Living in 2012

May 5th, 2012

This is a unedited treatise on Technological Illiteracy. I cannot hope to solve any problems with such a work, but I did hope to layout the problem in a manner that is easy to discuss. Your thoughts on any of this are welcome in the comments.

Technology is a sticky problem that we as a culture, society, and people have to begin to come to terms with. And we have to start coming to terms now.

In our present day it can no longer be acceptable for people who use computers to be computer illiterate. If you’re job requires the use of a printer, you need to know how to troubleshoot common printer problems.

To me, this is common sense. If you are going to use a hammer, you need to know how to swing it. People shouldn’t operate heavy machinery without proper training. Handling of hazardous chemicals without proper procedures can even be illegal.*

Why does this not apply to technology? Why do we allow people to not understand a word processor? Why do we assume that only IT needs to know how to fix a paper jam? Why do we forgive people’s inability to cope with a situation simply because they are old or consider themselves tech illiterate.

Technology is a beast. It’s complicated. It’s constantly changing. It’s full of quirks. It’s inconsistent across applications, programs, and platforms.

People aren’t much better. People are complicated. We are bad at cause and effect. We are full of quirks. We hate change and learning new things. We’re bad at communicating the things that we know. We ignore helpful dialogs and diagrams.

So who is really at fault?

Do we blame technology or people?

A dichotomy like this is most certainly a trap.

Many of the issues we face today are the product of decades of bad technological design. The technological enthusiasts of the past have eagerly pushed the limits forward, unwittingly releasing technology to the general public years before perfecting it to a usable state.

Concepts such as file systems, a simple abstraction of a filing cabinet or a desk drawer, is unnecessarily complicated as soon as the “desktop” is introduced. Graphically, the desktop is the top of the document tree. But it’s not. The root of the tree is C: or perhaps /Volumes/Macintosh HD. Yet, you aren’t suppose to put files there either. You need to put your files in C:\Documents and Settings\(username)\Documents or if you’re on a Mac you could possibly shorthand it as ~/username/Documents. Though the full path would be /Volumes/Macintosh HD/Users/(username)/Documents.

The simple fact that \ and / are not standardized across platforms is almost inexcusable.

For people who never grew up with computers, I can completely understand the initial confusion, and perhaps hesitation which occurs when trying to help them figure out where they are saving their documents. (Let’s not forget the ‘wonderful’ way that Windows 7 and Mac OS X give side bars and drop downs in the save dialogs, which throws any semblance of hierarchy out the proverbial window.

But it’s not just “older folks” who have trouble with this. College students, who have grown up on computers their whole lives don’t seem to fully understand these concepts. I routinely have to help them hunt down missing files or projects, and they don’t have a clue where anything is.

(Granted, we run in a server environment, which is arguably a bit more complicated, but some students don’t seem to understand the difference between a folder on the computer and a share on the server.)

So we can clearly blame the technology. It’s too hard to use and poorly designed. If we fix the technology, then everything will be fixed, right?

If only we could eliminate the need for tech support so quickly.

Technology on it’s own is never a solution. Technology is always a tool, and while improving the tools will likely help, if people don’t learn to use the tools properly, we have gained nothing.

Yet technology training never seems to be a priority. I’ve heard stories from friends in IT that the users don’t even know how to operate the power button on their speakers.

The industry insists that technology is easy to learn, intuitive, yet at the merest hint of something being out of the ordinary, many users retreat in fear. A fear based on uncertainty and a misconception that things can easily be broken or destroyed.

It takes a long time to overcome a bad experience in the mind of a user. One failure can cause a lifetime of uncertainty or mistrust. It only takes one counter example can disprove a truth statement.

So what’s the solution?

The solution necessitates one thing: time travel.

Seriously though, the decades of technology we have invented and forced on the general public is going to be hard to overcome. The current state of technological growth does little to encourage hope that things will be easier to use and have less problems. (Though products like the iPad take giant leaps in the realm of user operability, yet it still lacks on many levels. The keyboard alone is riddled with easter eggs which, while potentially useful, typically remain unknown, and are inconsistent based off non-obvious criteria. [It makes perfect sense for many of us to have a “search” keyboard and a “url” keyboard, but does that help people who have never used a computer before?])

But while we have some control over these things, we have the most control over education. We have to encourage proper tech training. We have to put aside the acceptance of technological illiteracy. People who use tech daily need to learn the basics and stop being afraid of the things they don’t understand.

Rather than hand off computers to ITs to be fixed, IT needs to teach and show proper procedures to workers who are ready to learn. (Almost every time someone asks me for IT help they scoot aside as if I’m going to take over. About 95% of the time, I motion for them to take the wheel, and guide them over their shoulder. The few times I do take control, I do my best to speak every action I take out loud in hopes that they can pick up on my thought process and retain something for next time.**)

The biggest difference between me and and a client I’m helping with the computer is that I’m not afraid of destroying anything.

This is a problem that is never going to go away. It’s the nature of the beast. But we can’t continue in our current trajectory.

*I’m not 100% sure on the laws regarding hazardous chemicals, but I’ve worked in a few places where I’ve needed training for hazard labels and they usually take those things pretty seriously.

**It really depends on the problem I am helping with, but my goal is always to have the user do the actions.