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Kids can't use computers, and why it should worry you (coding2learn.org)
625 points by mikeevans on Aug 9, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 422 comments

The problem isn't that these people can't use computers. It's that they can't THINK. They do not understand what critical thinking is, or how it works. They do not know how to approach problems or explore solutions. They don't know how to do it with their computer... or their car, or their vacuuming robot, or their television, or their oven or their relationships or any thing in their life. They don't understand why the world is the way it is, they don't know how to figure it out, and they generally think that trying is a suckers game.

You mention that there are always 1 or 2 kids a year who have already picked up programming or know how to build a computer... I think I would live for them. I was one of those kids, and I would be so excited for them that I would bury them in whatever help they needed.

For the other kids, I'd put aside the computers for a bit. I'd teach them critical thinking, because it's really the only skill they need to learn (see the documentary "High School" by Wiseman for an excellent example of how reformulating every single class as being centered around critical thinking led a poor latino high schools students to accomplish the highest percentage of students to attain college degrees in the nation... while preserving their youthful exuberance for learning).

The problem isn't that these people can't use computers. It's that they can't THINK.

I find it's more specific than and not as serious as that. I got my first computer in 1982, first modem in 1985 (hence my username). I find that people who proudly state how not-technical they are actually purposely turn their brain off around computers. It's not that they can't think. They can and often do around non-technical things. But they automatically assume they're unable to fix anything computer-related so they don't even try. My wife is a perfect example of that. If I hear, "Printer is not working" again I think I'm going to throw it out the window. The latest time, she unplugged the printer USB cable to plug in her iPhone and then called me to fix the printer. If this was a "can't think" problem, she would belong in a group home. Instead it's a "won't think about technical things" problem.

I was one of those kids, and I would be so excited for them that I would bury them in whatever help they needed.

I was one of those kids too. Only my computer teacher was in his first year of teaching computers, having been drafted from the math program because "computers use math". He was completely just learning about computers. He would ask me, "Is that right, 300bps?" after almost everything he taught the class. He ended up just having me do special projects doing things like creating math games on the Apple ][e.

Hmmm, it's an interesting point. I think the reason people don't even try is because they recognize that they can't tell the difference between something that might take them 15 minutes of monkeying around to fix, and something that is beyond their competency. Worse, they are not sure that they won't make things when trying to fix the problem.

I'm sure it must be similar to the feeling I get when I'm working on a new code base that I'm not familiar with, and I need to make a modification in a function so that it calls another module correctly for some new functionality. But I can't tell if that change isn't going to break something somewhere else, so making that change becomes quite scary.

In the software development world, we handle this by creating suites of automatic tests that we can run after the change to make sure that what we just did doesn't break things. We also use config managent software so that we can back out any erroneous changes. These things aren't available to nontechnical users - they can't verify that they haven't broken anything, and if they have broken something, they may not be able to put things back the way they were. This pretty much guarantees that people won't experiment with their computer.

I think part of the problem is that with the advent of the Internet, no computer comes with proper documentation that you can read to learn what a system does and how it does it. DOS was probably the last OS that could be completely described in its paper manual. Now learning about a new system has to be done through Google, experimentation and thoroughly inadequate help systems where it's very difficult to find an answer if you don't know how to describe the problem.

linux is completely described by its source code.

It's only slightly less accurate to state that Windows is completely described by its binaries.

Both statements depend on your ability to devote time and appropriate expertise to discerning the documentation.

> linux is completely described by its source code.

I would say that linux is defined by the way its source code [in C] runs on machines [of various kinds]. It's also helpful to know some history, especially of unix, for context. And the communities of people that use linux. I think there's more to understanding linux, or even describing it, than the source code only.

I'm sure it must be similar to the feeling I get when I'm working on a new code base that I'm not familiar with

Haha - I know that feeling well. First moveup with a new code base is always the scariest. You're always fearing something like, "Oh crap, I had no idea what that module did and I accidentally disabled it."

I think you may have given me an insight that will make me more tolerant of my wife's refusal to attempt fixing technical things on her own. Thank you.

Some people are vehemently proud of their limited technical experience. You can't even convince them that they should learn more so that they can solve their own problems. It's a hopeless argument to have with one of these people.

They will only change their minds if they can convince themselves that it's important. Most people remain ignorant of the value of such skills. When there's cheap access to skilled labour to fix it for them then there's almost never going to be an opportunity for them to discover this value.

Then again the same is mostly true for a lot of other technologies we largely take for granted these days. Despite not knowing much about cars we use them all the time. Same with air conditioners, televisions, radios, etc.

My home air conditioner stopped working a couple of weeks ago. I turned it off and on, but that was about the extent of what I felt I could intelligently do. I called a technician, who spent 15 minutes or less in my basement diagnosing the problem and replacing a capacitor. He charged me $115 to replace a $17 capacitor.

I'm not complaining. I called him, I wrote the check, and I have a functioning air conditioner again. But it did make me wonder if I couldn't take a $115 class at the community college to learn air conditioner repair. (And I imagine I could get the capacitor for less than $17 too.)

What about the cost of the time you would put into the class? Surely that brings the total effective cost of the course to far more than $115, to acquire a skill you're unlikely to gain much from (unless you want to learn it for its own sake or become an AC tech).

If you pick up some general electronics and mechanical skills, that will go a long ways helping to understand what might be wrong with your car, or around the house.

Just last week I replaced the inducer fan on my natural-gas furnace, with no prior training other than watching a YouTube video. I was able to deduce that the inducer was the problem in the first place, because I wasn't afraid to take off the cover and carefully observe what the furnace was and wasn't doing. And understanding at a high level how furnaces worked in the first place.

Of course, to do that, I was able to draw upon decades of experience with all kinds of systems. My training started as a child by observing and helping my father in his workshop. Even so, just having some basic, basic skills and knowledge of debugging [1] can go a long ways to isolate what the problem is and then see if it is something you can fix yourself.

[1] http://www.debuggingrules.com/

If stuff doesn't break often enough, your skills might get a bit rusty.

I used to have to help my aunt with her computer. She eventually learned how to do a few things (create and edit documents; print), but it was like she had an absolute blind spot to anything I would say about how to do things.

Eventually I gave up and had my wife explain things to her. I swear she used the exact same words that I would have to explain some things, but my aunt understood her just fine and told her how much better she was at explaining. :|

Just mentioning this because it appears there are multiple factors at play, at least with some people. My aunt was a lawyer, by the way, so presumably she could think for herself logically on other topics.

Aside: I was also a kid who knew more than the programming teachers. And FWIW, I know a lot more about car maintenance than the author of the article, because (unlike him) I also apply my thinking skills to cars and just about everything else in my life. Seems like he shouldn't be throwing stones.

It's partly partly true though. People aren't used to think about `network of things`. They will try to fiddle with the first layer they perceive and they will loose faith and motivation. Here's how they end up looking 'not being able to think'.

But on the other hand, computers and programs aren't build to be understood or fully manipulated with ease. It's often an ad-hoc mess of bad stateful abstractions that break very easily if you don't do things in some arbitrary order.

I'm on Alan Kay side when he thinks that computers programs are far too large accretions that could and should be reduced through better infrastructure. (his recent work was on an entire fully OOP desktop system in ~100Kloc instead of 100Mloc). In my mind giving this to people could lead to a better understanding and less psychological knots.

> Only my computer teacher was in his first year of teaching computers, having been drafted from the math program because "computers use math". He was completely just learning about computers.

Same here. My senior year independent study in programming was converting all the C++ projects and notes to Java because the AP exam was switching over. I think the idea was that the next year instead of helping she could say "look at what it should look like" or "well, this version here works".

This is precisely the point Rebert Pirsig explores in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You should read it if you find this to be curious.

> The problem isn't that these people can't use computers. It's that they can't THINK.

How do you know?

I presume that you believe that you have critical thinking skills and wouldn't make similar mistakes in other areas of life, but what is your evidence?

You probably know how to use a computer, maybe even fix a car. But how can you know that you don't have similar blindspots when it comes to health, finance, relationships, education, things that are seemingly easy for some people but inexplicably hard for others?

It's too easy to scoff at people being dumb by judging their computer skills on a site called Hacker News. Imagine the analogue article and discussion on a a site called "Fitness News".

I respectfully disagree.

The fundamental idea here is that some people learn how to learn, and others need to always be taught.

Learning "huh, when I hit this switch my wifi turns on or off" is pretty simple. Some people need to be told, and even then it's just a rote mechanical process - no thought as to why, how, or even that the switch is connected to anything. It's all magic.

I wanted to learn to lift even though I've never stepped foot in a gym. I did my research and bought the right books. I went into a gym and did exactly what I set out to do.

I need to replace my windshield wipers. I look up the information for it - it's right next to the new blades in Walmart. Dead simple. I bet a lot of people go to Pepboys for that.

It's as if the scientific method never existed, life is magic, and knowledge can only be gained by truly extraordinary humans.

It's as if the scientific method never existed, life is magic, and knowledge can only be gained by truly extraordinary humans.

That's exactly the problem with this.

We get to support the idea that all humans are created equally and deserve the same rights and freedoms, or we get to have that mindset. It's a bad spot to be in.

There's no such dichotomy; the other choice is, supporting the idea that humans are not all created equally, but still consider they deserve the same rights and freedoms.

And I'd rather have a mass of idiots (which I don't think most people are) ruling than an elite of people who consider themselves superior to others. At least the former are less likely to successfully torment me for my own good.

"supporting the idea that humans are not all created equally, but still consider they deserve the same rights and freedoms."

So, er, why? If you acknowledge that people aren't equally capable and endowed, what sort of sense does it make to place the same legal requirements on them?

Why should I be required to see as far as somebody else when driving? Why should I be prevented from making API requests on a public system (when I know how to do so safely) when somebody less trained or malicious would bring on down time?

It's far better simply to say that either everyone has the same capabilities, or to say that they ought be afforded benefits and restrictions that match their talents and deficiencies. Doing neither is unfair nonsensical from a societal standpoint.

As for the mass of idiots, no. I'd rather have a ruling elite, because they presumably be reasoned with--or removed in favor of a better elite. A mass of morons weighs heavily upon us, especially in the disinformation age.

It's far better simply to say that either everyone has the same capabilities, or to say that they ought be afforded benefits and restrictions that match their talents and deficiencies. Doing neither is unfair nonsensical from a societal standpoint.

That's not necessarily against what I had in mind. Essentially, all should have the same rights a priori. But a right may be "apply for an unbiased, specific exam that proves they are able of performing X without harming others". Of course not everyone should be able to do everything anyone else has is able to do at each moment. But no one should be denied that possibility just because they had some alcohol in their blood-surrogate, nor should anyone be waved from the requirements. And the requirements shouldn't be bullshit designed to keep certain groups away.

I'd rather have a ruling elite, because they presumably be reasoned with

Sure they can. But in politics, reason is mostly a way of justifying one's preferences. You can't reason with core axioms or goals, just with what they entail and/or the way of reaching them.

or removed in favor of a better elite.

By whom?


In any case, don't take me too seriously. I'm far too ignorant and immature to have a real position. I'll argue for anarcho-capitalism today and for situationism tomorrow, without really having my mind set into any.

I think what he was trying to say is that when you've learned critical thinking as a skill you can apply it to anywhere. So, if he was on fitness news instead of saying "I'm not getting buff." He'd say, "Well, here's the work out plan based on X, Y, and Z, and I've been eating 4000 calories a day based on A, B, and C, and I've looked up this that and the other thing but I'm not having any luck still. Does anyone have any ideas or see where I've gone wrong?".

I would agree with the original poster that a lot of people simply do not have great critical thinking skills. And it's certainly a skill. It's something which can be extracted and used in any area of life. Of course some people can develop a skill set and be able to critically think about something in particular with out being able to apply that knowledge to other areas of life, but if you can develop that skill set for all areas of life you'll be far better off.

You are underestimating the power of knowledge. I've fixed computers for people who are much smarter then me and have a higher intelligence by every reasonable measure.

The reason I can fix computers is that I know about things like DHCP, "The Registry" and BIOS, systems that have very little to do with logic and are only understandable by using them for decades.

Well yes, but that intelligent person probably at least tried something like restarting, checking if another website would open if their internet seemed down, turning their wifi on and off, etc.

The DHCP, the registry, and bios certainly take a fair amount of time to learn about fully enough to understand and be able to work with.

Not figuring out the monitor isn't turned on on the other hand.

> I'd teach them critical thinking, because it's really the only skill they need to learn

Metacognition isn't really possible to teach. It doesn't really transfer. Everyone talks about how important it is that students "learn how to learn", but it's 99% bullshit which only refuses to die because people want it to be true.

Now, there are a few things which work. A few examples from memory (it's worth googling a bit though, as I may be wrong):

- Thinking of the brain as a "muscle", to encourage students to improve incrementally. (OK, this is new, and it's hard, but if you work on it you'll get much better with time).

- Plan, Do, Check, Act.

- Setting goals (maybe).

- Picking out a small number of key ideas for any topic (typically 3, in English speaking countries - we like 3, I think Chinese speakers like 4 but there's nothing magic, it's just a cultural preference).

But I'll reiterate - when people say "learn critical thinking", they often don't know exactly what they are talking about. Mostly, they mistake their own narrow expertise with "deep" thinking, when in reality their own "critical thinking" skills wouldn't get them very far in an army boot camp, or a chess club, or a debating team, or any other environment which they aren't already well adapted to.

When most people say "learn critical thinking", they mean "get really good at it, like I am, so you don't get all bogged down by trivial details".

There's a difference between can't and won't. This issue is the latter, as exemplified by the example where a kid was hitting OK so fast the actual error message couldn't be read.

As a professor, I was astounded at how many students failed just because they wouldn't do the work. A large fraction were certainly capable of doing so (some spectacularly capable), but just...didn't. Having and increasing a vast array of educational resources available wasn't the solution because they wouldn't take the first step, no matter how simple.

Related, relevant issue: I know people — in Silicon Valley! — who are proud of the fact that their elementary schools (private) have no computers, and avoid the subject entirely. Apparently they believe computing too early will change, for the worse, a child's brain. I suspect it would do the opposite: help their children be better critical thinkers than their parents obviously are.

You know, books change the way the mind works, too. That's bad. Better keep books out of the hands of children before their minds are warped.

There are possible good reasons for this - I wouldn't give elementary students calculators, because they won't learn their math; similarly, in an educational environment (that's not teaching computing), computers are often more distracting than useful - the CS department at the university where I did my undergrad banned computers in first year lectures (not labs), because the students were playing games and browsing the web instead of paying attention in class; I think they made the right decision.

Calculators are not computers, and no one who understands what a computer is would suggest that one would somehow prevent a student from learning. We're talking about basic computer skills here: mousing, menus, command line, and some introductory coding. Those aren't nice-to-haves; they're necessities for elementary school students.

the students were playing games and browsing the web instead of paying attention in class

Sure, understood, but that's a red herring here. I'm not suggesting we outfit a whole classroom of second graders with laptops so they can play Angry Birds. I'm suggesting that children need computer skills.

Fair, I agree - and I think that basic computer literacy should be taught in schools - my point was just that if the way to teach the children computer literacy is to give them laptops to use in every class (it's trendy these days), they'll find a way to play Angry Birds, and will learn neither computer literacy nor their other lessons.

For your first sentence, I would rather say that they DON'T want to think when it comes to computer/maths/etc.

"I don't like it, hence I'm not good at it." gives them an easy reason to avoid the problem.

I pretty much agree with you, but I think the point is that focusing on technical education and incentivizing that learning (like the WPA2 key hidden in a 10,000 line text file) can help build critical thinking skills.

If instead of putting the computers to the side, actually building positive learning experiences involving computers, the critical thinking will be a natural outgrowth of that, IMHO.

It's that they can't THINK. They do not understand what critical thinking is, or how it works. They do not know how to approach problems or explore solutions.


I get the feeling that the author was judging the person he was helping far more harshly than the perceived judgement she might have passed on him.

Maybe she was tired, clearly she was frustrated, but it wasn't obvious that she held the author in any disdain, though the author seemed to perceive it. What we're sure of is that the author held her in such low regard.

I wonder if she picked up on that. I suspect she did, and I suspect it contributes to the negative stereotypes that the author wanted to rail against by mentioning all this.

> ‘Do you know where the proxy settings are?’ I asked, hopefully.

> It took me about ten seconds to find and fill in the proxy settings.

Well for Christ's sake don't ask her something she almost surely doesn't know if it only took you ten seconds of looking. Look for ten seconds first.

The first rule of any educator is to never, under any circumstances, make someone feel inept. And it was so easily avoidable here.


Of course people can't use computers. They're not trying to use computers. They're trying to get X done. The computer is a device that, most of the time, just gets in the way of doing X.

Just the way that cars are a device that get from point A to point B. Few poeple get in a car to drive. They get in a car to locate themselves to point B.

In this case, the person can't use a computer because people like the author condescend a bit, fix the problem in ten seconds, and don't set them up to be just a bit wiser for next time.

The important part of the story is the part where the author explains that on some networks, you need to set extra settings so the office network can communicate with the outside world network. I hope the author explained what it took him ten seconds to do, so that she might be able to help herself next time. The omission (and disdain) leads me to suspect not, or at least that actually helping her was not an important part of the story.

The car analogy falls apart though, when you consider the complexity of the tasks that he's complaining about.

We would rightly laugh at anyone who complained that their car wouldn't 'turn on' when they jammed their key into the gap between the ignition and the steering column, or because the car was out of fuel. We'd laugh if they complained that they can't see at night because they didn't turn the lights on, and needed reminders every time they drove at night to find the light switch.

We'd laugh at someone who burned the car's engine and transmission up because they stomped on the gas pedal while the car was in park, because "when I press it the car usually goes forward but this time it didn't." Repeat, so on and so forth with every 'common' function in a car.

The problem is that people aren't learning about these basic functions that are required in day-to-day operation of a computer, like they do with a car. The wifi is a good example: Someone who owns a laptop should have a cursory familiarity with the wireless networking functionality and be able to find and connect to networks, because a laptop is made to be portable and will therefore be expected to use unfamiliar networks. Granted, the proxy settings are somewhat more forgivable as that's a non-standard setting, but it still doesn't excuse the person's total inability to find the network.

And the main point of the article stands as a rebuttal of the truism "Kids are better at computers", because they significantly aren't. They're only slightly less clueless than their parents.

The wifi is actually somewhat excusable, if they only ever connect to the internet at home or work and could have been years since those two networks were configured. Plenty of people never use internet on their laptop outside of two or three places.

However, it's pure lunacy on the part of the IT guy to expect people to know the specific proxy settings (including whether or not a proxy is needed), where to enter them, what sites exactly are being blocked, and how to diagnose where in the chain of powerpoint -> computer -> AP -> proxy -> internet your video is failing and how to fix it.

Going to cars, that's like expecting someone to be able to diagnose why an engine isn't starting when they turn the key in the ignition. Without any sonic or haptic clues.

He should have configured the DHCP server to send proxy settings to clients (option 252).

Because sonic and haptic clues are more useful than specific error messages explaining the problem? I guess so, since people just don't read them...

Well yes - even an amateur has a chance of realizing from said clues whether their battery is dead, or they're out of gas.

But for network issues, the error message you're going to get 19 times out of 20 is some minor variant of "Server could not be reached." Which offers no additional information that you don't already know from it failing to work.

"Server can't be reached" gives critical, actionable information. Error messages can be searched for! If you can't search for an error message, you can't use a computer.

Or you can't search for it because you can't reach the internet.

Anyway, if you can definitively figure out which of the following is true from that message without the use of additional diagnostic utilities, well... (yes I have personally seen all of these (except exactly 12 which I've seen variants of but worded it the same way as the article))

1. Your cable modem can't find a signal, because of weather conditions

2. Your cable modem can't find a signal, but can once it's rebooted

3. Your access point stopped working, and needs a power cycle

4. The AP failed to give your computer any of: an IP address, DNS, a gateway, a working gateway

5. Your computer thinks it's connected to a wireless network, but the AP isn't receiving packets it sends

6. Your computer thinks it's connected to a wireless network, has the correct gateway, and can ping the AP, but nothing else (despite other computers on the same network working fine)

7. Your AP randomly resets long-lived TCP streams (due to a bug in its firmware)

8. Your ISP reliably corrupts traffic from eBay, fixed by getting a different IP address and gateway from the ISP (by changing MAC addresses)

9. Your ISP has the wrong DNS entries for the site you're attempting to visit

10. You need to visit a specific, unadvertised intranet page and sign in before your connection works

11. You need to manually enter intranet proxy settings before your connection works

12. Your intranet proxy is blocking Youtube and the player you're using doesn't bundle a general-purpose web browser

13. Youtube videos buffer at 3 kb/s from your laptop, but work fine from your tablet, on the same network

(okay 12 and 13 are cheating a little since they don't give any error message, but the point is that the error messages are basically never enough on their own to diagnose network issues)

Again, you can search with mobile, or someone else's mobile, someone else's laptop, etc.

