tech guy. As others have pointed out, computer folks are especially prone to thinking that this thing that interests them is both easy to learn and should be common knowledge.

And for a tech teacher, not once did he seem to actually stop and explain the problem to the person having difficulties. Not so necessary with an unplugged cable, but everything else he could have done more than just glare at them and then fix the problem.
posted by gadge emeritus at 8:28 AM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I wrote a book a few years back loosely on this topic - not exactly on computer literacy but on "bit literacy." Here's the free download.
posted by mark7570 at 8:44 AM on August 11, 2013


What other tool, once you've learned how to use it, resets itself or updates itself after you turn it off so that Thing That Worked last time you used it no longer does? If a car acts that way, and keeps acting that way, no matter how many times you get it fixed, you get rid of it. But we've been taught to just feel stupid that we don't know exactly why this happens or how to make it stop, every time.

If you make people feel stupid enough times, they start to shrug and accept it.

Now add updates to your software that scramble all the menus for no fucking reason. Now add connectivity issues. Now add issues sending things to clients without an FTP setup but your email won't allow huge files. Now add deadlines from your actual job. Now add overworked IT staff. Now add cheapskate employers making you use aging equipment.
posted by emjaybee at 8:49 AM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why should the wifi be controlled by a tiny, invisible, unlabeled switch that nobody knows is there?

It's a vector of attack. Why shouldn't it have a kill switch?
posted by yonega at 9:56 AM on August 11, 2013


There's no Moore's law for human-computer interface design, and the state of the art now is so bad that many computer enthusiasts prefer the command line, an interface first developed for electromechanical teletype terminals about 50 years ago. This is obviously insane.

Also the command line hatred is silly. The book is always better than the movie. I prefer the command line because it provokes my imagination, it helps me to think deeply and visualize what's going on.. rather than being distracted by focus-grouped icons, it turns my computer into a book with an index rather than a cluttered garage.

Look at all these examples of users looking for icons in a specific location and then flailing when they can't find them! Why is the visual/spatial metaphor supposed to be better for managing the contents of one's computer when so many people are incredibly spatially disorganized?

I started on DOS and when Windows appeared one day, when I was around 8.. I realized a couple of years later, after using windows(and still having to drop back to DOS) and actually remarked on it to others at the time.. that Windows was really cool but I would have never been able to learn anything about computers if it was what I had started with, it would've completely closed the door on me.

Clicky interfaces are good for some tasks.. but they trick you into thinking that you can trust your eyes to be able to see into your computer. They teach you to 'look for' things that really can't be found. They definitely make it harder to build a mental model of what's going on and what you're trying to do, because you're shown a picture that someone else created.. rather than imagining your own.
posted by yonega at 10:50 AM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


They definitely make it harder to build a mental model of what's going on and what you're trying to do

How is something like this:
wget -r -l1 -H -t1 -nd -N -np -A.mp3 -erobots=off -i mp3_sites.txt
an improvement over some sort of UI? What mental model is this supposed to suggest to me?

For the experienced person who has all of those flags memorized and knows what wget is, I can see it being faster to type at a prompt. But let's say I only need to scrape a website every six months, at best, for some sort of task related to my work. Do you really think I'm going to remember the flags? What if I want to do something slightly different? For my use case, a nice front-end on wget which took me through a wizard to set the options I want would be far faster and handier. Otherwise, it's an hour or three trying to come up with the right google query to find the info I need, and then another to run the command, figure out what I screwed up, etc.
posted by maxwelton at 12:04 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


filthy light thief: "But cars? Especially my hybrid car? I've wanted to learn, but I foresee a learning curve of months, instead of 15 minutes on Google. "

That's the thing. It's no different in that sense. Five minutes on Google and some basic tools allow you to fix many minor problems yourself in less time than it takes to go to a mechanic. Of course, the right mechanic charges you not much and gives you a loaner to drive around while they fix it, so the convenience factor may dictate not fixing it yourself, but still.

Similarly, most of my users understand the concept of "is it plugged in" and the like. And they usually get it after only one or two visits from me. Not great for the job security, but standing around watching them click the shit that makes it go again rather than taking their seat and doing it myself does wonders for their capacity to learn. Yeah, they aren't by and large experts or anything, but they do know that they need to take the "car" in for an oil change when the light comes on and to put some gas in it every once in a while. Or how to change a light bulb or whatever analogy you want to use that makes little sense because the computers that sit on people's desks aren't dumb appliances, but tools.

People who need computers to do task x but remain completely illiterate are like plumbers who don't know how to use a wrench, not like people who throw away a toaster when it quits working. Thankfully, most people I support seem to understand that it benefits everyone if they are willing to learn a bit.
posted by wierdo at 12:11 PM on August 11, 2013


As far the car analogy goes - if it were up to me, people would have to know a lot more - a lot more - about driving and cars before they could qualify for a license.

Seems to me that at least 30% of the drivers in any major American city a
re not safety literate.

If the majority of people knew what they should know about driving, we would not see all the ads and signs reminding us not to drive dunk and not to text while driving.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:40 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am willing to bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that knowing how an internal combustion engine works does not contribute one way or the other to preventing drunk or distracted driving.
posted by kagredon at 4:29 PM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


kagredon, that's got fuck all to do with what Lesser Shrew wrote. People blithely point their cars in whatever direction they feel like with no regard to others on the road or use of things like turn signals. That is basic illiteracy in driving. It's like never passing the stage of sounding out words when learning to read. This is superficially similar to things like not being able to find a physical wifi switch on a laptop.
posted by wierdo at 5:00 PM on August 11, 2013


> Do you really think I'm going to remember the flags?

