Was There Ever a Golden Age of Computer Knowledge?

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I am a tinkerer. I always have been. This was a trait of mine that was particularly frustrating for my mother, who would come home to fully disassembled phones, blenders and radios. Thankfully for her sanity, I paid attention to what I was doing when I was disassembling, and reassembled the electronics pretty quickly, and generally left them functional.

Perhaps I was just inclined toward problem-solving. Most of what I have pursued in my life, in terms of distraction or career, was intentionally chosen to be a new challenge for me. If I did not have a challenge, I became bored.

So, when my Mom redirected my destructive curiosity toward computing at 10 years of age, it was a perfect fit. Suddenly there was this new technology for which dis-assembly was not really feasible. But I could assemble it and then learn how to program it or control it.

Programming languages were a challenge in and of themselves. Using them correctly required problem solving. The best programming required clever problem solving – creating efficient and unexpected solutions.

I was the only child I knew who was learning BASIC at that age. And the only child I knew who had assembled his own computer. When I went to high school, I was one of six children from my school who attended a programming extension course for FORTRAN at the local university.

What struck me was that so few people were even interested in computers back then. That really has not changed, even though computers have become ubiquitous. To most people, the computer is simply a highly-target tool. A smartphone, a word processor, a photo manipulator. When people get their computer, they are interested in a specific tool, but not the general use of the computer itself.

A high percentage of the people who use computers have no real knowledge of how they function, and the highly abstract nature of OSes means that they usually do not have to have that knowledge – day-to-day use of a computer is fairly easy. But it also means that our skills at troubleshooting (problem-solving), are not being exercised. Our knowledge of computers goes no deeper than the thin veneer at the surface.

In the tech writing world, this lack of deep computing knowledge has led to the postulation that there has been a sudden “fall-off” in the actual ability to use computers. I have written about this in previous blogs. Our youth are typified as being expert in the use of computers while, in fact, they are no more knowledgeable about the actual general operation of the computer itself than we are. But a growing trend in thought is that there are fewer people now who know how to use computers than there were in the golden past. And that is a conclusion I have a problem with.

Marc Scott, author of the “Coding2Learn” blog is an excellent writer and human observer. Unlike the programmer stereotype many of us have in our heads, Marc is a personable and socially ept computer educator. And he’s a Linux advocate. You can find one of his great blogs here:

http://www.coding2learn.org/blog/2013/07/29/kids-cant-use-computers/

Part of his argument is that adults have lost the ability to use generalized computers – that a smaller percentage of adults understand proper computer use, but I maintain that the vast majority of adults never really had those skills to begin with. I think that we have roughly the same percentage of computer-savvy adults now that we had 20 years ago. Not really such a bad thing, right? Well, maybe not.

As in my youth, most people just do not care to know more than what is dictated by basic necessity. When VCRs were ubiquitous, there was always that one guy (or girl) in the family who knew how to use it properly. To set the clock. To schedule a recording time. Do any of us remember how many VCRs had a flashing clock, terminally set at “12:00” in their house? Or a neighbor’s house? And that is just the “set clock” function.

The same philosophy now goes for computers, since they are no longer really a tinkerer’s toy. Aside from some expertise in a specific application, most people do not know enough to troubleshoot an issue if it comes up. Often, they have no understanding of how to identify a simple problem, and differentiate that from one with which they may need some real help.

I do not think there is anything wrong with not wanting to be bothered. And companies like Apple have engendered an entire culture that proudly holds out a banner that says, “I’m simple and I like it that way – make my computers simple, too!”

I think you can see where I am going with this. Maybe it is not so great that we deal with computers in this way. Maybe we should have a more functional knowledge of how our everyday tools operate. Just because it has always been about “simple” for most people, does not mean it has to stay that way. In fact, as computers become more intrinsic to everyday tasks, it is important that a higher percentage of today’s youth learn the basics than we did. The computing revolution may have started in my generation, but this next generation will carry revolution throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, we are not really teaching more of our kids the computing skills they will need. In fact, with the way computing systems are set up in educational institutions, we are actually discouraging children from learning the ins and outs of computers.

And it is incredibly important that we turn trend that around now.

“Why?” you ask. Because our world is no longer separate from computing systems. There is a CIO in almost every major company. Your phone? A computer. The plane that’s flying you to Seattle? A computer. The commuter train you ride to work every day? A computer. As Marc Scott says in his blog:

Tomorrow’s politicians, civil servants, police officers, teachers, journalists and CEOs are being created today. These people don’t know how to use computers, yet they are going to be creating laws regarding computers, enforcing laws regarding computers, educating the youth about computers, reporting in the media about computers and lobbying politicians about computers. Do you thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs?

Our governments are lagging behind in solid technology decision-making. The most illustrative evidence is the fact that, four and a half years ago when President Obama appointed someone to to head up a project in the FCC to provide a broadband standard for the whole country, the first thing his appointee asked of the public was, “What do you think broadband is?”

And, by the way, our government still does not have an answer to that question in the US. Even though many private ISPs provide the higher bandwith than most other places in the world. Stunningly, my 4G LTE phone has higher bandwidth than my home WiFi. That’s what we call “broadband.” But, to return to the subject, even our appointed computer experts cannot define broadband or find a solution for providing that service, country-wide.

So no, I do not think that there are fewer computiung buffs than there used to be. There was really no Golden Age of Computing where our understanding of computers was greater than it is now. But we need to start ushering in that Golden Age as soon as possible, or we will have a very rough road ahead.