I appreciate your point regarding the multitude of possibilities for a server error, but remember what we're talking about. The user did not even attempt to read the error message, did not know what it said, and kept retrying thinking things would change. He didn't take some next step to try to diagnose potential connection problems (e.g. check for ethernet cable), he just threw his hands in the air, said it doesn't work, and ran to IT. He can't use computers.

Search for an error message when you can't use the network. Nice.

Mobile. Other people with mobile. Other computers. Nice. If you can't get a error message searched for, you can't use computers.

So our mistake is that computers don't make grindy noises when they are broke. More grindy noises engineers!

No, the problem is that complex systems fail in non-obvious ways. Even highly technical and computer savvy people still need to hit the reset button on a Windows PC or router, due to an un-diagnosable problem which then magically goes away. Computers are not intuitive without a large amount of experience to know how things 'should' work. This is a recognised phenomenon in safety critical systems such as those protecting nuclear plants - simple devices fail in known, predictable ways, complex devices fail in non-deterministic ways. This is why humans generally don't 'get' computers, and aren't willing to invest even minimal time in understanding them - there's no payoff until you've invested a huge amount of time to cover the majority of the problem space.

The only solution is higher quality in the development of software and hardware, and that's back on us.

The rebuttal to that is that people might be able to learn if software people didn't keep changing how it works. It's obvious on nearly every car since 1960 where the ignition is. Can you say the same for the Wi-Fi settings on computers?

Also, it's almost always been located in either the top right or bottom right of the screen (re. Windows/OSX here). If all of a sudden the new OSX version required a command line to connect, or changed the icon to something else, I'd understand. But to borrow from the car example, the ignition is unlikely to be located in the trunk.

Except on phones, where it's not (at least, you can't click on it even if there is an icon there). And I believe Windows doesn't necessarily show the icon unless WiFi is configured. And ignition switches all look the same, not so much for WiFi settings.

I recently bought a new car, and an amusing part of the test drive experience was figuring out how to start the damned things. Half the new cars these days have a smart key system with a plain power button on the dashboard, and it took me some fiddling to figure out exactly what other actions (pushing the brake, mainly) had to be taken to make that button actually work.

But you did, eventually, figure it out on your own and make it work. That's the whole point - 95% of people are pathologically unable to do that, when it comes to technology.

I just checked two Android devices (Nexus 10 and Xperia Z FWIW) and they both jump when you try to tap the WiFi icon, giving an indication of the pulldown menu behind it.

Honestly, I'm mostly with the author on this. Maybe it's a UK thing and maybe his experience of schools has made him particularly jaded, but I see a lot of functional tech illiterates. For example - I've recently had people not notice their laptop wasn't charging after being warned it had a dodgy power cable and reminded where the charge status icon was, then wonder went it suddenly turned off. Or complain that their browser was broken and installed a different browser because their home page had been changed, even though the available functionality was identical.

We need to make computers easier to discover, sure, but users need to take responsibility for their own machines not ask to be babied while assuming every IT person can bale them out.

Oh no, they have to click Settings -> Wireless? This is so complicated it's justifiable to critique the author on this point?

I included the bit about the keys/ignition not because it's in an odd place, but because it's a mistake I make fairly often due to carelessness. Most people blindly reach for the ignition and that's fine; most people also don't immediately quit when they miss the hole on their first try.

The counterpoint to this is that the folk understanding of computers is, when you consider it, often more compelling than the expert understanding.

The notion that all the computers somehow mysteriously talk to one another, or that if you can get WiFi you should be able to get to the whole internet, is not crazy. It is The Way Things Should Be! It's our job to rig up the equivalent of headlight switches for computers, so they work the way the folk expectation says. If your headlight switch required you to have a compatible dongle, which of course has exactly the same connector as 15 other types of dongle, and will only illuminate the left half of the road until you flip 50 other switches in the car, it would be crazy. That's what the computer world feels like a lot of the time.

It's definitely true that there is such a thing as digital literacy, that it is crucially important (although harder to get than it ought to be), and that many people mistakenly don't put in the effort to acquire it, for many reasons.

This guy sounds like he has a chip on his shoulder. As you pointed out:

>The first rule of any educator is to never, under any circumstances, make someone feel inept. And it was so easily avoidable here.

There are many sentences in this article indicating that this is not an isolated, unique reaction from the poster.

This paragraph especially irked me:

> I’ve messed up, as I’m sure many of you have. When we purchased an XBox it was Techno-Dad to the rescue. I happily played about with the mess of cables and then created profiles for everyone. When my son’s MacBook was infected with the FlashBack virus Techno-Dad to the rescue. I looked up some on-line guides and then hammered away in the terminal until I had eradicated that bad-boy. When we purchased a ‘Family Raspberry Pi’ Techno-Dad to the rescue. I hooked it all up, flashed an OS to the SD-card and then sat back proudly, wondering why nobody other than me wanted to use the blasted thing. All through their lives, I’ve done it for them. Set-up new hardware, installed new software and acted as in-house technician whenever things went wrong. As a result, I have a family of digital illiterates.

Well, maybe it shouldn't have been "techno dad to the rescue", but rather "dad spending a moment with his kids showing them how to setup a raspberry pi/their xbox/etc.". And if the kids aren't even interested in setting up their own XBox, well then that's their prerogative. Give a man a fish, etc.

Addendum: when I was a pre-teen/teen, I spent all my free time learning about computers, reading programming books, etc. There was another kid just like me whom I hung out with, but it was just the two of us in our entire school. Nowadays, when I teach I meet kids who know python/html/php, fiddle with minecraft mods, jailbreak their android tablet so they can run a GBA emulator, etc. all the time. So I couldn't disagree more with OP's title. Having heavily worked with educators/as an educator has led me to believe that when someone complains that "kids can't X", it's more often than not their own shortcomings than the "kids'".

> Well, maybe it shouldn't have been "techno dad to the rescue", but rather "dad spending a moment with his kids showing them how to setup a raspberry pi/their xbox/etc.". And if the kids aren't even interested in setting up their own XBox, well then that's their prerogative. Give a man a fish, etc.


That is exactly what the paragraph you quoted means. The author regrets just doing it, and wishes he would have taken the time to show his family how to set things up.

I'm really confused by this comment of yours.

To further this line of thought though...

They won't always be living with "techno-dad", so it behooves them at some point to get some of that knowledge. The onus is eventually on someone to want to figure this out. To bring up a scenario from the article, I know I wanted to play Super Nintendo, so when I got one, I made damn well sure I know how to hook it up & operate it in case something went wrong. If my job relies on being connected to the Internet and editing proxy settings, it's even more important that I know the ins & outs of that...

At some point, it is clear that people don't want to learn, whether they think it is beneath them, outside of their expertise, too hard, or, in this case, they know they'll always have someone else to do it for them.

Just like I don't need to be a certified mechanic to change my own oil or a headlight, you don't need a degree in CS, CE or IS to figure out how to remove preinstalled bloatware from the computer you just bought at Best Buy or to understand that a suspicious link in an email from an unknown sender shouldn't be clicked. In any case, the answer is always a web search away...

There's nothing wrong with saving your brain power for something you like, but I think there is a knowledge divide around computers & the Internet that leads to people getting scammed out of money because people refuse to learn the basics. Or maybe they never get the opportunity to learn, I don't know. They still teach kids how to write checks in school, why not teach them about this sort of thing too?

That was my point when I said I've messed up. From now on I intend to spend more time teaching them rather than doing it for them.

Believe me, I never intentionally make people feel inept. I'm patient in the classroom, and teach to the ability of my students.

On the other hand, when I was a kid whenever I broke something on the computer it was my responsibility to fix it. My parents told me I broke it, so I'm able to fix it. So this particular paragraph really actually resonated with me, because if it weren't for my parents going "Well, you broke it, if you don't fix it it's going to stay broken." I probably wouldn't be nearly as computer savvy as I am today, and I probably wouldn't have gotten into programming (ok, maybe I would have, but certainly not as young as I did)

I got to play games because I learned the magic of memmaker.exe, autoexec.bat, config.sys, and boot disks. And I was motivated to learn how to fix things back when they broke because I shared a PC with my dad, who used it for consulting work--and who did not take kindly to service outages.

Hi. Are you me? :)

That's exactly how I learned this stuff. The damn game wouldn't play, so I had to make a boot disk.

Then I learned to make a bootdisk with a menu system called from the autoexec.bat - cos I realized that several games had the same emm386 requirements. And now I program things.

Ahh good times... good times.

I get this, and it makes sense. But the combination of network connectivity and expensive closed-box devices means I'm not sure how to implement it.

The computer I grew up with was isolated. If I broke it, I had a broken computer. I could take my time fixing it. Nowadays, a computer is connected... to the other computers in the house, and the entire internet beyond. If my kid breaks his computer, he might get in all kinds of trouble. I can't let him play around and fix it if it breaks, for the same reasons I don't let him play around with something plugged in to the mains electricity as a way of learning about electronics.

I'm also not going to let him wire up the x-box, because I know that a busted HDMI connector that broke because I was letting my kid plug the thing in is unlikely to be covered y the warranty.

Oh man this is so bad, you're worried about a HDMI connector but not worried about your kids illiteracy?

"If you think the cost of education is high, try the cost of ignorance, it is even higher!" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQENHCkiMBU

For the computer thing, that's pretty much exactly why Raspberry Pi was created, so there was a cheap open (relatively) computer that kids could play around with, and even if they somehow manage to break it, it's only like $30.

As for the XBox, couldn't you just supervise while your kid hooked it up? Hand him/her the parts, tell him/her to go to it and you'll answer questions and keep an eye on things so he/she doesn't break anything but otherwise leave him/her to figure it out.

maybe it shouldn't have been "techno dad to the rescue", but rather "dad spending a moment with his kids showing them how to setup a raspberry pi/their xbox/etc.".

More than this, I think that in part it's necessary to allow the kids to try and fail before assisting them. I'm not sure that showing and explaining to them how to perform a task from start to finish is much more effective than solving the problem behind a closed door, at least in terms of retention. What's really effective is if they can make an attempt to solve the issue, and then get the solution. Unfortunately, my experience is that not very many parents take this approach, because it includes failure as part of the learning process--and not many parents like to watch their kids fail. I've even seen some parents condemned for telling their kids to go and try it themselves before they provide help--some parents regard this as some kind of neglect.

The goal is to have the kid get 90% of the way there (or however close they're capable) before closing the gap and assisting them with the remaining 10% that they aren't able to get on their own. Part of the issue is that in the eye of the learner (and an observer) is that 0% of the way there and 90% of the way there feel the same. Both of them amount to "I can't do it and had to ask for help." But if you've gotten 90% of the way to a solution yourself, it's much easier to understand when the final (and hardest) 10% is demonstrated for you, and odds are you'll retain at least part of that. Whereas if 100% of the task is done for you, you'll frequently retain none of the solution, even if the solution is accompanied by a lengthy explanation.

In school, I found that I learned most effectively when I attempted the assigned homework before the related material was covered in class. I tried, I failed at a lot of things, and when the lecture came up, I knew what information to look for and what questions to ask. Failure is a critical part of the learning process--it's unfortunate that many people try to avoid failure rather than embrace it.

You say that kids who know how to jailbreak their tablet and run a GBA emulator understand computers?

It's usually just people downloading mystery software (could be malware but oh well) onto their computer which promises to have a button that says "jailbreak" and then they jailbreak their device with it not knowing what goes on and then use a magical 'jailbreak app' (cydia, etc) on their device which in turn gives them magical 'free' software and GBA emulators.

So they can Google for what they want and follow simple instructions to get the computer to do what they want? Great, that's probably enough not to have to ask somebody for help with almost any computer problem/thing you want the computer to do. Using computers will always be an exercise in sensible and appropriate abstraction, in this case I doubt they need to know how jailbreaking actually works.

Except that's more like a Harry-Potter way of doing things, where if someone tells you the right incantation you can perform the magic, but there's no way you're going to fix things if it doesn't work and no chance of understanding what's going on in order to do anything new.

Yet his description is precisely how I became someone with over 10 years professional IT experience and 6 years over that as a developer.

My 386 era machine at the time was without internet. My first experience was through AOL and Netcom in the early 90's. I mostly got lucky when things broke as I would fix one thing and break another horribly.

Slowly over time I began offloading large chunks of brain power to the internet as Google and others started really upping their game. Now, as a developer I don't keep syntax idiosyncrasies between languages in my head, I search. I don't keep esoteric error messages from Microsoft Office in my head, again I search. The proper use of Google has practically paid my salary for the last 16+ years. Once Stack Overflow came on the scene, my developer skillset took a quantum leap and I suspect a lot of people could agree with that statement. Now, I can say with certainty a significant portion of my computer literacy comes from my ability to use Google effectively.

I'm completely convinced that teaching proper search techniques to just an intermediate level would bring a lot of people close to being at least "literate enough." I expect everyone to be able to solve any user software problem they have but that should extend to the OS as well. Hardware problems aren't that much harder to solve but they generally require more practical knowledge, like how a specific peripheral behaves under normal working conditions. That can easily be taught as well but I expect only people that care to not pay ridiculously high prices for repair would care to venture into this territory.

Regardless, this is a long way of saying this isn't a Harry-Potter way of doing things for most people. It might seem like magic at first to a vast majority even, but over time that will turn into confidence and skill to solve genres of problems, not just specifics.

| Well, maybe it shouldn't have been "techno dad to the rescue", but rather "dad spending a moment with his kids showing them how to setup a raspberry pi/their xbox/etc.".

Tell that to my brother - every single time I try to explain as carefully as possible, going step by step, making him repeat the steps to make sure he knows how to do it. Aaand two weeks later he's got the same problem and is calling me to fix it... Some people just don't want to understand...

I get the feeling that the author was judging the person he was helping far more harshly than the perceived judgement she might have passed on him.

There are certain professions that get brought problems constantly by people who think nothing of having you work for them for free.

Doctors get this constantly at parties, at the grocery store, functions for their kids, etc. "Does this look like anything to you?" To a much lesser extent, IT people get similar requests from people.

I have been brought at least a dozen computers in the last year with desperate pleas of, "I have x years of pictures on this computer and it won't turn on!" Take a look and half the time they have a virus the other half their hard drive is dead. My profession is in corporate IT but they just know I "work with computers". So they trudge right over, notebook in hand asking me to recover their data. I've spent as long as 7 hours and as much as $50 for these data recovery jobs on things like circuit cooler and replacement hard drive circuit boards.

The more appreciative always offer to pay. But I always decline because then I'm responsible for anything that doesn't work on that computer for the next 10 years. "You re-installed Windows nine years ago and last week my Caps Lock key broke, WHAT DID YOU DO?" The nicer ones end up buying me a case of beer then. So then I end up working hours on behalf of an aquaintances for beer instead of providing for my family at my typical $150 hourly rate.

Ignorance is your right so long as you don't ask other people to clean up after you for free.

>So they trudge right over, notebook in hand asking me to recover their data.

I got this in spades at my last job.

We were a web app startup, and the youngest people in a 13 story building. Everyone in the building knew we did something with computers, so they would never hesitate in bringing us their ancient machines and ask us to fix it, ask us to fix their network, in one case, ask us to do their daughter's final project for her intro to C++ class.

People really do just assume that everything to do with computers is directly related, and that they can ask anyone to fix it for free because "it'll only take a second".

I definitely got the feeling that the author had a bit of a chip on their shoulder, but I got through it and loved this article, because I have that same chip on my shoulder.

edit: One cool thing about those old people asking us to fix their shit, was that I got to see an authentic modem from 1999. They wouldn't upgrade because they didn't want to have to change their email addresses.

> I got to see an authentic modem from 1999

Get off my lawn.

You know ebay has them if you wanted to see them before, they're not museum pieces yet. Also, they do still have their uses.

Kids these days ...

Seriously... this was my first modem from 1985.


Every time I see you username I remember, fondly, watching text scroll across the screen and how utterly fascinating it was that it was coming over a phone line.

Reminds me of a particular segment in the documentary BBS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=JnS...

So fascinating that I wrote a program in MS Basic (on CP/M) to emulate that.

> People really do just assume that everything to do with computers is directly related, and that they can ask anyone to fix it for free because "it'll only take a second".

I totally get your point, but to be honest they're not completely wrong about that most of the time: Even if you're usually working in an entirely different area, you probably still have more general knowledge on computing than most people. This will often be enough for everday problems. I like the "You work with computers, lease fix mine" requests as little as you do, but in reality we are able to help most of the time.

I think you missed the point or my impression after reading the article is different.

I genuinely feel that the author frustration comes from the fact that people assume instead of "RTFM".

Each device comes with manual, whether paper or CD. Its just that average user does not read it. Your manual will tell you there is hardware on/of switch of wireless on the side of your laptop. Had she read that, she wouldn't have come and ask. ITs irrelevant how few seconds it will take him to "fix it"; get that same question hundred times a day and you will be frustrated. Many times non-tech users assumption "its broken" comes from basic lack of knowledge, which device manual will explain. "my laptop doesnt work! see i try to turn it on, nothing!". Manual, page 2: "insert battery and plug your computer to power plug to charge it". - "did you do that?" -"Well, no...".

The analogy with the car is a good one. When you purchase a vehicle it comes with couple hundreds of pages of manual. Imagine impression on mechanic's face, or his opinion about average driver if people would be coming to his shop all the time saying "man, my car is broken!", when the "change oil" light is on. OP didnt want her to deassemble her laptop and replace network card on it. He just want he to RTFM.

Average computer user nowadays lost patient and don't want to learn or find out anything out of ordinary. And that's why, I think, OP is rightfully so frustrated.

Here is something interesting regarding the mind-state of some 'techno-geeks'. If you ask a question, you will likely get the reply 'RTFM' or some similar sounding poem. If you make a statement that is very likely to be incorrect, a lot of people who originally said 'RTFM' will now give you detailed explanations on why you are wrong. You are expected to auto-learn, but that is mostly forgotten when you feign arrogance.

I find this to be a profound dichotomy. It gets even more profound when someone makes a statement, then said statement is misunderstood by some 'techno-geeks' due to poor natural language skills. A load of 'geeks' reply to this statement taken out of context, explaining the poster's apparent ignorance of technology.

The best reply to this: 'LSFE'

A lot of people have a chip on their shoulder. Even mechanics that do get paid for their work. They see the world as full of idiots that can't figure out how to fix cars, when they've been doing it for fifteen years daily. Some of them do think they're smarter than everyone else. That's why we live in a world where everyone thinks they're much smarter than average.

I use to experience this heavily. I've resorted to self-deprecating humor to tell them to buzz off without them feeling too insulted.

"Oh wow, [Windows|OSX]? I don't know how this stuff works, I only work with little computers!"

With my parents I feel less obliged to be polite so I generally just say something about not bothering a mechanical engineer with your car problems. The idea there is to emphasize that despite a degree in something they think is plainly related to installing printer drivers in windows XP, that is not actually something that I am trained in.

My version of this is "sorry, I'm a server side guy, normal people computers hate me too".

I detect a lot of resentment in your post that could all be avoided by just saying "No, sorry, I can't fix your computer."

I detect a lot of resentment in your post that could all be avoided by just saying "No, sorry, I can't fix your computer."

So I should lie to them? Because that's what I would be doing. The truth is that I can fix their computer. To make that a truthful statement it would have to be, "No, sorry, I won't fix your computer." Has a bit of a different ring to it, doesn't it?

You can tell them whatever you want. The point is that you're saying, "No".

I don't have time to be fixing friends and acquaintances computers and I have no qualms about telling them that. I've never had anyone give me a hard time about it. A lot of people assume that because you are knowledgeable that you may want to fix it, a point of view which is only reinforced when you gladly take their broken computer and return it to them repaired without putting up a fuss about it.

I would say "yeah, I could probably fix it, but it'll take me at least a few hours and even then it's not certain. You're better off taking it somewhere professionally where they can properly backup your data and be held accountable. These are the guys I'd recommend."

No offense, but it sounds more like you want to fix it. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course, it's your prerogative.


By agreeing to fix their problem, you are now held liable at least in their mind. You are that "professional that can safely backup their data..." or whatever else they think you are. Surely if you can handle a big corp IT department you can take all that proprietary software home (piracy) and solve their problem?

Now that I've left IT directly into software development, I get to play the "Hey I'm just as illiterate as you!" card which is at least partially true. I don't have expensive software or even take proper backups of my extremely important data I wouldn't store in the cloud. Would you want someone like me touching your computer? You shouldn't.

