Adam J Purcell Ponders… Computer Illiteracy

Published: Sometime before 7th January 2002

I am determined not to have this descend into a rant but rather think about the underlying issues.

Being in the computer industry I tend to get a lot of calls from friends and relatives (and their friends and relatives) asking for help with their latest computer problem. There are a good range of problems, usually they are minor but occasionally they are quite serious (such as the inadvertent deletion of critical documents). Mistakes happen. Accidents happen. If I were to say I've never accidentally deleted an important file I would, of course, be lying.

I deal with computers day in day out, developing software, building websites, writing, keeping my accounts, building graphics, help with audio compositions, playing games, etc. I also mess about with the underlying hardware of these devices, upgrading, replacing and generally pushing them to their limits. I encounter more than my fair share of problems, as may be expected from this 'power user' usage pattern. Who do I go to when I have a problem? No one. There is no one further 'up the tree' of me. That's not to say I have no resources to draw upon to solve my conundrum. The primary source for my solutions is my basic innate intuition, my second port of call is the Internet (particularly the Usenet newsgroups).

So what makes me different from these others? Is it simply that I have no one else to ask for help? Yes, and no. I went to college for 2 years and university for another 4 but I learnt more by experimenting and reading old computer magazines than I ever did through formal education. In my time at college in particular I quickly raced ahead of the class in programming and literally was working from the lecturer's notes for classes that wouldn't take place for many days to come. I only had the lecturer to turn to when I had questions in those early days, as my colleagues were way behind. No doubt that and my prior experiences of teaching myself computing led to my self-reliance. That begins to explain me, a bit.

I find myself constantly amazed by these people who come to me for advice and help. Some are resolved to learning about computers and come to me as a last resort but most are not. Most appear to fear the computer or, at best, have convinced themselves that it is beyond their comprehension - so therefore it is. It is not that they couldn't understand the issues (I believe everyone is capable) just that they refuse to. This isn't a conscious refusal but the subconscious idea, routed deep, that it is too difficult. These tend to be the same people who might never attempt to set-up a timed record on their video recorder. It isn't just computers but technology in general, anything more complicated than a television (not that I haven't been asked to help set-up one or two of those!) is 'too complicated' for them.

It is worrying that there is this divide between those that are technology savvy and those that are not. As technology becomes more and more important in our every day lives it is true that technology is not getting easier to use, in fact quite the contrary. Software in particular is getting larger and more complex with each passing year; just compare the now ancient MS DOS to the latest MS Windows. DOS may have looked intimidating with its terse command line interface but the number of commands were actually quite small and easy to grasp compared to the bloated mixed metaphor that is the Windows desktop with its myriad of advanced features and at least three different ways to accomplish the same task. I suppose it is little wonder some people are so afraid of experimenting with computers, it is clear they are worried about 'doing damage' - they do not understand the metaphors and conventions. They do not understand the mindset of the designers. Despite this I believe computers are easy to understand if only people allow themselves to think in the appropriate way.

Confidence is the other problem. How many times have I been asked to help when the person already knew the answer but wanted reassurance that they were right? There also appears to be a real problem with knowledge retention. How many times have I answered the same question for the same person? Quite a few. I assume this retention problem is a symptom of the lack of general understanding of the 'problem space' (to use a nasty American phrase!). In other words the lack of understanding of the metaphors and conventions employed by the technology (e.g. the Desktop metaphor of modern operating system graphic environments such as Windows, the Macintosh and Linux). To put it another way - memory works by associating one idea with another and the mind subconsciously navigates these associative pathways. When a user of a piece of software does not understand the basic theory behind it they have nothing substantive to associate the otherwise disparate ideas (i.e. an activity becomes a list of actions rather than an extension and adaption of prior knowledge). Sometimes, however, the lack of recollection is no such thing; they are (in my by standing opinion) simply feigning memory loss to cover up their lack of confidence. Asking to be reminded of something is less irksome than seeking reassurance, perhaps.

So what can be done? Clearly nothing will ever be achieved by running around helping with minor problems, five minute fixes or thirty second training courses. An attitude change is required. Firstly, people must not be afraid to experiment, though being aware of the dangers. In truth it is difficult to do any real damage with modern computer operating systems so long as you heed the warning dialogs that pop up. That, of course, is another attitude change that needs to be drilled into people - read the warning messages! Often when someone tells me they had a problem they say a message came up on the screen but rarely do they appear to take any notice of it and certainly cannot tell me exactly what it said. As someone who develops software I can think of no software solution to this problem, I cannot force someone to read a warning message I have built into a program, I simply have to assume that the user accepts the dialogue between them and the computer is not one way. The other attitude change required is simple - read the manual, the help system and books on the software. Unfortunately few people appear willing to put this small effort in, which is a shame but ties back into the wilful ignorance I mentioned earlier, people just assume it to be too difficult.

Everyday the number of people with their own PC increases, mainly thanks to the lure that is the Internet but also so they can write their letters, play games and for their children's homework. This is a good thing and I cannot encourage it enough. There is nothing stopping any of them from becoming as proficient as myself, even writing their own computer software. Some seem to think of me as intelligent given my knowledge of computers, which is again down to their perceptions of difficulty, but it is not true! At best I am of average intelligence and there is nothing magical about anything I do! I challenge everyone to better me.

If people seriously expect computers to become easier to use as we have them perform more and more complicated and specific tasks they are going to be seriously disappointed. Get on the bandwagon now and ride with it because it will be more difficult to hop aboard later and being left behind may make for a very difficult existence in the future.