Mark Fischer

6 minute read

Marc Scott wrote a thought provoking article over at coding2learn.org called “Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You” a few weeks ago. It’s a really well reasoned article, and you should go read it if you haven’t yet.

As I was reading through the article, I kept thinking to myself “Yeah, this guy has it nailed. All these people out there have no idea how to use a computer. We should really educate them more on general computer use.”

However, after reading through some of the comments (there are many) and thinking about it some more, I began to disagree with his ultimate conclusion more and more.

I want the people who will help shape our society in the future to understand the technology that will help shape out society in the future. If this is going to happen, then we need to reverse the trend that is seeing digital illiteracy exponentially increase. We need to act together, as parents, as teachers, as policy makers. Lets build a generation of hackers. Who’s with me?

I think there are two main points that are not being considered.

Blame the user

This sounds like a great rallying cry. Let’s teach the users so they can be more digitally literate!

It sounds good, but the more I think of it, the more it actually sounds like an old refrain in the technology world.

Blame the user.

One of Mr. Scott’s examples:

A kid puts his hand up. He tells me he’s got a virus on his computer. I look at his screen. Displayed in his web-browser is what appears to be an XP dialogue box warning that his computer is infected and offering free malware scanning and removal tools. He’s on a Windows 7 machine. I close the offending tab. He can’t use a computer.

He presents several other anecdotes about how people can’t use computers.

The automobile is often used as an example of how things have gotten worse with respects to technology. Marc mentions:

A hundred years ago, if you were lucky enough to own a car then you probably knew how to fix it. People could at least change the oil, change the tyres, or even give the engine a tune-up. I’ve owned a car for most of my adult life and they’re a mystery to me.

Years ago you could throw a cup of gas right into your carburetor if it had trouble starting. However, this is not an example of how things were better when people knew more about cars. This is an example of the automobile industry’s failure to build a reliable engine.

Similarly, the fact that Mr. Scott’s student is confused about a possible computer virus is not an example of how the student would be better off if only he knew how to use a computer. This is an example of the technology industry’s failure to build a secure computing environment.

Division of Labor

We live in an incredibly complex society. There’s the old adage of “Give someone a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”

I used to think this way a lot back in my desktop support days. If only I could just educate my users more about how a hierarchical directory system worked, then they wouldn’t lose their files. If only my users better understood the mental model of relating to buttons, icons, documents, and links, then they wouldn’t be so confused about when to double-click things, or when to click and drag, or when to single click.

If only I could better educate my users, everything would be better.

However this idea leaves out one thing.

Time.

One day I was talking to a professor at the university I was doing tech support for. She was really angry that something wasn’t working with her computer, and complained that she was doctor of some such discipline, and how should she be expected to know all this stuff about computers.

At the time, I simply suppressed my initial reaction of how spoiled university faculty were, of how they should really get with the times and really learn how to use a computer.

Years later however, I think back on that and realize that she was right.

She was an incredibly talented faculty member. She had been a practicing clinician for decades. She has spent tens of thousands of hours in her chosen field to become an expert.

She understands the division of labor.

Its an old economic theory, but somehow I think the technology industry overlooks it.

This faculty member’s computer was broken. She called in a technology expert to fix it. I did, and she was happy.

My car is broken. I call in an automotive expert to fix it. They do. I’m happy.

I am hungry. I call upon an agricultural expert to grow food. They do. I’m happy.

Somehow technology experts, having grown up in technology, and having spent tens of thousands of hours becoming an expert in it, are surprised when other people choose to specialize in other areas.

We simply cannot be experts in everything. We can’t even be pretty good at everything. We have to decide what we will be good at, and what we will depend upon others to do for us. The fact that so many people depend on Mr. Scott for technology support is no different than the fact that I depend upon the city to provide me with clean drinking water. I don’t want to be an expert in well drilling and water purification.

Marc quotes Cory Doctorow:

There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears.

Computers are absolutely pervasive in our society. And Marc’s points about lawmakers making decisions about an industry they don’t understand is troubling.

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?

However this shouldn’t be any more troubling than any other industry that lawmakers don’t understand. They depend on experts to tell them what they don’t know. The fact that the experts are usually provided by lobbyists from the highest bidder is what should scare us.

If you’re worried about where our society is going in the future, worry more about how to get money out of politics. Spend your time involved in something like rootstrikers.org.

Make the future better

All of the examples Mr. Scott cites in his article should be seen as a call to action. However the call to action here shouldn’t be that we need to better educate people on technology. The call to action is for all of us in the technology industry to get off our butts and make the future better.