I've done everything I can to be unavailable. It's a choice and one I proudly make. I just don't have the free time for charity any more no matter who you are to me unless I'm actively seeking some form of community service.

I always say since they basically want me to work for them I need to charge them like any other client. Since computer support is not my forte it would probably cost a lot.

"I don't have the time."

I usually say that my rates for work are $X/hr, where $X is my freelance cost. Then I recommend finding a professional repair shop.

I have a sweatshirt that says "No, I will not fix your computer." It gets many laughs, and the best part is that it works!

Yeah. In college I refused to help anyone except my closest friends and basically swore them to secrecy if I did help them. Otherwise everyone who downloaded some virus from directconnect or kazaa would stop by to get help as if I have nothing better to do than wander over to their dorm room to do battle with their bad decisions.

On the other hand I did teach my mom to fish. She is even comfortable making changes in her linksys router, although she does usually call to check with me first. Making her self sufficient was great and now she asks me why everyone wants her help...

  The computer is a device that, most of the time, just gets in the way of doing X.
I responded to this in somewhat more detail down below, but I'll be really blunt here: Their own fucking unwillingness to seek out knowledge and have the patience to learn to solve problems is what gets in the way of getting things done.

And every IT person with bad manners or an unwillingness to teach whatever they know and answer questions is complicit in this farce.

You've hit on what I think the core problem is: since forever (as far as I know) computers have been regarded as "magical and incomprehensible" - that is, non-technical people think they will never be able to understand what you just did with the proxy settings. So even if you show them and explain what you did, they never even consider that they could use that knowledge again in the future.

I think this is a failure of education. As the author points out, learning MS Office shouldn't be the first step, learning the principles of technical problem solving should be. That most computers operate the same way regardless of what they look like, and that you can draw inferences about what's wrong, and where to make changes. It seems like drilling in 'try a few things and then google for it' (as we all do) would help a lot.

Certainly unwillingness to teach can be a problem, but I think often it's born from the experience of solving the same problem for the same person many times over, and seeing their unwillingness to learn. </huge_generalization>

So true. In fact, I get really angry at people that use jquery to write applications if they don't know it inside and out. In fact, I don't even use libraries or even functions when I code unless I know exactly how they work.

I don't think the philosophy of "I need to know what X does before I use it" is extrapolatable. With jQuery, your frustration is mildly justified, in my perspective, as jQuery is in constant development, has bugs and breaks stuff.

But consider the number of times you've used systems and libraries that you do not understand beyond the subset of its API that interests you. I do not understand the details of my computer's microprocessor's architecture, yet through several layers of abstraction it is a useful tool for me to get my job done.

There are other systems, too, like processed food. Traffic control. The power grid. The military-industrial complex. Whole industries have their internal workings abstracted out but for the tiny intersection between them and our individual lives.

Sometimes the guy who's using the jQuery library is, say, running a startup that has other, more pressing priorities, and has no time to learn anything beyond .ajax() and .append() .

So while your specific example makes sense, I don't think the point you are trying to get across is extrapolatable beyond it.

The main point I believe he was making is that the lack of clockwork curiosity for innards is responsible for ignorance and general impatience in computing skills of the general populace.

That seems like an arbitrarily high standard for using a library. If someone wants to use jQuery so that they can use $() instead of document.getElement() is that really so bad? Libraries as a level of abstraction so that the user only has to know what a function _does_ not necessarily _how_ it does it.

Just like their fucking unwillingness to learn how to fix a car that won't start is what gets in the way of them getting to work? Oh yeah, it was easy, the clutch pedal switch failed, duh, that's a $5 part and 10 minutes to replace. What do you mean, you missed a day of work for that, you fucking idiot?

There is quite a difference between fixing a car and fixing computers.

In your example, you need to fix a specific broken mechanical part, which takes time and resources to fix if it was designed to be fixed at all by a home user. In my example, the information is freely available, costs nothing to duplicate or implement, and is simply a small investment of time--which will pay huge dividends if made.

Most computers even come with all the tools needed to fix them, something which cannot be said for cars. It just takes patience.

You're kidding if you think those are even of remotely comparable level of difficulty. I've fixed many small electronic or mechanical devices by just opening them up and looking at them.

It's a lack of critical thinking and problem solving ability, that's all.

> It's a lack of critical thinking and problem solving ability, that's all.

Exactly these abilities that most people do not have. And those who do are usually called "engineers", "programmers", "doctors" etc.

I've fixed car problems in the past, and I don't even own a car. The difference is that my first instinct is to take out the manual and try to debug the issue using it, instead of throwing my hand up and immediately calling for help.

I don't exactly agree with your sentiment, but picking on that statement is right.

  The computer is a device that, most of the time, just gets in the way of doing X.
But the OP of the quote misses a qualifier: the person is trying to do X on a computer! They can use paper and markers/crayons/pencil + xerox machine, not like PowerPoint is the only option.

>> The first rule of any educator is to never, under any circumstances, make someone feel inept. And it was so easily avoidable here.

In none of these instances did anyone attempt to seek out knowledge. They were looking for a solution. If they had said "how do I [get on the network|reinstall the OS|rip this file off YouTube]?" then it would be a lot easier for me to dismiss him as a curmudgeonly holier-than-thou IT guy.

I know plenty of people (and I even like some of them as people) who intentionally do not learn to do things on the computer because then they can't ask me to do it for them. When I like these people I make a subversive effort to teach them anyways, otherwise I just get it done for them to get them away from me, feelings be damned. Actual computer literacy (not MS Office literacy) is actually a necessary skill today in almost every office job. Knowing how to program? Probably not. Knowing how to connect to a network? Probably.

Finally, it is so damned easy now to google something, that much of the described behavior is inexcusable. Oh, but your problem is connecting to the internet? It sure would be helpful if you had a small computer in your pocket that could independently connect to the internet over some infrastructure that wasn't dependent on your local network, bummer. </rant>

But seriously we should actually be concerned about this and I hope that education does get better on this. I do fear that interfaces are almost too rich, meaning that it takes a concerted effort to "really" use a computer, unlike in even the recent past where you were forced to. Many people who were accidentally exposed to the more in depth aspect of computing and found it interesting would not have sought it out on their own, meaning that as a community we are losing out on that category of people going forward.

> In none of these instances did anyone attempt to seek out knowledge. They were looking for a solution. If they had said "how do I [get on the network|reinstall the OS|rip this file off YouTube]?" then it would be a lot easier for me to dismiss him as a curmudgeonly holier-than-thou IT guy.

Still inexcusable, especially as an educator. Here's what I would of done:

"Oh you can't connect to the internet? Watch this. See the little icon at the top that looks like ripples going up? This one? That's the hub for any wireless networking connection - just click it and pick an option. Each of those options is a network to connect to. The ones with little locks next to them means you need a password to connect. If you're ever having internet problems on your laptop, just check this icon out and see if you're connected." Then fix the situation for them. You still offered a solution, and they'll probably never come to you for help with that again - and whenever they hear a friend, they'll repeat it. It's really not complicated to explain AND fix the problem at the same time.

Almost nobody wants to listen to your lecture. They certainly aren't going to repeat it to others! They want you to do it for them, because it is beneath them.

I couldn't disagree more. It's not beneath anybody, and people ask for help all the time - some things that seem daunting or difficult are actually easy and vice versa. You prescribe too much to others' personalities without actually knowing them, and think they do the same to you.

What if I told you that you were wrong in doing so?

I would ask if you had ever worked in IT.

There is a reason such jobs turn people into curmudgeons. It's not like they all started that way. You attempt to give a simple explanation as to what you're doing, but as soon as you say anything about their computer, they assume it's technical and tune out.

There are definitely people that would come into the office and learn how you fixed things, and those people were wonderful. Few and far between, though.

I envy you. I know exactly one "non-geek" person who would really listen to that kind of explanation. Everyone else I've helped was happy that I fixed the issue, but couldn't care less about why it broke or how to fix it.

The people I like enough to try to help tend to be people who like me enough to at least give it a go (and put up with me :). Example: my girlfriend who has never been interested in tech has actually become other people's go-to person for all things troubleshooting. After a while she just saw how the google and RTFM combo worked and she started doing that instead of asking me. Now she only asks me if there's something totally hosed.

I believe you're just reading the surface message here. When I read the article, what I felt was "man, he's really railing against a general decline in curiosity". To paraphrase Marvin of HHGttG fame, our computers may lament so -- here I am, a GENERAL PURPOSE COMPUTER in your pocket, and all you ask me to do is to tell your friends what you had for lunch?

Sadly, I've been part of this decline in curiosity as well. My son, when he was 4 years old, reminded me of that unadulterated fascination. (translated)

    son: "Look, dad!" 
    me: (looking up) "What?"
    son: "Tree!"
... and I humbly thanked him for the lesson of missing a magnificent glorious tree right there in front of my eyes. Its a tree! It made itself mostly from the contents of air by trapping energy from the sun! How cool is that!

All that said, the above anecdote is promising too. If only, we'd nurture our kids curiosity without providing canned solutions for them all the time, as the OP says.

Again, different people are curious about different things. Some are curious about the workings of things around them, some about their origins/history, some about people, some about societies, some about how people think, some about plants and animals and life, some about the planet and the stars ... and some about stuff that they think has-nothing-to-do-whateosver-with-anything-but-in-the-end-hell-it-does (hint - math).

Perhaps we're in an era where polymaths are rare, but curiosity, though heavily fragmented, does live on.

edit: area->era

I thought the author made a bunch of assumptions about her, too. Things like:

    She handed me her MacBook silently and the look on her
    face said it all. *Fix my computer geek, and hurry up 
    about it.*
That's quite a leap from merely the look on her face that you saw for all of 2 seconds before taking her laptop.

    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.
Hooooly cow, that's quite a lot of bitterness. I'm surprised this was written for a website called "coding 2 learn" and not "people, who should never be in a position to teach, talk about why they hate others for no good reason."

    I’ve heard this sentence so many times now from students 
    and staff, that I have a stock reaction. Normally I pull 
    out my mobile phone and pretend to tap in a few numbers. 
    Holding the handset to my ear I say ‘Yes, give me the 
    office of the President of the United States… NO I WILL 
    NOT HOLD, this is an emergency… Hello, Mister President, 
    I’m afraid I have some bad news. I’ve just been informed 
    that The Internet is not working.’
It just keeps getting worse and worse. That's probably the most painfully unfunny thing I've ever heard. I feel sorry for the people at his school; they got the stereotypical "caustic geek who thinks he's so much better than the plebes who don't know computers" as their network support.

He treats everyone who approaches him for help like shit and then wonders why no one knows about computers? Real head-scratcher there.

So what you are saying is that through some combination of luck and circumstance, you have never been treated like this?

Good for you. Now stop calling people who have been liars.

What I'm saying is that rarely anyone is treated like that, and the OP sounds like he was just reading all of his insecurities into everyone he was assisting.

But what do I know? It's not like there are loads of other people in this very thread saying the... same... Oh.

This is how I keep myself from being angry at regular people just trying to use computers. I have a car, I just want to use my car. I don't really care all that much how it works (thought to be honest, combustion engines are pretty cool!). I'm vehicularaly inept. I can drive, but I can't diagnose and I can't troubleshoot (though I can change a wheel). In my position, It's my hope that the vehicular technicians opposite from me assist me in continuing to use my car. In response for that kindness, I'll assist them in using their computer.

The difference here is that we're willing to pay those vehicular technicians a realistic amount of money for their expertise, and nobody expects a mechanic to fix your car for for free, even if it'll "only take a second".

I also have a healthy respect for their skills, and if my car breaks down, I'd be embarrassed about my ignorance and inability to fix or diagnose the problem (and I suspect most people would too).

> The difference here is that we're willing to pay those vehicular technicians a realistic amount of money for their expertise, and nobody expects a mechanic to fix your car for for free

Can't think of examples with mechanics specifically, but certainly I've seen people seek free help from doctors, nurses, lawyers, and other professionals who are in their social circles -- or just non-professionals with a reputation of knowledgability in those fields; there's nothing really unusual about computing in that regard.

> The difference here is that we're willing to pay those vehicular technicians a realistic amount of money for their expertise,

Looks like computer technicians get paid plenty well. According to at least one random google search, entry level SysAdmins make nearly $20k more than entry level auto mechanics.

Anecdotally, I don't know a single person in the IT field who isn't flooded with recruiter-spam. Meanwhile, the economy and unemployment rate remain huge political and news topics.

Sources: - http://www1.salary.com/Automotive-Mechanic-I-salary.html - http://swz.salary.com/SalaryWizard/Systems-Administrator-I-S...

Sorry your interactions have being so rough. I give tech support to my family for free, and people who are looking for a quick fix from me are often willing to pay for the privilege. I've heard stories like this quiet a bit though, but I don't think it is a universal attitude.

and I will grant you, the situations are not entirely symmetric.

Yeah - I never want to get paid to do tech support - I generally find it either so trivial it's not worth charging for, or so hair-pullingly frustrating that no reasonable amount of money would be enough.

It's because everyone says "time is money" but not one single person actually believes it. Mechanics make tangible shit happen, sometimes using new parts, etc. Software isn't tangible.

I prefer abstraction. I have someone else fix it and I concentrate on my own stuff.

I feel differently. While I am well-versed in computers and know nothing about cars, I feel that my attitude towards cars is different than that of many computer illiterates towards computers. I envy the knowledge of the mechanics. If some mechanic says to me "I can fix your car for $x, but I wanna educate you about the reason your car is in trouble in the first place", I'd be very interested, and not (just) for economic reasons!

I get your point and I usually try to gage the techincal level of the person I'm helping and how interested they are in learning new stuff and explain/fix accordingly, but the author still has a point, way too many people these days have no idea how to do anything on a computer and the situation only gets worse when parents try to tell the world that their kids are "tech natives" when in fact they know nothing more than how some socialnetwork's UI works.

For example I graduate couple years ago from basic computer science vocational institution where we learned how computer hardware works, how to install a new OS and basics of web developement (PHP & MySQL), but now all of my former class mates contact me for tech help through skype even though they should all be "IT literate", but it was just a degree with for most of them, something to waste couple years on to figure out what they wanted to do.

Now I'm studying a computer science engineering degree and easily 1/3 of my class mates have no idea how to code or even how to use basic HTML and CSS tags and we've been at it for 2 years now, sure they are passing "Java 101", but if you gave them a task to write a piece of software most would just raise their hand in air and state "I can't do that" without even giving it a go and I know this I've been trying to recruit new blood to tech club where we write simple apps for Android phones for fun, experience and credit.

Maybe she was tired, clearly she was frustrated, but it wasn't obvious that she held the author in any disdain

Are you kidding? She's a school teacher. Stress-free living at its best.

It's been a long time since I've read an essay by an IT person so proud of their lack of bedside manner.

Did you read the blog? He's a teacher first, and defacto admin second due to everyone else's laziness and ignorance. That takes a lot of patience.

Have you ever been a school teacher? Or was that sarcasm? I'm going to imagine there are quite a few school teachers who would not call their jobs stress free.

I'm not rhizome but I'm pretty positive that the "stress free living" comment is sarcasm.

It was sarcasm.

Here, Take mine: <sarcasm> </sarcasm>

  In this case, the person can't use a computer because people like the author condescend a bit, fix the problem in ten seconds, and don't set them up to be just a bit wiser for next time.
When I try to teach people how to fix their own problems, 90% of the time they don't care and "just want it fixed". 9% of the time they write down the instructions on a piece of paper that promptly gets lost, and the process of teaching them is considerably long than the quick fix. Perhaps 1% of the time they actually pay attention, get that spark in their eyes that shows they've learnt something new and interesting, and can demonstrate it back to me a week later. I con honestly commiserate with real teachers and lecturers now - if the ratios are anything like these it must be the most soul crushing job on the planet.

Ultimately, I've learnt that 99% of the time I'm better off fixing things quickly and moving on. I'm hoping I can instil (heh - I typed "install" first time around) curiosity in my children such that they can learn to help themselves, but my wife, parents, parents-in-law, brothers, and most of my friends are a lost cause by this point in their lives.

To extend your car analogy, I wonder if the author knows how to fix his own car? I certainly don't. I know it involves pistons and carburetors and...tubes.

If you read the article, you would know the answer.

"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."

And thats where it falls apart.

If he were more honest with himself he'd say something like 'I know I can go online or pick up a manual and figure anything about my car that I'd want to.'

Letting it remain a mystery is just perpetuating the ignorance people seem to cling to like a life raft.

Figuring things out is fun and you learn new skills.

There are an almost unlimited number of things to figure out in modern life. IMO, it's not reasonable to judge someone for selecting which ones are most important to them. The important thing is to know it is possible if you had to -- it's just persistence.

That said, if you wanted to pick one thing, computers probably have the lowest cost-to-benefit ratio of figuring stuff out, at least at the proxy-settings level of detail. I know how to change the oil in my car, but I can't do it much cheaper than the nine minute lube down the street, and it takes me four times as long.

Same - I'm not super car-literate, but I was able to refill wiper fluid before I went on a long trip, and if it came down to it I could change the tire (I at least know where the jack is, and roughly where it goes under the car). But I don't change my own oil, because I can't really do it cheaper than the shop.

>> I’ve owned a car for most of my adult life and they’re a mystery to me.

Right. But you bought a car to drive places, not because you like taking them apart or 'programming' them. You probably bought a computer for the latter.

I can't say that I can pop the hood of my car and instantly know what's wrong, but I can change oil, tiers, lamps and battery and add necessary liquids. I don't know if that's a lot, but I like to think I know something about cars.

Actually, if you keep the fluids changed and topped up, your car will likely not break. What kills most cars is simple neglect.

Or being build in America in the late '80s or early '90s, but that's how I learned to fix most things on a car.

This analogy is pretty spot on. I don't know how to get rid of viruses, etc. But when people ask me to, I know how to google the problem. My experience with cars is basically identical - I didn't know how to change the brakes on my car, but I knew how to look up instructions and follow them.

So much of "computer literacy" these days is typing things into google and following instructions. The fact that that is beyond so many people is frightening, honestly.

I would argue there's more to literacy than blindly following instructions.

In regards to computers, sure, it isn't difficult to follow some instructions. The worst that could happen? Maybe you mistype a flag and end up recursively deleting a directory. However at least most "damage" done on a computer rarely crosses into the physical realm -- anything lost or damaged can often be repaired or restored inside of a few minutes.

So, sure, much of "computer literacy" is simply following instructions that will _usually_ work -- but there's not much hanging in the balance if you mess up.

Working on cars though? I would urge strong caution against simply following instructions. Even a fairly "simple" procedure such as jumping your car's dead battery can end in _serious injury or death._ Many people don't realize that their $70 car battery, such an innocuous looking box, can provide in excess of several hundred amps when the current is demanded. Shorting a battery is a quick way to create such a demand. Such a short could result in burns, electrocution, explosions [discharging lead acid batteries give off hydrogen gas], and could even result in a bit of rather annoying spot-welding.

Working on certain suspension components can easily create enough force to maim or dismember innocent bystanders. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY56ib3I-ew) (Ditto goes for working on any system with significant amounts of sprung weight -- such as garage doors, another common DIY maintenance item...)

Working on your exhaust often requires knowledge of your vehicle's fueling and vapor recovery system. Lest you start welding while there are flammable vapors near the rear of the vehicle.

"Knowing that you don't know everything" is often a mark of a wise individual. A tutorial may omit some crucial bit of domain knowledge that is commonly taught in the field, but not common knowledge for the average individual.

I certainly agree that people should endeavor to broaden their knowledge and skills using the Internet; but Google is certainly not a substitute for an expert's knowledge, experience, and guidance. Without true literacy, in any field, you may quickly end up doing more harm than good.

I can follow instructions too but I wouldn't change the brakes on a car without supervision from someone who knows what they're doing. That's a safety-critical repair.

More or less this is the point of my reply -- cars are crossing into a threshold where life or death quite seriously hangs in the balance on some repairs.

It's not just the failure of the system itself I'm worried about though, the _process of making certain repairs_ could kill you in many fields, not just automobile repair.

Working on high-current electrical systems is dangerous, working with sprung weight can be dangerous, working with flammable vapors can be dangerous. Automobiles are one of the few examples, though, where you're _surrounded_ by many of these dangerous sub-systems while attempting a repair on something that's otherwise fairly harmless [brakes, changing a tire, checking fuel pressure, replacing a battery].

The interactions between such subsystems is where the danger lies -- and without the domain knowledge of an auto mechanic, you could easily be left unaware of the dangerous interactions between these subsystems.

The difference I see here is I don't think there's some sort of prevailing idea that young people all know how to fix their cars, like there is that they know how to use a computer.

I don't know about you, but in the lower class area where I grew up, every teenage boy was expected to know about engines and pistons and cam-shafts and gaskets and whatnot.