No, but your computer can. The shell has the history command, which you can search for things you've done before. Once I've got a procedure worked out, I usually dump the history to a file in the project folder:
 history > taskname-hist.txt
Since most OSs now index text files, I can call up a quick search, enter a couple of key words, and I'll find the folder, history and files I've worked on before.

For all my Unix boosterism, though, almost all computer usability is a crock. How many of you got training for when MS Word went from "the way it had always worked" to the Word 2007+ ribbon-infested mess? There are now mature users of that who've never used anything else, and find your old ways quaint.
posted by scruss at 6:38 PM on August 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also.. the car/mechanic analogy is completely false... and really just ridiculous.

No one is saying everyone needs to be able to build a computer, or program one, or understand exactly how a modern CPU works at the electrical level or anything crazy like that.

The only car analogy here is: People who drive cars should know how to drive people.

People are banking on these things, doing significant work on them, they're trusting huge parts of their life to these machines.. and that's insane when they don't really know how to use them and don't really understand them beyond the application level.

If a general purpose computer is an "appliance", it's like a haunted toaster that may release howling demons that eat your soul the next time you go to make a bit of toast.. if you don't ward it properly.

It should come pre-warded? Who is guaranteeing that?

From a security perspective alone there are a lot of hackers, scammers, malware authors, and worse out there who want to hurt you and take what is yours.

I don't know what kind of magical safe ecommerce channel people think the internet is... but it's really not all that safe out there. And removing control from the user does not actually make them safer, it makes them less able to defend themselves. Removing the expectation of a basic level of competence.. you're just setting them up to fail.

We're not mechanics saying everyone should know how to fix their car if they want to drive. We're mechanics who are also drivers, who have fixed cars that inexpert drivers have destroyed.. who are saying that people need to learn to drive.

One more question, have you ever had someone ask for your help using an unfamiliar program to you which is meant to accomplish a task of which you have no knowledge or insight? Have you ever then been able to help them solve their problem by just reading the menus. They could have read the menus. Why did they call you over?
posted by yonega at 10:14 PM on August 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


A little late to this, but my take on the post wasn't so much the guy blaming users for being illiterate, but blaming tech teachers (professional or amateur) for doing a shitty job of teaching people how to use tech. The bit that hit me specifically was the "lemme fix that for you" mentality, because it made me realize that is my approach - if someone asks me about something with their computer, I usually fix it, but I don't always show them what I am doing or fully explain why that is the solution.

Granted, this is partly because some people's eyes glaze over the second you try to say anything about the program or OS. And partly because it is faster to just fix it than explain. But a lot of people I have worked with got better at something because I was able to show them how to fix it themselves next time, often including a step by step troubleshooting list they could check if it happened again.

I am hoping I can get my kid to learn not to be afraid to fix things, because I learned from my own dad that broken things can be disassembled and sometimes fixed. If it ain't working, taking it apart won't make it any MORE broken, right? Because of this, I have done things like drop aftermarket motors into my car power windows, swapped out starters in the snow, learned how damn useful JB Weld can be, gotten pretty good at swapping out bad capacitors, and yes, have fixed more than a few computers. But I had good teachers, curiosity, and was encouraged to learn as I went.

I figure one really simple way to help do this would be to start kids off by building a computer. Take some old systems, disassemble, have them build one by slotting in RAM and peripheral cards and plugging wires and then walk them through installing a simple OS. Once you've seen something go from a pile of parts to a Working Thing, it demystifies it a little, and takes away the fear that touching anything will immediately break it.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:33 AM on August 12, 2013


How many of you got training for when MS Word went from "the way it had always worked" to the Word 2007+ ribbon-infested mess?

This, IMO, gets at the crux of what I like about *nix: the interface may not be intuitive, but it's stable.

If you learn e.g. the switches for wget today, it is extremely unlikely that you are going to update to a new version of it in the future and find, suddenly, that everything you knew about using it is so so much wasted time and you have to relearn it just like the new hire in the next cube.

In large part that is because the interface that you use as a meatsack is the same interface that is used programatically by scripts and the like, and they are much less tolerant of changes to the interface than even the most curmudgeonly user. So nobody changes them, because doing so would break innumerable scripts, and thus the knowledge you learn today will probably still be useful when you retire.

Microsoft is pretty good about preserving backwards-compatibility under the hood (the API), but has no qualms about throwing out a time-tested interface in favor of something completely new and different. Apple even less so. And I think this demonstrates a certain amount of contempt for their users, which irritates me in a related way to the contempt that I was decrying in my screed above: rather than contempt for users' intelligence, it demonstrates contempt for users' time. Most users, once they have spent time learning how to do their job with a particular piece of software, do not want to do it again. Most people have better things to do than learn how to use tools (like performing their actual job with those tools). And if a new version of a particular tool changes something in a way that requires retraining or relearning, that's time that can't be spent on useful work. I have seen little evidence that most software companies are really weighing this cost (which is externalized onto their users) when blithely redoing interfaces. It is a very rare UI 'upgrade', at least that I have seen, that results in such an improvement in day-to-day efficiency that it overcomes the amount of time lost to retraining as a result of the change from the old interface.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:23 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


People are banking on these things, doing significant work on them, they're trusting huge parts of their life to these machines

It's interesting that you use the word "banking", because I think computer literacy is more comparable to financial literacy than driving. First, operating a car just isn't as important. Across the world, you can live in places that don't require you know how to operate a car. Either because of public transportation or ease of walking or biking, a car isn't always necessary. In a personal example, I didn't get my driver's license until I was 23.

Second, to an individual banks and computers are similar. They're both machines that you come across on a regular basis that store and do important stuff for you. Both also have uneven access depending on how much money the individual has. The difference is computers are badly designed because gaps between user and designer, while banks purposefully create an opaque and complicated system to make profits.
posted by FJT at 6:37 PM on August 12, 2013


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