You Can’t Use Computers, and You Should Be Worried! (Rant Series 1, Episode 3)

RANT-SERIES

Welcome to Episode 3 of Rant Series 1. Yet another taste of my idiosyncrasy!

I salute your desire for knowledge, and its for that purpose I have made this episode longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.

TL;DR You might want to go back to watching that kitten poo on a toilet roll on YouTube, or a Vintage photo of a friend on Instagram displaying a meal stuffed in the mouth. This blog post aint for you!

For the others, do read through this carefully, and you might learn or understand quite a handful. At least that is what I hope to achieve.

I remember vividly several series of similar incidences during the mid 2000’s. As someone who grew up with a desktop PC at arms length, there are quite a lot I have seen and heard from parents, friends, and visitors to my home about “kids, youths and computers”. We’ll talk more about this later.

While there are a thousand and one misconceptions out there surrounding the field of Computer Science (just like any other field in this modern age), this episode would focus on just one misconception which in reality is an issue we need to be aware of, and be worried! It has to do with the use of computers.

It is saddening to see that although they say this is the “Information Age”, a generation surrounded by several technologies, people actually can’t even use this “technologies” which are computers, of course. Don’t try to define what a computer is to me. I know exactly what it is, and it’s not just about that laptop, desktop, tablet, or smartphone you’re reading this post from. The programmable microwave I used yesterday is for sure a computer! The digital g-shock wristwatch I saw two days ago is yet just another computer!

Throughout this rant, I’ll use the term “computer” or “general purpose computer” as it does not connotate an Operating System (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc), but just about any general-purpose computer.

Back to the story

It was one beautiful afternoon, a hot Sunday, the church service had ended a few hours ago and we were graced by some fellow church members who came over to have some discussion with mum and dad. The desktop PC, as usual, was seated next to the bookshelf and I was “using” it. I mean, I was playing some games.

“Wow, you’re a lucky kid” said one of the visitors. Well, since I was stupid, what else would I have done than just smile with a puffed head. I felt like the most opportune kid on earth!

We’ve all been there sometime in our life! 🙂

My parents, having finished lunch, moved to the sitting room where they would start a discussion I would never forget. One of visitors said to my parents:

“You guys are really trying; exposing your kids to technology from a young age. Its such an opportunity for the kids”,

and then specifically to my dad who had a quite good knowledge of the workings of a computer:

“I guess you must find that the kids nowadays know more about computers than you or even their teachers….

An interesting conversation just began! You could see my mum smiling and all hyper; getting ready to dive straight into the dialogue with no end.

You all have parents, so you all how they feel when they get praised by other parents. This was that time when mum would have that special kind of smile and look you in the face. You all might know what that look means.

If you teach IT or Computing, that is a phrase that you’ll have heard a million times, a billion times, epsilon zero times, aleph one times. Okay I exaggerate, but you’ll have heard it a lot nonetheless. There are variants of the phrase, all espousing the technical ability of kids and youths. My favourite is from parents: ‘Oh, Danny will be a natural for A-Level Computing. He’s always on his computer at home.’ As a kid, I heard that a lot. The parents seem to have some vague concept that spending hours each evening on games, Facebook, YouTube, or even their smartphones will impart, by some sort of cybernetic osmosis, the actual knowledge of computers, or maybe PHP, HTML, JavaScript and Haskell.

“I’m sure you’ll make a good Computer Scientist” they would always say.  Well, I love computers and I do want to study the science of computing, but it doesn’t in anyway make me a Computer Scientist.

Normally, when people (unintentionally) spout this gibberish, I just smile and sway my puffed head back and forth; nodding like a lizard.

However, I remember once in 2012 when I got such remark from a senior citizen and couldn’t let it pass. “Not really, most of us kids can’t use computers”, I replied.

Surprised she was! How can he say that? she thought. How would he reject what is generally considered a truism even in his favour? Ah! He’s just another kid, she must have finalised. She smiled and tried to give a retort: “Yes, that’s true. But for those kids that have no access to computers”.

Kids, teenagers, early, and even late youths have laptops, tablets, games consoles, and smart phones; surely they must be the most technologically knowledgeable demographic on the planet. 

The truth is, kids, teenagers, early youths; whatever you want to call it, can’t use computers, and neither can most of the adults I know. There’s a narrow range of individuals whom, I consider technically savvy. These are roughly the thirty to fifty year-old that have owned a computer for much of their adult lives. There are, of course, exceptions amongst the staff and students. There are always one or two kids in every cohort that have already picked up programming or web development or can strip a computer down to the bare bones, replace a motherboard, and reinstall an operating system. There are usually a couple of tech-savvy students outside the age range I’ve stated, often from the Maths and Science departments who are only ever defeated by their school desktops because they don’t have administrator privileges, but these individuals are rare.

Okay, following the structure of the blog I’m using a reference point, I think its time we really define what “can’t use a computer” means. Here are a few examples of issues that take place on a fairly regular basis.