Not that they did, mind you. It was enough to know a few makes and models so you could say "Gee look at that bad ass Thunderbird with a hemi!" when something cool drove by. That, and everyone had to pick a side in the Ford/Chevy debate, with a few parroted opinions to back up your choice. Actual mechanical ability was something most people just pretended to have.

To be honest, it's not that different than with computers these days.

I see it as the opposite: there's no prevailing idea amongst mechanics that inexperienced drivers who rely on assistance to diagnose and fix simple engine faults are incapable of using the road

Knowing how to use a computer is a lot more integral to living in modern society than knowing how to use/debug a car, though. Especially in areas with good public transit, one can live life without knowing how to drive, much less fix a car. Computers, on the other hand, are quickly becoming our best windows into the world at large.

Knowing the technical difference between China's great firewall, the NSA's snooping, and the the UK's proposed porn filter is vital for people making decisions about them, as well as educated voters.

> negative stereotypes that the author wanted to rail against by mentioning all this.

> ‘Do you know where the proxy settings are?’ I asked, hopefully.

> Well for Christ's sake don't ask her something she almost surely doesn't know

Ehm, negative steretypes, ehm...

OTOH, if I've been summoned to fix something for you, and I introduce myself to you, you damn well better respond in a polite manner, not just hand me the offending object and glare at me silently. Manners go a long way.

Honestly though, I question his whole premise. As he quite rightly points out, he can't fix a car (or probably wire a light fitting, fix a drainage system, or install an air conditioner), and nor should he. These roles have all been specialised, which improves their efficiency by allowing more complex and specialised techniques and hardware to be used. Computer systems are no different, and it not obvious to me that they should be an exception to this trend.

> Of course people can't use computers. They're not trying to use computers. They're trying to get X done. The computer is a device that, most of the time, just gets in the way of doing X.

Far too many times, "Computer Nerds" think that using a computer == getting X done -- because X for them is satisfying some arcane ritual to get some computer usage accomplished.

I'm reminded of Nick Burns from SNL


Why is this guy so nice to people? Is he British?

thank you

I found that the author came across as extraordinarily condescending with the whole "let's get the president on the phone" thing. I'm sure that the woman he was dealing with understood full well that the "Internet" itself was probably fine and that it was her configuration that was the problem. Though I guess he took the holier-than-thou approach because she didn't use the precise terminology that he would have preferred, heaven forbid, which warranted him degrading in her a blog post.

Amusingly enough, I work in a web shop and I wouldn't think twice about asking a colleague, "Is the internet down?" and he would understand full well that I was referring to some issue between our office machines and our ISP.

The author wasn't even an IT bro--he was a stand-in whose real job was teaching.

This all said, would you expect that a doctor would have patience with somebody who insisted "My body hurts" without being willing to provide more detail?

Terminology matters, and those who think it does not are doomed to be taken advantage of by people with more nuanced ways of reasoning about the world.

I think the amount of snark that doctors get away with is pretty illustrative of the low social standing that people in technology have.

If you told a doctor "my body hurts" and refused to clarify, you would almost certainly get some sort of snark. Nobody thinks poorly of doctors because of this though, while people in technology are caricatured endlessly in popular media for it.

The most you see that being done for doctors in media is probably House who is a complete asshole junky with vague personality disorders... but he's right dammit! The popular depictions of people in technology almost without fail leave of the "but he's right" and instead go with "his dweebish mind missed the obvious: we just had to [shoot|kick|shove] the computer."

> If you told a doctor "my body hurts" and refused to clarify, you would almost certainly get some sort of snark.

Actually, no. Very few people tell doctors, "My body hurts!" It's more like... "My leg hurts," or, "My back hurts," etc. Which is just as unhelpful, but doctors never pull out their cellphone and call an imaginary President or give them any snark like that; you would lose a crazy amount of patients.

What doctors do is ask, "How does it hurt? When does it hurt? Is it constant? When did it start hurting?" When I ask someone, "When did this computer problem start happening?" they almost always give more information. I've never had someone refuse to clarify; sometimes, they just don't know.

If I said to a doctor "my chest hurts," I would expect them to say "Your entire chest, or just one point? Is a stabbing pain or more of an ache? Can you rate it on a scale of 1 to 10? Does it hurt more when I press on it?" and so on an so forth. In my experience, users are pretty good at answering those sorts of questions if you're willing to be patient and zero in.

I would not expect a doctor to say "Oh, your chest hurts, that's real helpful, buddy. What am I supposed to do with that? I need details!" Because that would make them an asshole.

I don't think comparing it to someone saying "my body hurts" is a good analogy. I think that it would be more appropriate to say that in the case, she knew her body hurt (computer). She knew what part of the body hurt (web browser, PowerPoint). She just didn't know how to identify the problem.

In this case, it would be comparable to your doctor asking you if it were your C3 or C4 vertebrae that was sore and you saying, "I don't know where that is." .. People with a good understanding of human anatomy know the answer; your average layperson probably does not.

Usually it's more like the old joke:

Guy walks into doctor's office, says his body hurts. Doc asks where it hurts, guy taps his forehead and says that that hurts. Doc asks if anywhere else hurts, guy taps knee and says that too hurts. Doc asks if there are any other symptoms, guy pokes at this other arm, says that that hurts.

Doc diagnoses guy with broken finger.

I can't think of any doctors I know who would respond to "My body hurts" with disdain, rather than "Can you tell me where, and what type of pain?". If you genuinely wanted to help someone, would the terminology really get in the way?

Right, but usually what ends up happening is that the user ends up repeating (in increasing frustration) that the computer is broken/the internet is down. Eventually, IT people learn to ignore user feedback because they don't know what they're doing--which increases speed of resolution but ultimately is a bad idea.

Consider how doctors react to patients that willfully refuse to give useful feedback--talk to any paramedic, for example.

In fact, IT workers are very much like paramedics: they sit around all day being bored except for bouts of panic brought on usually by failure to take preventative measures.

Luckily he didn't actually respond with disdain. I know many doctors who would have mental flashes of disdain, or perhaps, later vent on the idiocy of her clients.

This is exactly what I thought of when reading that post.

People here are passing judgement on the guy for writing the post, but in reality his point is 100% correct: People don't know how to use computers. It is way more important for us to have a generation of people that understand computers than it is for us to have a generation that understands how to repair a car. Computers bring along things like freedom of speech, digital currency, taxes, etc. Knowing how the internet works is paramount to supporting the proper policy decisions. The fundamental difference between well governed countries and the US with respect to internet legislation is the relative computer literacy of the people involved.

Beyond the political, much of our unemployment problem is less a problem of governance, and more a problem of a lack of appropriate skills. People want to raise the minimum wage, but that will not help the poor, what will help the poor is to make themselves more economically efficient. Being able to properly diagnose, design, and debug technology is a fundamental way for a country to stay competitive (read: first world).

Furthermore, the reason he (and I) are angry is that we grew up automatically freed since all of our programs ran with easily readable code (QBASIC). Kids these days don't have that opportunity. Fuck, they can't even RUN code they've written on their pocket computers without shelling out for a developers license.

> People don't know how to use computers.

Why should configuring a "county’s proxy server settings" be an essential skill?

Kids sure can run the code they wrote on their pocket computers. Write in JavaScript.

Kids know how to use computers, they know how to make them do what they need them to: browsing, email, some text-processing. Everything else, and I'm sorry to break it to you, it's the realm of technicians. The plumbers don't expect the average joe to know how to unblock an occluded pipe, do they? Expecting everyone to know how to configure advanced settings in a computer just because you know how to do it it's very condescending on your part.

Amusingly enough, in Russian there's an expression (with a certain nuance) "You have to know everything."

It's simple: life is vast, complicated, and you will be fucked in every possible direction you are ignorant of. You have to know everything. Cutting off a piece of reality and saying "that's for technicians" is for schmucks.

I heard a simmilar version "Specialization is for insects".

  A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an 
  invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, 
  write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a 
  bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, 
  cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new 
  problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty 
  meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization 
  is for insects.
(Lazarus Long, in Time Enough For Love, Robert A. Heinlein, 1973.)

Researching discussions of that quote, I was amazed at how many people think the sentiment is completely unattainable, and honestly view achieving just 2-3 of those points is a major achievement.

To the contrary, I do expect myself and others capable of doing anything (including learning how as needed). I do expect the average joe to know how to unblock an occluded pipe; I'll understand if said Joe chooses to hire someone else to do the job faster, cheaper, and as leverage to free up time for greater personal productivity...nonetheless, I expect Joe can if need be grab a monkey-wrench and a bucket and proceed to unblock that pipe somehow.

I'll admit I may not be able to do all of those things well, but dad gum I'll get 'em done. I'll also admit "comfort the dying" is by far the hardest.

I should look up the discussions for this quote, but I share your view -- such achievements are not _difficult_ or unattainable, they are a _necessity._

I pay for the convenience, productivity, and in some cases _safety_ of having someone else do certain jobs -- but I _always_ make it a point to understand _what exactly_ a professional is doing for me.

I've done all sorts of things in my two decades: I've replaced garage doors, high voltage lighting fixtures, electrical panels, theatre lighting, wheel bearings, strut towers, head gaskets, automobile brakes, ignition coils, automotive and marine batteries, flat tires. I've installed car radios, 120V 10+ Amp switches and outlets, appliances, cabinets, plumbing fixtures. I've assembled computers, shortwave radios, robots [out of legos, soon arduinos], model R/C planes, cars, etc.

I don't consider any of this _unattainable_ or even _extraordinary._ -- There are many things I hope I never have to do again, and there are many things that took me ages to do: but I'm still glad I did it, and I would _never_ put an upper bound on the number of things I _still need to obtain._

That is the key. I am not done, I will _never_ be done. I will go to the grave wishing I had accomplished more.

To say that two or three of these feats is a major achievement is laughable. _These achievements are what life is about._ Not the 8-hours I spend at my desk on a weekday, not the X-hours I spend watching television series, or reading fiction. Not the Y-dollars I spend or invest.

Life is about learning, creating, experiencing. Achieving two or three of the listed feats is no major achievement, it's the mark of a boring individual who cannot claim to _truly have lived._


I don't expect everyone to be an expert on every field of study -- but I cannot understand the lack of desire to know more. You commute every day, why _wouldn't you_ want to know more about your preferred mode of transport. (How it works, how to repair it, etc.) Even if that's _walking_, there's plenty you can learn about exercise, biology, etc.

You probably get sick several times a year: why wouldn't you want to learn about modern medicine? Hygiene? etc.

How can one turn on a radio and not be _amazed_ that the signal is being broadcast from 10s or 100s of miles away? (Even 1000s in the case of shortwave radio.) The same thought applies to using a cellphone, or a wireless internet connection.

Many of my peers grew up with dial-up -- how are you not amazed that we have speeds a hundred times faster _with no wires!?_ How can you be content with the poor broadband speeds in North America when these same people have _seen first-hand_ what happens when we increase our speeds by an order of magnitude?

tl;dr: I agree with you completely.

May I suggest you use fewer dashes and underscores? Just a tad too distracting for me.

An important point though is that Heinlein is not suggesting that you have to be a professional chef, or programmer who can write a twitter mockup in a day in Haskell, or an accountant who is able to recite chapter and verse of GAAP.

Society needs people who specialize and are domain experts, but we need to know the basics of each area so that we don't starve, don't run out of money because we didn't know how much we were spending, etc. Knowing the basics also allows us to talk and reason in those areas. And to become domain experts if the need arises, it's much easier to start with basic knowledge than no knowledge at all.

Heinlein. Good man.

Yeah, but it is a really inefficient way to run a society. Time I waste figuring out why my corporate overlord's choice of email client isn't working with the server when I have little knowledge of the backend infrastructure is time wasted for the company.

It's not about how to run a society, or a corporation.

It's about how to live your life.

All snark aside, I'm really, really sad that there's someone on the other end of this communication that immediately thinks only of how to optimize how well they fit into someone's machine.

The choices we make about the ability to trust another person to fix something ethically says something about a society? You don't think dashcams on every car in a country says something about trust in a country?

Time I spend learning to fix my car is time I don't get to spend deepening my knowledge in one area. You are trading some amount of specialization for generalization somewhere else. The world is become more specialized, not less.

I suppose if you want to be a cog in a machine instead of a human being, this is a reasonable position to take.

Time you "waste" is time the overworked IT department doesn't have to, in a company that's not too big to function. Your knowing more is never a waste.

Another Russian expression:

"You will never carry knowledge [as a burden] on your back."

Can you tell I was raised by intellectuals? Heh.

This reminds me of Masha the Bear, in Misha i Masha (my own transliteration, can you tell?). That image of the old guy who lives out in the woods and can fix anything seems really Russian (also very American, actually). I want to be that guy when I grow up.

>> also very American, actually

Given recent (~100yr) history, one of the most ironic things I noticed when I was studying Russian was the odd characteristics that could be equally applied to either culture (another odd one is some kind of fetish for acronyms).

Time you spend in one place may have been better spent elsewhere. The time you take to learn one thing may have been spent elsewhere. Some knowledge is busywork as well. All knowledge is not created equal.

You remind me of the guys I knew at Eli Lilly. Those unfortunate enough to end up in technically oriented departments are warned not to learn too much - it will limit their career to learn about things instead of making relationships.

I was happy to have the door hit me on the way out. I learned a lot there. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Did you read past the initial example with the proxy settings? He talks about kids who can't figure out that their monitor is off or the internet cable is unplugged - those aren't advanced settings, and they're scenarios of kids not knowing how to "make them do what they need them to" when there's the slightest deviation from their normal procedure.

Except the technology (a simple google search, for example) eliminates the need for a computer technician, or even a plumber if you have the right tool for the job, so long as you know how to pose the right question. This article is railing against student's inability to see that they too can fix their technical issues without relying on a computer technician like some kind of modern day shaman.

This is about the ability to pose questions, to understand that the problem has been solved by other people, and to have a bare minimum understanding of how the world around them works.

There is a little of both in his statements. The one about the computer not turning on is a common occurrence these days where people let their computer sleep and just move/click the mouse for it to turn on but can't cold boot the machine. This is similar to calling a mechanic because your car won't turn off because it isn't in park.

Most people don't need to know how to change proxy settings and such though. It would be nice if people had the ability to google solutions but it hasn't become important enough for them to learn so they take the easy way out and wait to ask someone.

In our highly sophisticated information society, not knowing how to interpret/represent/manipulate/generate information is a problem, especially for the higher educated. If you're not able to use general information processing tools, you've to depend and wait on others to process the information for you. Sprinkle in some automation and you're out of a job.

Proxy settings, I don't expect anyone to know about. But a lot of the problems he described are like taking a huge dump in your toilet, it not flushing properly, and just giving up when the plunger is right there.

"But a lot of the problems he described are like taking a huge dump in your toilet, it not flushing properly, and just giving up when the plunger is right there."

Best. Analogy. Ever.

They know how to use but have no understanding of it.

So I take it the author can fix any brand of car and would, without missing a beat, answer questions like "where's the expansion tank?"

I'm so tired of "tech savvy" people simultaneously sitting on their high chairs and large salaries dissuading anything that makes their trade less esoteric - and then talking down to those who can't pierce the veil for whatever reason (whether it by financial, intellectual, or just not giving a flying $#@! about where proxy settings are).

EDIT: Let's not build a generation of people who know how to navigate terminal. Let's build a generation of people who will never have to.

No I can't fix any brand of car, as I believe I stated in the post. That was sort of my point. I have great admiration for people who know about car mechanics.

I don't earn a large salary, I'm a teacher.

I do try and fix the situation, rather than just talking about it. I do this in my classroom every day. It is my hope that the next generation of UK students are more tech savvy, and the problem does not escalate.


If it does not have ECU or diesel pump I could fix pretty much everything else and bring the car in movable condition. You just need to obtain some manuals and a screwdriver. And I am not car enthusiast.

The problem is that the computing devices are moving to be the center of people lives. You must know how something works just to be able to protect yourself.

I've been there! My motorbike was in the shop for weeks, and they couldn't figure it out. A quick scan of the manual's troubleshooting section, a quick chat with the mechanic, a trip by me to the wreckers to buy an ECU and optionally get it refunded for $20 less, and bam, bike fixed. I am not a mechanic.

Just a screwdriver? That's a bit of a simplification. Even excluding electronic components, you'd need a fair bit of skill (and machinery) to rebuild a VANOS system, install fresh synchros in a transmission, blueprint an engine...

Actually I have owned only pre-90s car (the period when cars were cars and not Playstations on wheels). They were simpler and lighter affairs. You could fire up and drive an atmospheric diesel car with all fuses blown and without any electricity and broken alternator.

But that is offtopic. I don't want people to resolder chips on their mobile devices. But we must educate to not freeze like a deer in headlights when something move from it just works to it just doesn't work.

You are being a little harsh in my opinion. The author actually helped that teacher who had no clue about how to connect to the WIFI. Fair enough that not everyone needs to know but the point the author is making that kids don't know computers as well but they should. In fact, the other teacher was the one who had a very ignorant (even though common) comment about "oh well kids these days are super genious in computers "(paraphrasing)

So I take it you don't generally read articles before commenting on them?

From the end of his post:

"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. As such I am dependent on salesmen to tell me which one to buy, mechanics to tell me what’s wrong and then fix it for me and as technology progresses I am becoming dependent on satellite navigation as well."

Good job. (y)

That's specifically the reason I was harsh about it - why is he able to talk down to an entire generation when he admits, in the same article, not to be able to do something LESS esoteric and MORE central to day-to-day utility.

"So I take it the author can fix any brand of car and would, without missing a beat, answer questions like "where's the expansion tank?"

Maybe not, but people don't equate ability to drive with knowing how one works. But people do equate being able to surf the web with being "computer savvy".

Its not about having instant knowledge in your head, its about critical thinking and being able to find a solution yourself. I think a good programmer armed with the right tools, a Chiltons manual, and an internet connection could fix any problem in a car.

And the story is not about an average person, its about a person who teaches computer classes. The equivalent would be someone teaching classes about cars but not being able to answer what a transmission is.

My educational background is in computer science. I took my car to the dealer and they said that transmission fluid had leaked into the transmission control unit and the unit needs to be replaced.

Many people would just have the service done. The difference in the thoughtful approach is what questions you ask. How does transmission fluid leak upwards? (Capillary action through the electrical harness). Can the transmission control unit be repaired? (They said no, the answer is yes). What is the root cause of the problem? (They said "it happens sometimes").

If you stop to ask the questions and think about the answers, you realize that transmission fluid does not spontaneously leak twelve inches upwards in a functioning car. I had a mechanic find and replace a leaky bushing, clean out the transmission controller with electrical contact cleaner, and flush out the electrical harness, all for less than the cost of replacing the controller (which wouldn't have fixed the problem).

I agree that regular people shouldn't touch the terminal, UX has come a long way to try and simplify the way we do things. Unfortunately there are things that people either don't understand and most likely don't care/want to understand (even with the simplest UI). It's up the tech savvy guys to change interface and dumb it down for folks. It's bad enough having to explain to someone where to do certain things in Windows 8; I don't want to have to explain to them why their wifi doesn't work on linux. Windows 8 is a huge pain, it's hard to understand when there is more than one way to change something. Then mixing what are essentially mobile apps with desktop apps just muddies the water. Uninstall in Windows sometimes doesn't even work. This is not to pick on Windows but it's usually what people have.

Everyone should learn how to change the oil in their car, though.

Maybe change a tire, but I see no good reason _everyone_ needs to know how to change their oil.

It's a US thing. They change their oil every 3,000 miles whether it needs it or not (it doesn't).

I don't see why.

Because it is trivial to do, and regularly required? Would you say they don't need to know how to change a tire too? Add more windshield fluid? Wash their windows by hand? Open their glovebox?

Being able to change a tire is a great skill to have because it may be very beneficial for safety. The rest are blatantly obvious things that nobody has to learn nor devote time to doing while they could be doing something else. Well, except maybe for adding windshield fluid… but they do that for me when they change my oil. :)

I suppose we have different perspectives on what the general public is capable of.

To me, changing your oil yourself is somewhere on par with being able to connect to wifi yourself. Sure, you'll often just get other people to do it for you when you are having other more extensive work done on the car, but having to get somebody to do it for you seems sort of like having to call "Geek Squad" to connect to your home wifi. Far more prevalent than you would hope or expect.

I suppose we have different perspectives on what the general public is capable of.

Who's talking about capability? I'm sure the vast majority of people are capable of it. Likewise, I'm sure you're capable of performing lots of the services you pay for. Nevertheless, we all decide differently which things we want to do ourselves and which things we like specialists to do for us.

Who isn't talking about capability? The claim was "Everyone should learn how to change the oil in their car, though.", not "Everyone should change the oil in their car, though."

The inability to change your oil is frightening on the same level as the inability to connect yourself to wifi. I don't give a shit if you get your oil changed at the shop, or if your work computer automagically connects to corporate wifi out of the box, but you should be able to do either yourself.

I just don't at all understand why you're frightened of me not knowing how to do something that I'm not interested in, almost surely never will have to do, and can always easily learn if either of these situations changes.

You learn the things you're interested in, the rest of us will each learn the things we're interested in.

You can be frightened about that, but it's frankly overbearing.

Pop open your glovebox; there is a nice picture book in there that explains with nice line-drawing illustrations how to change your oil. It is easier in every way than assembling an arbitrary Ikea chair. If following instructions from a picture book is too much for you, then I am frightened, mostly for your own safety.

Nobody is saying you have to figure out how do it in a sterile proctored testing environment with no books or computers. Hell, I still consult the grep manpages semi-regularly; knowing how to read documentation is a part of being able to do things. The ability to do things is a far lower bar than you are making it out to be. I don't believe you actually lack the ability to change your oil. Some people do, and they are frightening.

Pop open your glovebox; there is a nice picture book in there that explains with nice line-drawing illustrations how to change your oil.

That hasn't been a given for many years. My 1998 Passat and 2006 Jetta manuals contained no information for DIY oil changes, other than change intervals and suggested weights.

Right. I'll read that page when and if I ever need to.

I agree completely. I can cook my own food, but I don't do it all the time.

Also, just because you own a car, doesn't mean you have space to change your oil or the storage area for the (few) tools required and the 5 quarts of used oil that will result.

The point is that you should be able to cook, even if you don't bother to actually cook. Hell, even if you don't have a knife and cutting board, you should still know how you could get those, if you wanted them.

It's cheaper and fun. Just unscrew the bolt on the oil pan underneath the car. Drain. Change screw on filter. Close bolt. Add new oil (usually 4 quarts for a 4 cylinder). Don't dump oil on the road or grass but I'm pretty sure I didn't have to mention that.

Just unscrew the bolt on the oil pan underneath the car

Getting to that point on many cars (I'm looking at you VW/Audi) can involve many more steps - on my last car, before you can even get to the oil pan, you have to remove the belly pan which involves three different types of fasteners, 6 of which are hard to reach unless you have a 90-degree screw driver (which I do). Getting to the oil filter requires removing the coolant tank (and disconnecting the coolant tank sensor) and scraping your knuckles while trying to position the filter wrench. From all accounts, the procedure looks to be worse on my Jetta.

While I am someone that loves to DIY auto maintenance, I can perfectly understand the decision to let someone else handle it.

I have a VW its a pain in the ass to get to things. I was aiming that comment towards Japanese and American car owners lol

It's not that much fun and, if you value your time, it's not cheaper.

Factor in the time to buy the oil and the new filter. The time to clean up the funnel and pan. The time to properly dispose of the waste oil. Consider the busted knuckles trying to open the drain. Consider the stripped drain plug.

My neighborhood shop charges about $30. They use some kind of suction device that I think does a better job of getting the gunk out than gravity does anyway.

I pay 90$ for 5 quarts of synthetic oil. Everyone is different.

I'll concede that I can't repair a car. It's no different from a mechanic conceding that he can't use a computer.

And I know that those are different words, that I can USE a car but not REPAIR a car. However, with a computer there is a vanishing distinction between the two. Sure there are some specialized tools and techniques that computer repair techs need to know about that regular people don't need. But in general, you need to know a lot about computers to be able to say you can use them, and that level of knowledge is usually sufficient to repair them.

Unfortunately your car analogy does not compute. A car is a device to do one thing and one thing only: getting you from A to B. A computer is a universal tool in the sense that it can almost be any tool. Being able to harness that power is "knowing computers". Without being able to harness that power you're unable to truly master your environment as you see fit. You're then restricted by what those who have mastered the computer^* allow you to do.

^*: i.e., programmers, computer manufacturers, software providers, saas providers, and so on.

Well, I dont know how to fix any brand of car but I know how to drive them because I had to learn it before I could drive.

People don't want to learn to do things, they want anyone else who knows how to to do it, that why they don't try to fix anything by themselves. They just run to the nearest geek and ask them to fix it, even if it is the easiest task.

Just ask them to pay you $50 everytime the answer for their problem is in the first page of a simple google search. That way I got a lot of lazy friends to learn o fix their shit.

After reading some of the comments, the thing that surprised me the most is how many Programmers can't work on their own car? I just took it for granted, if a person learned how a computer works--they would know how their computer controled automobile would work? Especially, these days with the Internet and cheap scanners?


"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."

Snarky enough? If you start out like that I've already made the decision that you're over opinionated and probably prone to dramatic exaggeration.

Yes. I am over opinionated and prone to dramatic exaggeration. Point taken though, and I'll remove the TL;DR.

I also loved the TL;DR. My first impression wasn't "this guy is an asshole" it was "wow, it's refreshing to see someone openly reject idiots on their blog."

Maybe not idiots exactly, but I agree with the derision of short attention spans.

Please don't remove it. I hate to say it but... Haters gonna hate.

Keep the snark.

It's rather discombobulating at first, but then the point of the article indeed comes thru: if you're not going to read beyond a TL;DR then you're part of the problem.

You should remove it, but it's exemplary of the whole post. Bizarrely defensive and hostile over exaggerated, hypothetical or imagined slights.

Okay, by popular consent the TL:DR? remains as is. So do the punctuation errors. I'll leave the post alone. Either you like the content or hate the content. I admit the spelling and punctuation are not great, but then again I didn't expect anyone to actually read this.

After a little while I was able to move past the snark and start reading your post and I really like it, but the open automatically alienated every person that you are trying to reach. Everybody saying that they're glad you have it in there or that it's refreshing to see already gets your message.

By removing from the spectrum everybody that would actually benefit from reading this article it got changed into pointless a circle jerk for the tech community about how much "they" just don't get it.

It's a good article, but it's too bad that the people who need to read it will pass by it because of an opening.

No keep it. The whole tldr meme is nicely analogous to the point you are making.

The only things you are "snarky" about in the piece are entitled attitudes of people who want things that are mostly free to require no effort at all on their part. It's deserved and needs to be said, it's a disempowering attitude and it's important to discuss in a world that is more and more run by computers and software.

Love the post, and I'm with you 100% on this subject. Just thought I'd mention that the counteract the surprising, even for HN, amount of negativity in these comments.

I loved the TL;DR.

> "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."

But apt, ne? Lots of people are like that.

I was going to start reading the article, but the TL;DR dissuaded me. The article look to be a long one, and if I just committed to reading every long article on the internet I'd never get anything done. The beginning of the article should serve to get me interested and willing to invest the time to read the article, not as a snark remark to people who have already showed interest in your article by navigating to it. In the case that this is a reply to people asking for TL;DR on things you write: A tl;dr means that someone was interested in what you had to say enough to leave a comment. However you failed to show the worth of reading the article given the apparent size of it. You had the potential to get those who would start reading your article to see if it had value and told all of them to go waste their time.

This is true. Not only does he come off as off-putting to his readers, he also seemingly is off-putting to the rest of society.

On the contrary, the TL;DR encouraged me to read the article to the bottom. I don't get it why anyone (except the ones mentioned in this tl;dr) would be offended by this.

TLDR is a concession to terrible human beings. They deserve the snark.

The irony is that the article was summarized in the conclusion.

"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 pressed back immediately after reading this opening. Not because I fall into the category of person the author describes but because I'm not bothered reading an article written by somebody who starts their blog posts by insulting their readers.

He insulted only the lazy, "don't make me think" part of the society, I always thought that HN readers are in the better half.

I have noticed most of the comments are harping on this. Too bad. (Not that I disagree.)

"num num" !!!! WTF, it's nom nom

if you're going to be snarky, at least be right.

The analysis is good, the conclusion is questionable.

Of course a system administrator thinks knowing about computers is the most important thing.

A medical doctor thinks kids should know about medicine to stay healthy. A lawyer thinks kids should know about the law and know how society works. An athlete thinks his kids should play team sports and learn grit and be tough.

Like with everything in life, you should know a little about everything, but you can't possibly know everything that is important.


My conclusions is that computers are still too hard and the future belongs to systems that have less failure modes.

I like your examples as they all apply to pretty much everyone (as computing does) but I think we need to have a minimum understanding for all of them. Health, law, economics and computer classes should each have a pretty high bar. Being able to troubleshoot your computer or installing/configuring software should be just as important as knowing how to balance a checkbook or eat healthy and exercise.

I guess we disagree where the level of minimal understanding lies. Why should kids know how to install and configure software if they'll only use Android and iOS in a few years? Knowing how an IP address works as arcane as knowing how an oscillating spindle sander works.

I may be biased as I spent a lot of time in helpdesk, but I think many of the problems most users and admins face could be easily avoided with education. An anti-virus is only good when paired with safe computer practices. Knowing about an IP address in the most basic sense (I'm not expecting subnetting here or knowing what an APIPA address is) allows many problems to be resolved in a few minutes. It should be expected when you drop off your car at the mechanic to say "the brakes squeak" or "It's making a click-clank-clank sound" instead of "it's broke, fix it." IT shouldn't have to jump through hoops to find out the user deleted system32 because they needed more space.

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.

I took away from your article that the problem was that we teach kids to use computers through UIs that conceal the computer from the user, and so we teach kids very nearly nothing about computers. Excellent point, thank you for making it, and made on the basis of your experiences. Better be condescending than fail to make the point at all for fear of being rude.

A practical point about teaching: apparently we are soon to see desktop-quality computing machinery for sale under the $100 price point. This might change the viability of the "get a computer just to learn about computing" (as opposed to a "general-purpose" computer that means access to Windows /OSX software ecosystems) for many families. For schools, it might become practical to ask families to buy/ rent such machinery in order to take part in the Linux-based "Inside Computers" course.

"the problem is usually the interface between the chair and the keyboard."

Loved reading this. Well said [1]. I am sure this post resonates a lot with many of us. I remember a joke where someone calls the tech support of a computer company and it goes like this:

  Person: "My computer does not turn on". 

  Tech. guy: "Whats the problem. Did you press the ON switch? "

  Person: "Yes of course. I pressed it twice already"
[1] EDIT : As other pointed out, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_error

"Loved reading this. Well said."

Not to take too much away from the article, but this is a slight variation on a saying old enough that it has an "AFAICT" style Usenet-era acronym:


My group at work have a work for this. PICNIC- Problem In Chair Not In Computer. This is how we politely describe problem children and either come up with more training opportunities or sigh and fix the issue. Some like the extra training and use it well, others could care less and it doesn't stick.

It is called ID-10-T Error in my circles.

Before everyone gets out their pitchforks and dictionaries, lets look at what he's attempting to say.

I think he's arguing that there needs to be a basic level of competence that we are teaching the next generation about computers. Not just how to browse the internet, but to do basic problem solving one something they own.

I believe this is true of anything you own. If my car dies, I can fairly easily determine the severity of the issue and if it's simple, fix it myself. If my shirt gets torn I know how to put a patch on it or sew it myself.

I don't think he wants everyone to be computer technicians (although that seemed to be the tone of his article). I'm assuming he was telling an exaggerated story from an exasperated perspective. Hey may have even been speaking in hyperbole to make a point.

My brother, who I love very much, is dependant on everyone around him. He can't cook, clean, or navigate in the car. I do not exaggerate, I've recieved at least 4 or 5 calls from him (before GPS were packaged into phones) that he needed directions from X, Y cross streets to insert address here. He expected me to give him directions.

The sad thing is I did. I love my baby brother. I'm proud of him in many ways, but he has never HAD to do anything because we all fix it for him.

I recently just stopped helping him in these situations, and you know what? He now knows how to stop the car and get directions, or better yet take a GPS/Map with him.

This isn't a new issue, it's been around for a long time. Teach a man to fish, vs. give a man a fish. <joking>I'm sure that quote was taken from someone else, but I don't have the citation. </joking>

I feel like the author defeats his own central thesis in his conclusion:

It didn’t used to be like this. Using an OS used to be hard work. When things went wrong you had to dive in and get dirty to fix things. You learned about file systems and registry settings and drivers for your hardware. Not any more.

In other words, people used to be technically literate because they had to be. Now, it's possible to utilize technology without knowing how it works. Think for a moment about what that means.

This sounds very much like a case of a species evolving to meet its own (lack of) need. People aren't tech literate because you don't need to be tech literate to check your email on an iPad, just like I'm not very proficient in spear hunting because being able to hunt a wild animal is no longer necessary to feed myself.

Not everyone needs to be good at everything, and mastering skills has an opportunity cost. Yes, it would be nice if every teenager could spend the hours required to know how to install Linux and work around the Linux desktop environment, but how many hours would that take them? Every hour that they spend learning how to install and use Linux is one hour less that they have to spend on guitar lessons, or learning a foreign language, or automotive repair, or oratory practice, or whatever other pursuits they might choose to invest themselves in.

Not everyone needs to be good at everything, but it would be a nice change to stop pretending that "digital natives" are all computer wizards. They aren't, not even close - some of them fail with turning on their machines.

_If_ pepole need to computer wizards is an entirely different question, and it also depends on what they do.

As per the article: > I have one question for these policy makers: > Without reference to Wikipedia, can you tell me what the difference is between The Internet, The World Wide Web, a web-browser and a search engine? > If you can’t, then you have no right to be making decisions that affect my use of these technologies.

I'd expect people deciding on "computer things" to be experts on their decision matter. Unfortunately in our society it's possible for one person to show utter disdain for those concerns and decide about mandantory internet filtering at the same time and not be laughed out of the room.

And this problem _won't_ be fixed by the current teen cohort eventually entering positions of power.

Well put. Taken to the extreme, I'd hate to live in a world where everyone understood what dscacheutil does, but didn't know how to play a guitar chord.

I'd like to think that the original author is referring to what happens some of the time, not all of the time. It's the growing pains that come with rapidly advancing as a society. I can't imagine that this is such a major issue that it's tearing at our ability to move forward.

I don't know if it was necessarily any better when computers were "new", most kids in the 90s knew how to plug in a SNES cartridge and maybe launch a few games from DOS but the oft required "boot disks" were still a mystery to most.

Computers were much simpler then in terms of there being fewer moving parts in the software. Modern computers might be "friendlier" in some sense, but that's only because we have had to build grand abstractions out of necessity. Once these abstractions break down it can be often difficult for even relatively tech savvy people to understand what is wrong.

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.

I feel like this may worry some, but for others who have no power in the societies we live in today (increasingly employing the use of computers), might find solace in that there is a future where they might be valued…

We have English classes since we need to read and write on a daily basis. We have math classes since we need to add/subtract/multiply on a daily basis.

But why don't we have a technology literacy course where kids can learn about devices we interact on a now daily (hourly?) basis. It could be taught at a low enough grade level before the geeky become geeky so-to-speak. Something beyond just typing skills.

Demystifying the magic behind a computer/smartphone/tablet may even encourage those who wouldn't give a second thought to coding to now jump right in.

The fact that I am working in the same industry that has these characters as stereotypical archetypes depresses the hell out of me, the fact that this is an attitude thats likely being passed on to impressionable children outright scares me, sometimes I wonder if I got into computers for the opposite reason of everyone else.

Most people dont care about using an open source phone that is entirely useless as a phone, most kids dont need to know how to format a boot partition. The kids that are interested in it are amazing and get so much done precisely because they arent worrying about how to patch their graphics driver.

Also if you are going to be so exceedingly patronising[1], at least learn to configure a network that doesnt need you to manually enter a proxy.

[1] no, even if you do do that, please dont be so exceedingly patronising.

This got me thinking. I share many of the authors frustrations, but I realise that people are just trying to get a thing done, and they really just want to outsource all the IT knowledge, just like I want to outsource car maintenance and food production.

The real problem here is that the IT literate have historically been very bad at communicating how valuable their knowledge is to others. Just like the author, I do a hell of a lot for people for free.

I think the issue stems from the newness of IT, most IT literate people grew up in families where they were the computer whizz kid, and enjoyed showing off what they knew to their extended family, friends and neighbours. When we were 12, the praise, and maybe a bit of pocket money was all the thanks we needed.

Actually though, comparable fields of expertise charge a lot of money per hour and I therefore tend to approach them with respect. When I want a lawyer to arrange a house purchase I expect to pay a lot of money and even though I may just want the darn thing sorted, I know I have to listen and fill in forms correctly because holding up a whole house purchasing chain can have big consequences.

Like the author, I have been too willing to insulate others from the consequences of their computing mishaps without charging them for my time or making them listen to me while I explain what they should do next time. If more of us did that then perhaps people would be less casual about dumping their problems on us and expecting it to be fixed.

The title is better phrased as "should you worry that lots of people can't use computers?". Because of the obvious "no" response. No, you shouldn't worry.

We've had computers for two generations now and the existence of people who can't use them hasn't made the world stop turning. People who do not understand things in general have always existed. People who make decisions about things they don't understand. Politicians who make decisions about things they don't understand. Always has been, always will be. Trying to educate them is a futile effort, we're better off trying to find ways to get what we want or route around the damage. I would of course prefer it if that wasn't the case, but it's like wanting pi to be exactly 3.

Think of it like driving a car. I cannot drive a car. I have a license, I have taken classes, I have put in effort, but it's just too complicated and unnatural for me; and I deem myself too dangerously inept to drive. To commute, I ride my bike, take public transport or pay other people to drive me. Same with computers - if you can't use them, either do your job without one, or pay someone to do stuff for you.

You'd find it easier to make the earth spin in reverse than to make sure everyone knows how to use a computer.

We assume that growing up with computers makes you expert with them, when it doesn't. I wrote about this last year [1].

Since then, I've realized something important: things fall apart. Always have, always will. It's just thermodynamics. This means that we have to keep rebuilding our world. Which means that the people who build things really control the world. Remember that the next time a techno-illiterate sneers at you: you are building the world they inhabit, you get to decide what it looks like, so pity them.

[1] http://javajosh.blogspot.com/2012/06/note-to-parents-compute...

A lot of people are bashing the author and the article saying that the tone is condescending, kids do know how to use computers etc. I think his point is that kids do know the "what" part (browsing,texting,fb etc). The question is: do they know or care about the "why" and "how" part ? Should they care ? Should they not care ?

There's no inherent reason for them to care and it's incredibly insulting to presuppose that an entire generation should care about the same things he does - especially when these types of people purposely make it more difficult for people to care (example: being sarcastic, condescending, and "calling the President")

Not only did he not really help by not politely showing her how to select a wifi network... "Here, this is easy watch, you get on wifi by..." (He's a teacher dammit. That's his freaking job), his idiotic network settings and bungling "proxy" just broke her computer for later when that proxy is stuck in there and she can't get on her network at home where there is no-one to help her set it back the way it was. How hard is a transparent proxy in 2013!?

He made everything worse and is now complaining about his victims.

TFA is like reading a "User Friendly" from 1998.

It's amusing to me that several of the top level comments here only reference the author's initial story about helping another teacher, completely ignoring the latter three quarters of the article. It's almost as if you guys didn't bother reading past the first page to his actual point.

>"They click ‘OK’ in dialogue boxes without reading the message."

This. And you know what, as software developers, it's partially our fault. Even I, as a "kid who grew up in the tech age", do this (albeit rarely) as a force of old habit. Before I knew anything about computers the error messages that would pop up would sometimes be so obscure that there was really no other choice, you just get used to them being implicitly unhelpful. The other part of this is that society is so rushed. Who can spare a moment to read and troubleshoot an error message? "Why won't this thing just work!?"

As far as people being able to "use computers": I'm not completely aligned with this but I do question whether or not they should have to be a sysadmin to do so? I don't have to be a mechanic to driver a car (as several comments have already pointed out). Computer's are just tools to most people. They expect them to work and when they don't do what people expect they call someone who knows about them to fix it; there is literally an industry built on this need. Don't most of you who build software work to create something that solves a problem for a user? Makes it EASIER for them to do something that was previously complicated/convoluted/impossible? They're just users, not domain experts.

As someone that grew up with computers and the internet I have numerous issues with this article. Mostly the expected level of knowledge about computers.

Most teenagers are decent typists, can navigate a well done website or application, can use word/other programs to get work done, and are comfortable being on a computer. That's what they should know how to do.

It's us in tech who need to make things work for users, not users jobs to know how to install linux from source code. I'm going to go against the author and say that most users _shouldn't_ learn linux, and should use easy to use software like iOS. It lets them get work done.

Most people don't and shouldn't have a reason to have a deep understanding of python, html, and the command line.

>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.

This is actually a great metaphor to show why the article is wrong. Cars became reliable enough and abstracted enough that you can confidently use one _without_ knowing how to fix it. Technology should be reliable enough that the average user doesn't need to know what's under the hood to use it, and that's what we've seen happen with things like iOS and web apps.

I agree on a lot of the points. I think a key here is that I don't really think anybody knows what to teach people when they do teach them, and your beginning example shows it extremely clearly. You, having almost zero knowledge of OSX, managed to get things going for someone else who's been using it far longer then you have. It's not that you knew specifically how to fix the problem, it's that you knew the basic idea of what was wrong, an idea of things to look for, and enough critical thinking to figure your way through it. Most people miss that point.

While a wifi problem may be harder to fix then others, in most cases a problem can be solved just by knowing the right info to type into Google and then be able to do a bit of thinking over the results and which seem reasonable to try. Not only that, but a bit of knowledge of some basic symbols (Like, Ex. The various Wifi Symbols, or USB Symbol) and some basic UI knowledge (Like, Ex. Knowing what a bar or panel usually look like, and what a normal OS UI look's like. Text-Boxes, Scroll-bars, Check-boxes Vs. Radio-Buttons, Menus, etc....) go a long way.

I in no way expect everyone to become experts (I wouldn't really expect people to become good enough to reinstall the OS, for example. At that point, you'd want to show someone who knows what they're doing before going further). But, taking some time to teach some basics of more generic concepts, how to go about troubleshooting instead of just learning how to fix some basic problems, and some basics of where to look for various things goes a very long way.

Excellent article.

Many people here are missing the point of the article and are instead busy attacking the author's writing style and some random lines in the article. It's terrible to not try to understand what the author is saying and attack an article line by line. Please don't fall into the trap of what many non-authors do: criticize line by line and miss the point. The author is a normal human like you and me and not some "professional" writer who earns his career by writing books.

I hope you get my own point in the previous paragraph and not shred my writing line by line.

Back to the article, what the author is saying is that technology is such a fundamental part of our lives now. Much more than a fridge or a car, because these haven't become general purpose devices yet. Our laptops and devices store personal information and it's critical that we are all educated on how the internet works and how our laptops work in general.

I love teaching but I am not a teacher. When I taught computers to my (50's) mom, I spent the first few days just telling her the story of the internet, microsoft, linux and all that. She really uses the computer now. While she may not be able to fix the problems, I am surprised how capable she is to diagnose the problem and try to pinpoint the problem. It was just a matter of arming her with enough information to get her interested.

IMO, the main problem to be solved here is to teach computers in a way that it's interesting to them. That's it. Human nature will take care from them on - curiosity and knowledge.

> I watch him type in his user-name and password. A message box opens up, but the kid clicks OK so quickly that I don’t have time to read the message.

Computer sends message to user. User quickly dismisses it without thought. This evokes mixed feelings from me.

First, unfortunately, we have spent a long time training users that computers output cryptic messages that they don't need to understand. Anyone who used XP for more than 3 years is probably used to seeing odd pop-ups or error boxes from some application that's spitting out some message (possibly too often) that the user doesn't know. They're used to seeing things crash, and they're used to messages being too technical to be actionable. That is in part our (development) fault.

However, things are better now. If a message box pops up, you probably should read it. You should pay attention to what the computer says. I think that people so often just don't care what it is because they guess that it won't get in their way for their immediate task so they don't want to bother. Or, worse, they're afraid it will require some thought/energy (even if it's small) to understand and take appropriate action, and they're crossing their fingers and hoping that ignoring it is for the best.

Even as a developer I've caught myself dismissing errors too quickly; so I can hardly fault users for it.

(However, when I dismiss an error too quickly, it's usually followed by an audible: "oh crap. I hope that's in a log somewhere.")

> a kitten with it’s head in a toilet roll

its head

If your plan is to insult readers before they even start to read your rant, can you at least make an effort to spell your insults correctly?

Teachers can't punctuate, and why it should worry you...

Language is fluid, and besides, it makes sense to add the 's possessive marker to it. It's the way it used to be written.

Oops. I'm sure you'll find lots of other grammar and spelling errors.

The problem was not so much with spelling as it was with the aggressiveness of this intro.

Beyond the aggressiveness, the idea that TL;DR is bad or impossible is disputable. Everything can be TL;DRed, as long as it has a point. And in any case it's bad practice to "bury the lead".

Not to mention the fact that aleph isn't anything. The alephs are indexed by ordinals, the smallest being aleph_0.

Because of this mistake, I shall dismiss all arguments made in the blog post.

And you're probably wise in doing that.

I am laughing pretty hard at all the comment here that rants on the first few paragraph and then brings points that are actually covered later on in the article...

Yes, he is being harsh with the teacher. Yes, cars are complicated.

That's not the point. Read the full article...

This article was helpful for me. Why? Because I guess I "know" this in theory, but I surround myself with very intelligent people, mostly who are in the field of IT, and I don't so much hang out with younger people from the age of 20-25.

I grew up with computers, and unlike now, when things were starting out, you actually had to be a little bit clever to use one. I rolled my eyes at my dad as a kid when for fun he typed "DEL ." at the C: prompt of his new DOS machine. Doing command line stuff like that, while not at by any means an advanced level of computer sophistication, is a far cry from people growing up with extremely user friendly things like Ipads, only having to press a few buttons to get things done, and very idiot proof.

But at the same time, since it comes so naturally to me, I do tend to forget that the skills I have are that technical or unusual. Reinstalling Windows? Installing Linux? Putting together a computer from scratch? I mean..even if you don't know how to do it, you can Google it. But then I get snapped back into reality, like when my parents call me up and say they hired their friend's son to fix their PC, a "computer whiz", who obviously about a minute or so into the conversation has no real or deep understanding about computers whatsoever - probably just some gamer or something.

It's awful too, since I'm a woman and I see other non tech savvy women perpetuating that sterotype. I went to get my hair cut, and one of the employees was trying to get a Netbook to work. "This thing is so slow. It doesn't even have any RAM!" she claimed, loudly. Since I was waiting on the stylist, I told her that I could take a look. "No thanks," she said while barley looking my way, "My husband's in IT, so I'll just call him." I then had to to listen to an excruciating phone call while she called up her husband which made it pretty clear also that the husband also "can't use a computer".


"I looked at the MacBook. I had no experience with OSX at the time. Jobs wasn’t an idiot though, and displayed proudly in the top right hand corner of the screen was a universally recognisable WiFi symbol. It took me seconds to get the device on the network.

I handed back the MacBook and the woman opened up Safari. ‘The Internet’s not working.’ she stated with disdain."

This, while I may be reading WAY too much into it, is a great display of how I used to think about what I do for a living, and conduct business. You are asked to do X, so you do X. What your client really wants is Y. She wanted to browse the web, not getting her there before you hand the laptop back is fruitless and frustrating to her, the same goes for a client.

The problem is people are ok or are even proud of not knowing how their stuff works, even the author isn't ashamed that he has to ask a salesmen what car to buy. People in Africa can take apart your car and put it back together, people in India can become experts in computing from a computer stuck in a wall[1].

Rich lazy first world humans are proud of the fact that they have advanced technology they don't need to understand, its a sign of luxury and 'success' like new clothes you just throw away as fashion changes.


I had some good laughs reading this article, and I agree with almost everything the author wrote.

I then came here to read the comments and it's just everybody complaining and nitpicking about every single comma in the article. GOD, this is getting tiring.

Technical literacy for the avg computer user could be better, but the examples cited aren't surprising because those situations ARE confusing. Let's break it down:

* Someone's MacBook doesn't connect to the internet. This is because 1) the wi-fi is turned off and 2) the school has a burdensome proxy policy. On (1), there is a huge disconnect between understanding that wi-fi functions like a radio with an on/off state and how many devices today are persistently connected via wi-fi or 3g/4g cell networks (tablets, phones). On (2), the proxy policy deliberately conflicts with how people expect to connect to and use the internet and entering proxy details is not a common activity for most people.

* Someone has embedded a YouTube video into a powerpoint presentation. The user has saved this ppt on a flash drive and is confused as to why the video will not load. There is already a disconnect between the fact the video is embedded while the ppt file itself is portable. This is a failing of the design of PowerPoint, presentations are very often to be considered portable once saved even though the content in the presentation may not be portable. Further, the proxy blocks YouTube streaming (why god why) so this user would be unlikely to find an app/add-on to rip the video and then pack it into the PowerPoint because this is entirely contrary to how you expect to use YouTube.

* A user's laptop is running very slowly due to virus infection. The user didn't get anti-virus automatically included on their machine even though they are downloading tons of content. This is a massive design fail, anti-virus should be automatic and transparent on new installs.

* A user complains of a computer not turning on, but it turns out the machine is on and the monitor is off. There is a reason why Mac desktops are designed as single machine/monitor units, the disconnect between machine and display is not intuitive or well understood, esp. in the age of tablets and phones that are single cohesive computers with displays. Just try and watch the average person set up a TV set to various peripherals and you'll see this same thing happen.

* A user cannot connect to the internet even after trying various software settings. It turns out the hardware wireless toggle is off. Either the hardware or OS itself didn't inform the user of what was going on, this is a massive design fail.

* A user attempts to log in to a network site/computer. The user dismisses error dialogs instantly. The problem is the machine is not connected to the network via ethernet. This is already a nexus of various design problems: dialog fatigue, the concept of network login vs. local login, and assumptions about connectivity being automatic through wi-fi vs. cabled network connections. The vast majority of people, including programmers, make huge mistakes about this kind of thing all the time, do we expect the average person to get it?

* A user has a new iPhone and is sad about loss of contacts. When plugging in to the user's laptop, the iTunes backup is able to be restored to the phone. iTunes does make the backup process transparent, but terrestrial backups are not nearly as good as cloud backups for this kind of thing. Android makes this much easier for the average person, restores are opt-in by default when setting up new devices and there's not need to physically connect to a computer.

* A user complains of not having internet access. They have associated the browser shortcut icon with internet. As more items were saved to the desktop, the icon shifted from its original location. Mechanics of file systems and browsing file systems isn't well understood by the average user. This is why whole volume backups are the easiest kind of backups to get someone to performs (esp. if those backups are automatic). This is also why Android and iOS devices try to hide the underlying file system, it is confusing and not well understood (apparently even by devs judging by the assumptions on file systems on StackOverflow).

* A user thinks they have a virus. What they are actually looking at is a spam ad designed to mimic native UI of an older Windows platform. There is a reason why scammy malware ads and sites do this, it is effective because users do not conceptually understand the difference between the browser and websites as separate entities from the OS they use the browser on. In fact, most people don't even conceptually understand how browsers and webpages work at all.

This 1000x.

Getting a user interface correct is exceedingly difficult. How would one know what a toaster is for if they had not seen one being used?

Computers are layers and layers of abstractions built to deal with an important resource, information. We've done a good job of burying the fact that at the lowest level we are coercing an electrical charge on a microscopic wire through a p-n junction the way we want. Hardly anyone needs to understand how to create their own incredibly tiny p-n junctions, nor understand what the hell a p-n junction is.

However, at the larger macro levels, there is still much work to be done.

Something as necessary as WiFi still causes a great amount of confusion. Why not alert the user that their wifi is off? Better yet, why not just pop up the wireless selector when someone opens anything that requires a remote resource if they are not connected?

If we were really good at designing things from the start we wouldn't have these problems. People don't need to know about the file system and how it works any more than they need to know about the change in voltage inside their electronics.

The curious among us will always dive deeper into the layers of abstraction and ask how and why. This is not unique to just computers.

The modern world around us is tantalizingly complex. Things like plumbing and water have been solved and "just work". The interface is very obvious and simple, and through a little bit of experimentation, one can figure out a water faucet with very little risk of failure or consequence. How we interact with water in our homes is pretty much solved. Assuming, of course, you live in a society with running water and plumbing. (Some still dont, it's amazing how often the first world forgets this)

How we interact with information is in the process of being "solved". Once our interface with information is "solved" it will be understood and there will be very little need for the major technical skills we require today to interact with this resource.

In the meantime, you are probably gainfully employed because of your ability to understand the current interface with information. It is your job to make this interface better for everyone.

A user cannot connect to the internet even after trying various software settings. It turns out the hardware wireless toggle is off. Either the hardware or OS itself didn't inform the user of what was going on, this is a massive design fail.

What if the hardware or OS did do it actually, but the user failed to recognize it as for what it is or meant?

  Someone's MacBook doesn't connect to the internet.
At this point, connecting to different wifi networks and turning on and off the radio should be considered basic knowledge--if you'd like to argue to the contrary, please save us the trouble and acknowledge that you want to remove any semblance of security for users.

The proxy probably threw up a message describing that it was working properly, and that the requested content was blocked because of $reason.

Things were working as expected and designed, and the user tried to do something that was outside of that envelope. If the user wants to do more, the user should learn to do more.

  Someone has embedded a YouTube video into a powerpoint presentation.
User did not understand the idea of remote content. User should be made aware of difference in remote content, possibly even later going on to use it to make smaller presentations where appropriate, or to guarantee operation in network-limited situations.

   A user's laptop is running very slowly due to virus infection.
User acknowledged that they were aware of virus scanners, used file-sharing programs, and voluntarily did not take prophylactic measures.

  A user complains of a computer not turning on, but it turns out the machine is on and the monitor is off.
User has apparently never used a television with a separate cable box, or a car with a radio, or a projector with a laptop. User now knows better, and can teach others!

  A user cannot connect to the internet even after trying various software settings.
User did not understand function of all buttons on machine. User now understands function of wireless toggle on machine, can help others.

  A user attempts to log in to a network site/computer.
User deliberately skips impatiently past diagnostic information sufficient to immediately ascertain source of issue and enable rectification.

User will go on to one day become stranded in traffic having ignored "low fuel" light in car.

  A user has a new iPhone and is sad about loss of contacts.
User bought into frictionless ecosystem, and was not notified that the needful was already happening automatically--though pondering the question "what if my phone breaks?" would've prevented this.

(To be fair, this is outright poor software design.)

  A user complains of not having internet access.
User never bothered to learn difference between shortcuts and files. User now knows difference, hopefully.

   A user thinks they have a virus.
User does not notice telltale UI mismatch, and does not know machine well enough to catch that. User hopefully now knows better.

> At this point, connecting to different wifi networks and turning on and off the radio should be considered basic knowledge--if you'd like to argue to the contrary, please save us the trouble and acknowledge that you want to remove any semblance of security for users.

I'm just trying to point out that expectations on connectivity are not consistent from one machine or platform to the next and that inconsistency makes it difficult for a user to understand what is going on.

> The proxy probably threw up a message describing that it was working properly, and that the requested content was blocked because of $reason.

> Things were working as expected and designed, and the user tried to do something that was outside of that envelope. If the user wants to do more, the user should learn to do more.

I would argue that things were not working as expected for the user but the proxy was working as intended and designed by the network admins. That mismatch is what makes using proxy or feature limited networks hard to use.

> User did not understand the idea of remote content. User should be made aware of difference in remote content, possibly even later going on to use it to make smaller presentations where appropriate, or to guarantee operation in network-limited situations.

Having worked with video troubleshooting for a variety of people, some folks understand that the video is remote and some do not. PowerPoint definitely should be designed in a way that helps the user make the distinction better than it currently does.

> User acknowledged that they were aware of virus scanners, used file-sharing programs, and voluntarily did not take prophylactic measures.

Relying on user behavior for this is a bad idea and brings down the security of the network. By default, always updated AV is a far better option for most people.

> User has apparently never used a television with a separate cable box, or a car with a radio, or a projector with a laptop. User now knows better, and can teach others!

That is probably true. I've done TV sales and installation before and the mental model of displays and input/output is not well understood by the average person. Moreover, connecting different kinds of screens and devices can result in different behavior and may need different troubleshooting steps. That inconsistency makes it difficult for people to use those devices and displays, esp. in the context of how many all-in-one computer and display devices the average person will use.

> User did not understand function of all buttons on machine. User now understands function of wireless toggle on machine, can help others.

The button has a use, but perhaps the hardware and/or software should more clearly communicate that the hardware is disabled.

> User deliberately skips impatiently past diagnostic information sufficient to immediately ascertain source of issue and enable rectification.

> User will go on to one day become stranded in traffic having ignored "low fuel" light in car.

It is well understood now that user do not read dialogs. Relying on dialogs as a communication method is a poor design and shouldn't be relied upon. Moreover, cars do suffer issues with users understanding error indicators, so I'm not really sure what you are trying to say.

> User bought into frictionless ecosystem, and was not notified that the needful was already happening automatically--though pondering the question "what if my phone breaks?" would've prevented this.

> (To be fair, this is outright poor software design.)

The tethered backup/restore for iOS devices via iTunes is not frictionless. It would be frictionless is the backup/restore was automatic through the web rather than requiring a specific step of steps. You are right that this is poor software design, absolutely.

Also, pre-iPhone a lot of people did expect to lose their contacts, esp. for those cell phone owners that didn't use devices with sim cards that can be moved from device to device.

> User never bothered to learn difference between shortcuts and files. User now knows difference, hopefully.

Even users that can click the correct icons may have trouble understanding the difference between files and shortcuts. To be fair, this may be one of those things that just needs to be taught in a direct fashion, because I'm not sure any software design change could really accommodate this misunderstanding (not even file system hiding OSes like Android/iOS do this right).

> User does not notice telltale UI mismatch, and does not know machine well enough to catch that. User hopefully now knows better.

The UI mismatch is not telltale to the average person. UI designs and paradigms change very often and the basic mechanics of windowed GUIs aren't well understood by the average person outside of the most basic operations. Again, there is a reason why malware ads and spam ads use these techniques, they are seeking to take advantage of the average level of information literacy.

It is easy to blame users for a lot of the issues they encounter, but that is completely unproductive. If computer hardware and software cannot work well and easily for the lowest common denominator then they are not improving people's lives, they are making them worse or putting those people in a position to have their lives made worse (virus infection, identity theft, loss of important documents/photos, etc.)

> Having worked with video troubleshooting for a variety of people, some folks understand that the video is remote and some do not. PowerPoint definitely should be designed in a way that helps the user make the distinction better than it currently does.

Those who don't, can't use computers.

I mean come on. "PowerPoint doesn't work" when referring to a video on one of the slides not loading?

If you were a user who didn't understand the difference between embedding the video and actually downloading it to local storage, it doesn't seem unreasonable to say "PowerPoint doesn't work", that program isn't loading the resource you thought you had.

> Those who don't, can't use computers.

The trend for the last decade or more has been to put more and more resources online or tie them to computer systems. In the US especially, libraries and social programs are underfunded and cannot meet the need of those that must use a computer to access something they need while not being able to use a computer. Applying for unemployment, handling documentation, finding work, and more are very computer centric now. In a perfect world, there would be options even for those that can't use a computer. However, we don't live in that world and as designers and implementers of hardware and software design we have a social duty to make the situation better for every user and potential user.

So, here's some different themes in the thread so far, some ideas spawned from the article, and thoughts on them:

  Author is a jerk for the TLDR at the beginning
Sure--it's unfortunate that such a red herring was thrown into an otherwise excellent article.

  Normal people shouldn't have to learn how to into computer.
This is unreasonable. "People don't want to learn how to computer, they want to learn how to get X done" is a great statement, but there's a distressing endpoint to it: if you simply learn how to get X done, instead of the framework for using resources that enable things including X, you become a technician, a cog. One day I'm going to write an Excel spreadsheet VB macro, and your whole department is out of a job. One day somebody will release YourJobaaService and then you are useless. And because you spent your life becoming a technician, you won't be able to enjoy your newfound free time, because you can't do anything other than blithely consume the content others have created.

  People still treat computers as new things.
We've had personal computers for nigh-on three or four decades now, and the fact that they're still treated in popular culture as magic black boxes is a failing on our part as techies for not educating better the rest of the population. We probably did it to curry favor, to enjoy the power of knowing something they didn't, but damned if it isn't going to bite us in the end.

As the author deftly points out, these folks are going to become our political leaders--and however little we think of their policies in regards to technology, they'll be that way because we failed to impress on them the knowledge that they needed. For anyone who's been paying attention to the darker subtext of the PRISM scandal, you can draw the uncomfortable conclusion that the government is saying: "Hey, tech sector, guess what--the halcyon days of your industry ignoring us are over. We matter, we command, and you obey. Get back into line."

Things would be different if any politician making clearly false claims about technology and the way it works could be and was mocked publicly, much as we mock US politicians with too much of the Jesus.

  IT front-line people are seen as janitors and treated accordingly.
Many of us have been there, many of us have probably chatted up a member of the preferred sex and tried to display value as somebody who can Fix Things (tm) or just stepped in to help a friend unfuck a colossally broken setup. This gets you quickly shunted off into the IT monkey box. You become not a person, but an annoyingly human interface over a set of skills that can be tapped on command to make problems go away. You aren't seen as a person, you're seen as a vending machine of computer repair. Again, this is probably our own fault--instead of teaching people how to fix their own problems, many of us used our positions and social skills (or lack thereof) to cultivate exactly this caste. Mistakes, mistakes.

  People don't know how to use computers as engines of computation.
The rise of the Web and the mobile device is mostly to blame for this, though the idea of a Mac as something your grandmother could use goes back many decades.

The problem is, knowing how to use a computer isn't like knowing how to fix your car, how to change its oil, or how to replace your water pump and radiator--a simple mechanical task that one could argue is redundant. It's about a way of thinking, about a way of abstracting problems and creating generalized solutions, about recognizing patterns in a system and applying just enough force to overcome your issue in an elegant fashion. This mindset is important to cultivate, and carries over to solving other problems and enriching your life.

Mankind is foremost a tool-user, and to deny that basic responsibility to our fellow humans is to tacitly acknowledge that they are subhuman.

>>We've had personal computers for nigh-on three or four decades now, and the fact that they're still treated in popular culture as magic black boxes is a failing on our part as techies for not educating better the rest of the population. We probably did it to curry favor, to enjoy the power of knowing something they didn't, but damned if it isn't going to bite us in the end.

No, people don't know enough about computers because it it isn't a priority for them. There is no other 'reason.' Not because they don't have critical thinking skills or because they have become infantilized by iProducts.

This applies to any field, the general public if they haven't studied in that field doesn't know how it works. Think about the vaccine autism epidemic that has put babies lives at risk because they refuse to have their kids vaccinated contrary to all medical evidence. If people would put their lives at risk over a rumor how can people be expected to know how computers work?

> Author is a jerk for the TLDR at the beginning

> Sure--it's unfortunate that such a red herring was thrown into an otherwise excellent article.

No, he comes across as a jerk for about 75% of the entire condescending article. "I'm better at this stuff than some people and thus these people are less than me" is the overriding theme here. There is a kernel of an excellent point here — that we would benefit from better teaching computer literacy — but it's buried under miles of condescension, dismissiveness and outright animosity.

Many of his "This person can't use a computer" statements are overly dismissive and imperious. "This stupid kid saw a dialog box saying he had a virus and thought it might mean he had a virus! What a numbskull!" "A teacher doesn't know off the top of her head how to set some stuff that nobody ever needs to set! How embarrassing!" It is no wonder that his point gets lost when he goes on for paragraph after paragraph deriding people and impugning their character for such silly reasons.

If you want greater computer literacy, my experience is that one of the first steps is making people feel comfortable working their way around their computers. This "h4h4 n00b" attitude is counterproductive.

First, he was coming at it from the position of being a fellow teacher, not designated IT-bro.

Second, you dismiss the problems as things "nobody ever has"--guess what? Somebody had them.

Third, he mostly listed examples where a cursory bout of reasoning or just a bit more experience in computers (gotten through doing something other than delegating to the mystical IT wizards) would've solved the problem.

And no, he didn't say the kid was stupid or a numbskull--he said the kid didn't know how to use computers. Stop putting words into the dude's mouth.

> First, he was coming at it from the position of being a fellow teacher, not designated IT-bro.

It's even less OK for teachers to take a condescending attitude than it is for normal people, so I'm not sure what your point is.

> Second, you dismiss the problems as things "nobody ever has"--guess what? Somebody had them.

Don't be obtuse. It is not conducive to good conversations.

> Third, he mostly listed examples where a cursory bout of reasoning or just a bit more experience in computers (gotten through doing something other than delegating to the mystical IT wizards) would've solved the problem.

Even people who have a lot of experience with computers will often not have had occasion to mess with their proxy settings. I have managed labs and offices with dozens of computers and the number of times I've needed to change the proxy settings on any machine is precisely zero. And I didn't know until pretty recently that some computers have a small, unlabeled switch that exists only to trick you into turning your Wi-Fi off on accident. That would have stumped me too, at least for a while. These are hardly fundamental failures of computer literacy.

> And no, he didn't say the kid was stupid or a numbskull--he said the kid didn't know how to use computers. Stop putting words into the dude's mouth.

Why? He has no problem putting words in people's mouths (e.g. "Fix my computer geek, and hurry up about it"). And unlike him, I at least have multiple people confirming that this was the impression he gave. My intent was to clarify why people are responding negatively to his tone — you seemed to think it was just the "TL;DR" portion, so I was explaining how the rest of his post sounds to many of us.

I agree. The vitriol through the majority of the article is exactly part of the reason people keep IT folks at arms length. I can appreciate the level of frustration, but the litany of "n00b" anecdotes is a bit absurd.

The other thing that kills me is that there will always be layers of abstraction. This was especially apparent to me when he rattles off a few programming languages part way through:

...PHP, HTML, JavaScript and Haskell

There's a chain (which is often two-way, I've found): The web content manager that never bothers to learn jQuery. The jQuery developer that never bothers to learn JavaScript. The JavaScript developer that never bothers to learn PHP. The PHP developer that never bothers to learn C. The C developer that never bothers to learn Assembly.

I do appreciate that he actually offers solutions at the end in the form of some fairly vague calls to action, instead of whining 100% of the time. I just don't care much for the delivery.

(However, you have to admit that it probably got a lot of attention as a result of the delivery...kudos for that, I suppose.)

> For anyone who's been paying attention to the darker subtext of the PRISM scandal, you can draw the uncomfortable conclusion that the government is saying: "Hey, tech sector, guess what--the halcyon days of your industry ignoring us are over. We matter, we command, and you obey. Get back into line."

You're the first I've seen to explicitly come to this phrasing, but I can't help thinking that this might be exactly what enrages me so much about their policies.

It feels like being lectured on appropriate behaviour by a pack of half blind chronically delusional half wits who even on top of their massive deficiencies and ignorance have the nerve to condescend in their demands.

Their laughably unjustified hubris needs to bite them, hard.

>It's about a way of thinking, about a way of abstracting problems and creating generalized solutions, about recognizing patterns in a system and applying just enough force to overcome your issue in an elegant fashion. This mindset is important to cultivate, and carries over to solving other problems and enriching your life.

Sorry if it's off-topic, but what you're talking about here is exactly the skill I feel I was forced to develop in AP Chemistry in high school. I wish that course got some more recognition. It really isn't about chemistry; it's about problem solving.

Conjecturing models and then testing their implications to see if they fit or not. Constant iteration on our understanding of the atom based on experimental data. Logical, quantitative ways to reason from a set of observations to "name the mystery element."

People associate critical thinking with math, but at the high school level, I learned the most I've ever learned about how to think in AP Chem. Math was about following procedures - in Chem, especially the "marathon problems," you had to create the recipes for yourself by stringing together primitives in a logical way.

I'm biased by my own performance, but I'd like to see SAT Math replaced with AP Chem.

I think the issue here is that one of our greatest tools, The Google, is being neglected. I bet if I had a simple problem with my car, I'd google it and see if I can fix it.

I guess in the case of not being able to connect to the Internet, they can't really do that unless they carried their smartphone around with them like everybody else in the world.

"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."

The people who shape our society will know what they need to know. I'm not sure a great understanding of a desktop PC is going to change this.

On a separate note, the author is demanding that everyone be super knowledgeable about a set of devices that is on it's way out. I think it's far more relevant for people to understand how their phones,tablets, and the internet work than understanding how to re-install windows...

> The people who shape our society will know what they need to know. I'm not sure a great understanding of a desktop PC is going to change this.

If you define "what they need to know" as "what's necessary for vaguely close to optimal job performance", then no, they won't. They will know the minimum they can get away with. They will know as little as we let them know. It has always been this way. The USA was founded by some of the brightest men of its day because the prevailing view demanded that this be so. Today, we do not demand that our leaders be our best and brightest. We have no idea how we would go about measuring such a thing. Instead, we've been taught to support the candidate that fits our preset ideological subset. This leads to parrot leaders who do not think strategically about the management of a country as much as they think strategically about the appeasement of their sources of votes and campaign contributions.

It comes back to understanding the basics of asking good questions and thinking about one's surroundings. This process is what humans did well to succeed: we should be encouraging it as much as possible. I do not ask that the average person, or even our decision-makers, already know how to re-install an operating system. I ask that they know how to find out, and think about the problem well enough to gather information and come to a conclusion about what's wrong. I ask that they look at the world rationally and scientifically. This is the failure of our educational system. Because we have not taught basic thinking and reasoning skills, because we have not taught that this is fundamentally necessary as a basic part of being a human, our leaders will say things like "The internet is a system of tubes". Because we do not expect or teach our citizens to think rationally, because we do not expect and verify that our leaders are informed about the mechanics and consequences of the decisions they make, bad laws are passed with great frequency.

This is our cultural, educational, and societal failure. No, I don't expect everyone to know how to re-install Windows. I expect them to look around them and see if they have any resources to get closer to a solution before expecting a free fix. And if they decide it's not worth their time to do it on the regular, I expect them to conceptually understand it on a basic enough level to provide information when asked probing questions by the person they're paying to fix it. Think, then act. It's not hard, we just gave up on teaching it.

I personally thought this was a very good article. It definitely gave me a lot to think about with regard to how much I help my family members fix their computer problems instead of "teaching them to fish" so to speak.

First thing that came to mind for this:

> When they hit eleven, give them a plaintext file with ten-thousand WPA2 keys and tell them that the real one is in there somewhere. See how quickly they discover Python or Bash then.

Was "How will they learn Python without Google"? Only to look to my right and see my Python book. facepalm

Agh, the dependence.

Well done!

While I do kind of agree with parts of the article, the author proposes some seriously nonsensical "solutions".

Especially this gem:

""" Mobile [...] I use Ubuntu-Touch, and it has possibilities. [...] 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. """

To learn more about "mobile" the author proposes using a something that's not functional ... yeah, that makes sense.

I worked help desk in my university's computer labs for several years, and got consistently good reviews. When I fixed someone's problem, I made a point of explaining what I was doing as I went. I wasn't just pretending to be polite; I really do enjoy helping people to get a better understanding of their world. Sure, it's obvious to me that you need to empty the recycle bin before the space is really freed up, or that saving a shortcut to a file won't let you access the original from another computer. I'm sure my users know any number of "obvious" facts about math or architecture or medicine that would've left me dumbfounded. What right do I have to claim that my domain of knowledge is more important? If I'm pleasant and helpful and educational, then the student can solve their own problem the next time and my job is easier.

I'm pretty sure I was the only person in the entire campus-wide computer lab system who felt that way. Sometimes students held on to complex problems until my next shift because they knew I was the only one who would actually explain the problem. Techs all over the world seem to treat clients as unteachable idiot annoyances to be shuffled through as quickly as possible, so they can get back to what's really important: complaining on the internet about how nobody understands computers.

The county proxy is there to ensure that the staff and students can’t access porn on the school network. It also filters for violence, extremism, swearing, social networks, alcohol, smoking, hacking, gaming and streaming video. 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.

That was the most interesting part for me. It's crazy that people are ok with it.

When I was in school, I remember several websites would submit their password as a query string. (Meaning the URL would have &password in it somewhere.)

These sites were blocked because pASSword was a "bad word." The filter would also catch most queries that would tell you how to circumvent the filters. (Back then, just using HTTPS versions of sites was usually enough to get past them.)

The best part was: while searching about proxies / changing proxy settings was disallowed -- the computers themselves were dumb terminals that could connect to a remote server using VNC, RDP, and some proprietary Citrix protocol.

If you knew how to switch TTYs on Linux (Ctrl+Alt+1-7) you could get to a debug menu where you could enter any IP and protocol combination you wanted. (TTY2 had a root shell running busybox... the machines were imaged each time you booted though.)

For my last two years I simply connected to my home machine running VNC and browsed the Internet completely unfettered. (Plus I could remotely control my machine: so many times I would start long running downloads at the beginning of the school day.)


Back then, though, these filters were laughably naive. I'm amazed that it was deemed acceptable to use a system that has to be _overridden_ for students to research for their science classes.

When I was in high school, a similar filter meant the kids who didn't normally have the time of day for computer geeks were doing all kinds of independent research into proxy and VPN technology.

Of course, this effect wasn't intended, and I doubt the teachers knew about it (AFAIK nobody told them, and even if they had, I doubt the message would've been understood).

I think the reason they do it is liability: The school wants to be able to tell parents that they made commercially reasonable efforts to ensure their kids weren't exposed to inappropriate materials in school.

> It's crazy that people are ok with it.

Not really. A school library wouldn't have hard-copy Playboy magazines for students to peruse. Choosing not to allow access to the online equivalent isn't that much of a step. Parents who trust their kids with uncensored Internet access can still provide it at home.

I think that a better analogy would be that shops should not sell knives because one can hurt someone with it.

This really, really hits close to home. I'm the oldest of 3 brothers, me 26, the youngest 21. I was always an 'experimenter' with computers, meaning I had no problem toying with the settings or clicking through unknown menus to find the solution to a problem. I toyed and tweaked until something worked, and that willingness to explore has helped me innumerable times throughout life.

My brothers, for some strange reason, did not develop that ability. The second something goes wrong on their computer, they freeze, deer in front of a lighthouse. Everything from installing apps, to fixing wifi settings, to customizing their desktops, to updating their iPhones, is a situation that causes panic. These guys are otherwise very functional, and very educated. One of them went off to grad school the other day with a new macbook, and after already having one for 4 years, asked me to "set up" his computer, which consisted nothing more of going through the walk-through for new OSX users.

It is one of the most frustrating and mind-boggling things. You can often hear me yelling at them, whether in person or over the phone, "You need to figure out yourself! Just play around with the damn computer! It's not going to explode!"

I'm the oldest as well and the most computer literate of my siblings. Have you considered that because we were there to fix their computer problems when they were young we eliminated the need for them to develop the skills (and comfort) we have with computers?

I've been yelling at them since the beginning to figure things out on their own! I'd give in occasionally to help them out. Maybe it's that staggered reward effect.

Regardless of the attitude of the author, I loved this article. I'm 30, been in IT since 1999 or so and recently I've thought that maybe the younger generation would start filling positions that I'd normally be a shoe in for. This is not the case, they're great at web apps and wasting time online, but when it comes to hardware, networking concepts etc.. they're lost. It's sad, but it also makes me feel secure :)

The TL;DR makes this guy sound like a prick.

Sorry you feel that way. I'll edit it out when I get back to my computer. I wasn't trying to be a prick, but I get your point.

I thought it was clever and resonated with the tone of your article, but you could tone it down a little bit.

Bloggers can't use language...and this is why it matters.

The only thing I found annoying was his pet peeve about "the internet being down". I might tell someone that to get the idea across. Of course, I could say that "I was unable to establish a TCP/IP connection with the web server", but saying "the internet is down" is much simpler.

Then again, I correct people when they call the computer tower a "CPU" or "Hard Drive", so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I love hacker News and wouldn't consider posting this unless I were certain that it applied. My friends and I are working on a game that will teach players (mainly kids) how to code. We have done workshops in NYC, Philly and Sheffield, England. I'd love for you guys to take a look at it and give feedback, we think we're making something pretty cool. www.betathegame.com

The authors' attitude, while polarizing, is not really as important as the underlying issues that the article is trying to address. I agree and disagree with a few of his points, but just understanding the current environment in education, there are too many obstacles to overcome systematically.

How do you strike a balance between budget, administration, curriculum, and execution. Inevitably, one of these stakeholders prevents change and growth.

In the end, it may fall upon us tech professionals to continually improve UX. As far as the masses are concerned, that is the point of our professional existence. When a car breaks, they want a mechanic. When a computer doesn't connect to the inter-nets, they want a tech professional.

Just to throw it out there. Think of how much tech has advanced in the last ten years (Google is only 10yrs old)... do you really think, knowing what you know about agility in education, that public schools could have kept pace??? There are tech giants that have fallen by the wayside over the same period of time.

Having been that kid that plugs the Ethernet cable back in for the kid sitting next to him, and figures out how to connect the projector to the computer at the start of class, I understand where the author is coming from and I am similarly concerned that people are not more up in arms about Internet censorship in the UK, yada yada.

So, yeah, the tone is a little harsh, but if I had to deal with these sorts of user support requests every day on top of teaching class, I'd be grumpy too.

Managing a network when all the users BYOD and/or have administrator access isn't as trivial as the author makes it out to be; I remember wiping "Deep Freeze" off of a school computer unintentionally once when I installed Ubuntu on it in dual-boot from a CD. Eventually the school district moved to a thin-client solution; wasting the thousands of dollars they had spent buying (then) cutting-edge general-purpose computers in the first place. But it's certainly the ideal; it's what I think we should be aiming for.

This really resonated as I am probably technology illiterate in a lot of things and I would hope my son isn't. Thanks for some ideas.

Interesting comments. I got that this guy was burned out. I know that feeling, how many times can someone say "The Internet it down" and you have told them the steps to identify what is the problem and often fix it?

I really applauded Microsofts work on "Trouble Shooters" which would walk you through those steps. Each one saying "Is it better now?" and if you got to the end it would send a report to Microsoft.

More importantly the message though is that a large number of people use "computers" when what they wanted were "appliances." Specifically it always does what its job. No programability required. This is what makes the Chromebook and things like it so powerful for those people. Turn it on it works, if not you get a new one.

The dissonance of people who use a software tool, and that forces them to use a computer to run it, versus the people who use a computer that has a number of different software tools is getting stronger.

I could also add that nowadays people don't know how to use cars. They might as well be magical boxes that take us places and nothing that happens underneath the bonnet is important. And just like in this article - there are people who are perversely proud of it. They are proud that they don't know how to change a wheel, how to check oil level, or even refill the washer fluid. In fact, they don't even know HOW to open a bonnet. I know people who could ignore the most obvious of signs that something is wrong - loud noises, visibly low pressure in the tyres, high/low running temperature......

In fact, I imagine we could write an article like this for pretty much everything. I knew a guy who would call an electrician to change his lightbulbs. People don't know how to use anything, and there is nothing we can do about it,since most people are incapable of being mentally engaged in something they don't care about.

I think the author was trying to point out, people don't want to learn anymore. Whey they encounter a problem, they throw their hands up, and complain until it is fixed. After someone fixes it, they walk away without even asking what caused it and how it was solved.

You must not have read the article, because it explicitly mentions cars.

Yes, but he moved the goal-post when it comes to his car example. He's imagining a future where nobody knows how to drive. In the present, we already have people who can't maintain their own cars (and don't want to) just as we have people who can't maintain their own computers (and don't want to).

I agree - I was unsatisfied with his conclusion about cars. It seemed a good counterargument to bring up, but then he didn't resolve it.

I did, except for the very last paragraph since I thought I got the essence of the article already. I see it now.

People may not like how this message is delivered, but I've worked support at a university full of supposedly smart people and saw the same sort of things. It's a real issue that I hope the raspberry pi and associated efforts do something to address. My favorite IT request was someone asking to put the internet on a disk for them.

This article gets so much right. I was initially offended by the TL;DR; I read it hoping to get a quick gist of what it was about but instead was told that I should go watch kitten videos. Reading on, it shares so many of my opinions. Even the small paragraph about driving your own car or having Google drive it for you strikes home. I've talked about that with people and everyone's still like "I'm sure we'll keep driving for a good while because it's fun". I fully agree with the author on every point he made in the article.

One of my favorite parts:

> Cameron announces that ISPs are going to start filtering The Internet. It’s described as a ‘porn filter’, but the Open Rights Group’s investigations implies that far more than porn will be filtered by default. Then to top it all, Cameron’s chief advisor on this issue has her website hacked and displays just how technically illiterate she really is.

first thing that struck me, the author complains about a stigma attached to knowing how computers work: >>"Rather than being some faceless, keyboard tapping, socially inept, sexually inexperienced, network monkey, she now saw me as a colleague. 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,"

AND THEN, goes on to declare that yes, he is normally a sarcastic bastard who makes big deals out of inane verbiage: >>"Normally I pull out my mobile phone and pretend to tap in a few numbers. Holding the handset to my ear I say ‘Yes, give me the office of the President of the United States… NO I WILL NOT HOLD, this is an emergency… Hello, Mister President, I’m afraid I have some bad news. I’ve just been informed that The Internet is not working.’"

And you wonder where the stereotypes come from....

Why didn't the MacBook just configure itself?

What basic computer skills should everybody possess? In my view, the answer is: None. My rationale is that any skill considered to be universal enough for everybody to know, should be taken care of by the computer -- especially if the computer is sold on the premise that "it just works."

I've been hacking since 1981, and I wouldn't have guessed the need to configure the MacBook for a proxy server, or that the proxy was blocking the embedded YouTube video.

On the other hand, I want my own kids to learn how to hack. We have 4 Raspberry Pi's in the house. The kids are learning HTML and Python. But why? My motive isn't to teach them "skills," but just to see if it sparks their interest. Also, I think that given the ubiquity of programming as an intellectual pursuit, and its impact on society & history, it ranks as a "liberal art" alongside calculus.

Making things foolproof results in better fools.

But, I really would like to admit that things like "WPA2 Enterprise" or "Proxy" are really at least more than special in terms of common language. Looking at the TV analogy OP made, I would like to throw in this piece of information:

Even getting a new TV up and running is some kind of rocket science nowadays. This is what it is like in Germany right now:

Step 1: buy TV at local dealer.

Step 2: At home, the TV is asking you to tell him what kind of signal you have:

   * Cable, analog
   * Cable, digital
   * DVB/T (terristical, antenna on roof or indoor)
   * Sat, satellite analog
   * DVB-S, satellite digital
   * DVB-S2, satellite digital h264 HD
Step 3: Call son or husband of daughter to setup this strange device: "All I wanted is to watch TV!!!!eleven!"

And that is not even close to the confusion happening when the wifi and apps settings are popping up.

I was one of the kids who could use computers. I got a lot of negative reactions from teachers whenever I used the DOS prompt for anything. Kids in high school who know programming or other advanced tricks learn quickly that the teachers finding them using what they know often leads to censure or even punishment.

So the "good kids" who follow all the rules will leave that stuff at home and play dumb in school. The "rebels" who like to push boundaries will make sure the teachers don't find out.

So I'm betting there are plenty of bright kids who know a lot about computers in the author's classes, and they're all keeping their heads down. Doubly so if the author has a reputation for being angry and judgmental. (I didn't think this article was particularly offensive, but other commenters disagree.)

I don't really think it's as big of a deal as the author thinks it is. Computer systems are often extremely complicated and confusing. Yes you might not think so because you are familiar with them, but things that seem obvious to you through experience do not to everyone else.

Anything that makes them simpler, easier, or cuts through the confusion is a good thing. My analogy would be how most programmers don't work with machine code. Even if they are familiar with it they probably don't have any experience. And you get any more low level than that, like the cpu design.

Specialization is a good thing. It's how we built modern civilization and how we are able to build computers in the first place. For most people there isn't really any benefit of learning the details of their operating system, if they don't have to deal with it in the first place because it's well designed, isn't that a good thing?

>I have one question for these policy makers:

>Without reference to Wikipedia, can you tell me what the difference is between The Internet, The World Wide Web, a web-browser and a search engine?

>If you can’t, then you have no right to be making decisions that affect my use of these technologies. Try it out. Do your friends know the difference? Do you?

Legislators also aren't familiar with the vast majority of other industries they regulate. Stupid regulations aren't unique to technology. You just happen to know enough to see problems with them.

>We should be teaching kids not to install malware, rather than locking down machines so that it’s physically impossible.

What's wrong with more secure systems? I mean I don't think we should lock out general purpose apps entirely, but it's great that people can generally trust random apps, and that it's much harder to create a virus.

And for what it's worth, computercraft for minecraft is a great way of introducing programming.

>"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."

I wonder if this guys mechanic/dealership is as much of an assumptive, condescending douche towards him as he admittedly is toward everyone who seeks his help?

There are good points in there, but they're buried among 4000+ words of rambling tripe.

Personally, I agree with bits of what is presented. Thing is, I don't think these are things which necessarily need fixing. We're in a period of transition where this kind of mismatch is apparent, but it will fade quickly with time and I'd question the impact of widespread low-level literacy on progress.

Wow, I have a completely different take on this article. Us techno-geeks that can fix proxy settings are low-end commodities nowadays. (Outside of a tech company) - the lawyers, doctors, salesmen that want to work and drive revenue don't need to mess with that. Newer computers and OS's do shield a lot of that, and that is a good thing. They can hire a few IT dorks to plug things in if needed. That is the future. There was a time that a car mechanic was looked at as an engineer or scientist. Now he is a wrench turner. Get used to it. Now, should people dump tech problems on you? No. Just like it is not considered right to show your rash to your doctor friend while at Starbucks. That is a different issue.

Perhaps the issue is that there is this expectation that everyone should know how to "use" a computer. We forgive older generations, because it's something they never grew up with while being appalled at younger generations because they're not using computers to do technical stuff. News flash: computers are not the end all be all of the world. It's simply an aspect of it, and while some kids won't give a crap about how computers work, others will be wildly passionate about it. Some kids will grow up to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, artists, philosophers, and excelling in their domains does not come with a requirement of knowing how to connect to a wifi network.

By the way, the counterpoint to that Cory Doctorow quote how everything is a computer (airplane is a flying computer) is that the EXACT PROBLEM with software is that damn near everything is a computer. And when you add a computer to anything, it tends to go to shit. Things that worked just fine without it, now saddled with the typical software engineering mindset, are suddenly not so good. BMW iDrive, Ford Sync/MyFord Touch case in point.

Read the preview of this book:


The part that says "what do you get when you cross a computer with an airplane".

I am horrible at being patient with others' technical difficulties. I've run into the "Where's the Internet Explorer icon" problem at my elementary school before; I honestly do not understand why the desktop folder was invented.

Yes, the article was a bit harsh, but you have to admit there are a few real issues the author is pointing out. Why the hell are schools being taught Microsoft Office from junior high all the way to senior year? Why can't school systems set up a GNU/Linux distro on their networks? Sure, it takes a bit more work to install, but it's free and technology classes would benefit heavily from it.

I know somebody is gonna reply and say that Linux has no real-world use.

In a lot of the discussions I'm seeing on here, it seems like a lot of the disagreement is around the question of whether it is reasonable to expect that people should be expected to know how their tools work.

I would have to take the position that people should have some in-depth knowledge of how their tools work. Why? All abstractions are leaky. Would you expect a carpenter to use a (powered) saw without knowing how it is designed and how the blade is driven (for safety and making smooth cuts)? Would you expect a radiologist to interpret x-ray photos without having an understanding of the impact that different energy (KeV) radiation and film/sensor technology has on the resulting image?

The blog doesn't do a very good job of explaining why this should worry us. For shits and giggles, try replacing every instance of "computer" with "car", and every complaint about not being able to reinstall the OS with not being able to replace the carburetor.

Guess what? The vast majority of people don't need to know how to replace the carburetor, or know how to reinstall the OS -- they're happy with something that Just Works 99% of the time, and to consult professionals the rest of the time. And that's just fine: in the same way that not everybody needs to be a car mechanic, not everybody needs to be a computer guru.

This just sounds like the rantings of a disgruntled "computer guy" (sorry for the gender bias). The suggestion here is that the ability of users to handle their own inane tasks EQUALS the ability to use a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

FWIW, my kids can use their computers quite ably. They use the command line, they know the difference between wireless vs. physical connections, and they know their file system. And, wouldn't you know it -- sometimes they still ask inane questions for help.

Reading some of the comments, it's apparent the author takes his teaching seriously. I hope it comes through as teaching, and not as disdain for the future.

lol ... sounds like this guy is Nick Burns the company's computer guy - http://vimeo.com/24762526

I've had some experiences in the opposite direction.

A neighborhood kid, about 12, asked me for some computer help with Minecraft. My jaw hit the floor when he started asking about stuff I didn't learn until college -- he was doing this crazy redtone circuitry (stuff like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oc6spHvGPtQ) to program the doors in a castle according to timers and various inputs.

The kid was basically teaching himself hardware design just to play a game. And it wasn't considered that weird, this was just what you have to do in Minecraft.

This is a stretch for me... Should every kid know how to install Linux? And troubleshoot a proxy? Hmmm.... And is this important if they can't read or write well?

I view computing as a great topic for those that are interested, but technology is getting easier. I want my kids to learn about it, and consider it for a career. But mandatory? I won't turn my nose up on anyone who doesn't understand proxy settings.

That said, I recall a finance professor bemoaning that most Phd students in his department don't program any more. "This will limit the kinds of research that they can do."

The issue in the article was that the proxy was needed to circumvent draconian content filtering. I learned how to use proxies in school specifically to work around this.

You can complain about your problems, or you can refuse to learn how to fix them--you don't get to do both.

I'd rather them know how to install Linux than write well. It's far more useful.

I disagree. For 95% of the world who doesn't work in the guts of computers, clear communication is more important.

I have only read the TL:DR.

If you're going to be a condescending jerk, why should I read anything you have to say? You know what makes it obvious that an article is too long for me to read? I start reading it and notice it is too long for me. No condescending presupposition about how I use my free-time is necessary.

I infer you are trying to get a point across. I recommend you cut out anything that both has no chance of improving your chance of reaching people with that point and also reasonable chance of increasing the amount of people who will ignore your article. Focus on the point.

  "Without reference to Wikipedia, can you tell me what the 
   difference is between The Internet, The World Wide Web, a 
   web-browser and a search engine?"
uh... well the last two are pretty easy, but... the first two.

I actually don't know, I've used those two terms interchangably to be honest. I guess if I was pressed I'd say that the world wide web is what the colloquial internet actually is, and the internet is the package of protocols the world wide web runs on? I can't imagine many people are going to get this one right.

The "world wide web" is the stuff you get from http. Simple as that. The internet would be the global network that lets you get your port 80 (http) packets from one place to another.

that seems obvious in retrospect now.

> defeated by their school laptops because they don’t have administrator privileges

Physical access is usually game-over from a security perspective. Unless you're doing hard-core encryption and TPM stuff, I bet someone who knew what they were doing, and was allowed to take a laptop home overnight, could root it by morning.

I'm sure that some students have done this.

I'm not going to detail the attack vectors, because I respect those hackers more than I respect the school that gives people crippled hardware, and I want those doors to remain open for others like them.

I am under 25 and I can use a computer. Why? Because my parents bought me only my first computer and refused to upgrade after that. At one point my need for playing new games got the best of me and I started experimenting. First OS cleanup, first format, first memory upgrade, etc.

I have never really learned how do deal with computers. Its just 10+ years of just fixing whatever is broken/not working, because there was no one to fix it for me.

Now I just have to find a job where I can do this problem solving for money

That's the point the author tires to make :

>Techno-Dad to the rescue.

That's the problem. You need to let your children experimenting. But you have to make sure it's safe for them : Don't let them install the playstation themselves if plugging the wrong wire could blow up your house (fortunately that's not the case)

Your parents let you discover by yourself, but you took the initiative because you wanted to play games, that was your goal. But people who don't care about playing new games would not have this tech-curiosity

This was just for a real life example, to support author.

For us it was the economy. Upgrading was too expensive.

I don't think in IT there is much a child can do wrong. Only giving up personal information should be prohibited mostly. Other than that, its pretty safe. I managed to light computer on fire only once.

TL,DR? You write a rambling article containing basic factual inaccuracies and switching writing style without warning and you dare make it sound as thought not wanting to finish it is somehow _my_ fault?

The bits in italics were well written. The first paragraph headed "parents" was a nice conclusion. That would have made a great post.

The bit about the UK going to MS for it's initial computing curriculum seems to wipe the BBC / Acorn / ARM story from history.

"It's no longer necessary to be a computer person in order to use a computer, and that means lots of people are using computers who aren't computer people!" TRAGEDY!

Lots of people use cars and don't know how to fix them. Lots of people live in houses but hire people to repair the plumbing or the electricals when those things break. You don't have to completely understand something to use something, and that's OKAY.

Alright, a lot of people don't understand where the wiper fluid goes and never pop their hood, and they drive around just fine.

But let me turn the argument 90deg: would you say the same thing about math or about reading? Yes, people DO live life without learning arithmetic or how to read, but they probably also have a higher likelihood of poor outcomes in life.

I think the argument being made is that, because computers are so vital to our existence today, fostering computer hacking as a skill and having a real understanding of the computer is a fundamental that must be taught for society to keep advancing.

The snark of the article muddies the waters, but I tend to agree with the sentiment. IMO, having kids get a deep understanding of computers and making scores more tinkerers/hackers is more important than teaching the next generation to drive cars.

I didn't agree with most of the article, but the bit about the Microsoft Office curriculum is completely true.

In high school, I wanted to take my school's generic AP Java class. To get to even such a basic level of CS education, I had to sit through _years_ of MS Office and Adobe classes. Thankfully, the workload was so low, I was able to teach myself TI Basic and Actionscript, but those classes were jokes.

Wow, what a badass, you can connect to a wifi, turn on a monitor AND find an IE icon on the desktop? How does one acquire such advanced skills?

Wow, this guy sure trolled HN good..

If someone asks you "can you fix my computer", a good response could be "I have some time next Tuesday, it'll be $50 to figure out what's wrong, plus $100/hr to fix it".

And yes, most people are lazy and do the minimum to get by in their lives, whether in context of computers of otherwise. Don't kvetch about it, use it to your advantage.

This is one reason I'm against the current GUI trend in Linux. By copying Apple and Microsoft blatantly, they forgot that when using the command line that they are replacing user must first understand the concept of what they are doing.

Most guis i contributed to opensource have at least the console output so the user is not 100% oblivious to the concepts that are happening underneath.

I didn't downvote you, but a novice's most successful way to solve a problem using a console is "use Google to find magical incantations to type into computer", which is actually a less useful level of abstraction than navigating your way through a list of options offered by a half-decent GUI.

He's mastered the arcane and delicate technology that we software people work with every day, but that doesn't make everyone else a moron. His experience blinds him to how bad the user interfaces are for most things we use. The sad fact is that most software products are simply not good enough if the general population is expected to be successful with them.

Even the most savvy computer user will make stupid mistakes... For example I once wondered why my display didn't work when I had apparently accidentally hit the "Input Source" button so the display was no longer set to DVI and didn't know how to get it to work... I guess I "can't use a computer" in the author's mind?

I assume you eventually fixed it yourself. So therefore you can use a computer.

This is not about stupid mistakes.

No, I called IT support and they fixed it for me.

But you did understand the problem and given enough time you would have figured it out.

Article could benefit from a blog post version of the Wadsworth Constant.


By my count the first 15 paragraphs had nothing to do with the title and served mainly to illustrate the author's projection of his disdain for others.

Get out of the driver's seat you git! If you don't set the manual choke properly you'll flood the engine!

The 30-50 age range can use computers because they spent the early half of the 90s trying to get VGA games to run reasonably well on their 386s. Or they were laying in front of the commodore, recreating code from a magazine. Me and my friends tried to recreate songs on it.

At least that's how I got my start. What's your story?

I'm interested in that point as well -- are people in that age range an aberration in history? Are they more likely to be able to troubleshoot than the older grumps and the younger kids who only had one-piece gadgets? Likely not, but it'd be interesting if the generation that had to tinker with their PCs was unique to other generations.

This post made me realize I've come to use "TL;DR" as "thesis" or "abstract" - giving me something of a sense of what the writing promises and where it's going before I dive in - and I found it somewhat jarring when this one didn't meet my expectations.

I have a lot to say in response to this article, but for now I'll just share a quote from one of my computer science professors that I'll never forget:

"Just because you're a computer science professor doesn't mean you know how to use a computer."

Yyyyyyup, that's a lot of comments by people complaining about the tone of the article (and misunderstanding it to boot) and ignoring the content.

Tone affects the perceived meaning of content. The same statement delivered with different tones will come across as genuine or enthusiastic or sarcastic or puzzling etc

This is one of the most fantastically insightful and legitimately important posts I've seen on Hacker News in a while. It's refreshing.

helpdesk/support guy here-- I think a small part of this is a weird desire to be liked by the person asking for help-- the 'wow, thanks!' after you flick their wi-fi switch back on. You often don't make friends by telling them to google it, or maybe pointing them to the appropriate documentation, especially if they don't care to learn.

It sounds like you want everyone to be a system administrator. That is not going to ever happen.

The human history of inventing has one very consistent theme: making things easier for ourselves. "Computers" will only become easier to use, and require less knowledge of the humans that are using them.

When "computers" go wrong, a human with that specialty will fix it. You have that specialty. Why can't everyone fix their own cars or HVACs or bake their own bread?

When I read kids I was expecting actual kids, a "twentysomething" may already have kids of their own.

Great post. Looking forward to hopefully having beers with you and Phil in Edinburgh sometime soon again.

If you don't know how to spell "tires", you don't know how to use a computer.

Kids will just use tablets instead.

When I was a kid, none of the other kids could use a computer. I couldn't, either.

maybe we need a license to use a computer to e entitled to technical support? So many Personal Computer users are just about clueless about the so simple things.

the real tldr: "i don't know how to properly configure a network and now everybody and me has to suffer"

I had the same Fisher Price toy!!

Thank you for writing this.

Obligatory xkcd: http://xkcd.com/627/

No, this is why it worries him: his salary depends on it.

Frankly, I have never seen a good reason why kids need to use computers or the internet aside from peer pressure, especially in elementary school. There's nothing that requires it until at least high school, at least as much as they should learn to frame a house because they might be a construction worker some day.

Computers are used in most industries today. Framing, not so much. The ability to use a computer is becoming nearly as important as being able to drive. Sure, you can do without it but you're probably not going to go very far.

Then why don't children learn to drive in elementary school?

They should.

In elementary school, children should be introduced to the bare essentials of vehicular mechanics, say with simple rubber-band powered Lego cars. Over time, increase the sophistication of the science, engineering, and even social aspects of vehicles - eventually building go-carts and learning to drive them as a subset of state driving regulations, and working up to real cars and getting a driver's license. BTW: most jurisdictions only impose driving age limits on public roads; kids certainly are allowed to drive on public property (I've known kids who learned to drive at 14 or earlier).

They should also learn cooking, sewing, carpentry, welding, shooting, fieldcraft, and every other variant of the Boy Scout Handbook and Heinlein's "specialization is for insects" quote. Dang straight they should learn the essential basics of driving early on.

Yet they don't, and driving affects their lives and their driving has a potentially disastrous effect on other peoples' lives to a much greater degree than their computer use and level of skill does.

Most of my driving skills, and my disdain for other people "who use a car and can't drive" comes from driving games in arcades as a kid.

Now that arcades are dead in the US? There goes easy access to a really useful "simulator as a game". "Driving" in a game on an iPad is nowhere near close as Race Drivin' which had a clutch, a starter key, and relatively functioned as a real car (i.e. if you picked manual expect that bitch to stall).

If I wrote a blog post about driving, I would be far more snarky and dismissive than this author. It's one of my biggest pet peeves. I borderline consider myself a "professional driver" though I would lack the credentials but it just rubs me so wrong that people are this fucking careless at it as I see every time I get behind the wheel. I'm frankly surprised some people still live.

Because students are expected to use computers to complete their work in high school and sometimes sooner. There is no coincidence that driving classes and learners permits are given before the ability to get a licence to drive. They should learn good practices just before they are expected to perform.

Let's look at this "expected to use" assumption: are these tasks for which computers are necessary? Are they tasks for which using a computer eases the teacher's job? Are they tasks that increase the child's knowledge of computers in themselves? How is it different than learning how to cook french fries?

By the same token though, wouldn't it be a good idea for children know the rules of the road before they're gunning for their licenses? I think you contradict yourself in your last sentence.

I hate these idiotic titles. It feels like I see at least 5 titles a day that are broad sweeping generalizations that all have the same tone. Of course kids can use computers, don't be stupid. Maybe a small subset can't. If that's not what the article is about, then don't put it in the title.

And also.. I went to read the article, saw the extremely arrogant TLDR and closed it.

Go back and read the article and come back when you've got something useful to say.

I also found the TLDR quite arrogant and frustrating. It's like if I'm sending an e-mail to someone and I write in the subject "Just read the damn email".

Maybe the words TLDR aren't chosen correctly. I view it more as a "Here's a summary of the article". It's not that the text is "too long" but mostly that there are billions of articles to read. I'd be more than happy to read yours if you can just grab my attention and make it interesting in the summary. I.e. Like a trailer.

He's right though this article is complete garbage, having a blog does not automatically validate your opinion. All people can be inspired to learn in some way, and this guy is a teacher, wtf.

I've written several paragraphs elsewhere in this thread explaining my feelings on the article and on other comments--try to hold yourself to a higher standard than merely saying "other guy is right article is bad" without backing up your points.

Having commenting privileges on a forum does not automatically validate your opinion--at least give us a stacktrace.

The fact that you think that verbal regurgitation of pedantic bullshit is more of a response than my "this guy is a teacher, wtf" response is probably the same reason this guy felt able to judge someone who had trouble with her computer when he couldn't configure a proxy on a Mac. You calling content filtering on a school network draconian is also ridiculous, this article blows.

So, again, would care to explain why my classification of content filtering as draconian is bullshit? Or in what ways the article blows?

You're coming off as a stupid troll, unable to articulate thoughts of disagreement and using cursewords in attempt to lend weight to an otherwise vapid position.

So, how about this: try to come off as a smart troll, and do a better job of explaining yourself than just simply bleating "bah pedantic bullshit bah bah". Use your words.

They can use computers but have no understanding of them, geeks understand them.

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