Note: The stories are real and some were narrated by ,,mljhkjh of Coding2Learn.

A first year student has his laptop in his hands that is running very slowly and keeps shutting down. You can hear the laptop humming heavily songs of doom. The processor fans running at full whack and the case is uncomfortably hot to touch. I wouldn’t actually blame this guy, sometimes laptop producers forget that not everyone use laptops in an air-conditioned room. Nonetheless, you could see his Task Manager running at 100%, with about 200 torrent files seeding in the background. That wasn’t even the issue, not until he was asked if he had an anti-virus, only to reply that he didn’t like using anti-virus because he’d heard it slowed his computer down. Goodness gracious! The laptop was handed back to him “it’s infected”. He asks what he needs to do, and the suggestion was: “reinstall Windows”. He looks blankly. He can’t use a computer.

A student is troubled by her laptop. ‘Bloody thing won’t connect to the internet.’ she says angrily, as if it were anybody’s fault. ‘I had tonnes of work to do last night, but I couldn’t get online at all. My brother even tried and he couldn’t figure it out and he’s excellent with computers.’ The offending laptop is taken from out of her hands, the wireless switch that resides on the side is toggled, and handed back to her. Neither her nor her brother can use computers.

A student complaining that her laptop has “no internet”. She says that the internet was there yesterday, but today it’s gone. Her desktop is a solid wall of randomly placed folders and Microsoft Office icons. From the Start menu, Internet Explorer is opened, and it flashes to life with the Bing homepage displayed. She explains that the Internet used to be on her desktop, but isn’t any more. IE is closed, the desktop is scoured. Eventually finding the little blue ‘e’ buried amongst some PowerPoint and Excel icons, it is pointed at: “Here you go, your internet is here”. She then points to a different location on the screen, indicating  where it used to be. The IE icon is dragged back to that original location. She’s happy. She can’t use a computer.

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

Not really knowing how to use a computer is deemed acceptable if you’re twenty-six or over. It’s something that some people are even perversely proud of, shame! However, the prevailing wisdom is that all under twenty-three (especially the teens) are technical wizards, and this is simply not true. They can use some software, particularly web-apps, they can use their smartphones. They know how to use Facebook, Twitter, and desktop applications. They know how to play PC games. They can use YouTube and Pinterest. They even know how to use Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Ask them to reinstall an operating system and they’re lost. Ask them to upgrade their hard-drive or their RAM and they break out in a cold sweat. Even from what they use, ask them something simple as what is the internet, or what is “www” or  what is http and why are they important and they’ll look at you as if you’re speaking Klingon.

We use these things everyday, yet fail to even understand what it is we use

They are found wanting in any of these: clicking ‘OK’ in dialogue boxes without reading the message. Choosing passwords like qwerty1234. They shut-down by pressing down the power button until the monitor goes black. They’ll leave themselves logged in on a computer meant for public use and walk out of the room. If a program is unresponsive, they’ll click the same button repeatedly until it crashes altogether.

How the hell did we get to this situation? How can a generation with access to so much technology, not know how to use it?

Parents

Always the first to be blamed in everything. Most have messed things up for their kids, by having to be the one who fixes everything that wrong in the house. The home desktop PC crashes, a technician is called by dad and he fixes it same day; everyone is happy they can start using the PC. There operating system or a software is not functioning as it should, a technician is called again by dad. Over and over, and a result, the family is made up of digital illiterates. They are digital users, but illiterates.

Schools

When it became apparent to the world that computers were going to be important, government in several countries recognised that Computing should probably become part of the core curriculum in schools. Now, being a bunch of IT illiterates themselves, the politicians and advisers turned to industry to ask what should be included in the new curriculum. At the time, there was only one industry and it was the Microsoft monopoly. <sarcasm>Microsoft thought long and hard about what should be included in the curriculum and after careful deliberation they advised that students should really learn how to use Microsoft Office software</sarcasm>. And so the curriculum was born. <sarcasm>Schools naturally searched long and hard for appropriate software to teach with, and after much care they chose Microsoft Office</sarcasm>. So since the 2000’s schools around the globe have been teaching students Office skills and calling it ICT or IT or Computer Science (Adobe skills were introduced a little later; in very few countries).

But the curriculum isn’t the only area in which we’ve messed up. This is the area where I think companies like Apple and some others tend to even worsen. Network infrastructures in schools and computer manufacturers  like Apple are equally to blame. We’ve mirrored corporate networks, preventing kids and teachers access to system settings, the command line and requiring admin rights to do almost anything. Apple produce products that their own users are limited to the full use of such product. They’re sitting at or holding a general purpose computer without the ability to do any general purpose computing. They have access to a few applications and that’s all. The computers access the internet through proxy servers that aggressively filter anything less bland than Wikipedia, and most schools have additional filtering software on-top so that they can maintain a whitelist of ‘suitable sites’.

Windows and OS X

It’s fantastic that everyone from the smallest child to the eldest grandparent can now use an OS and software applications with absolute minimal technical literacy, but its also a disaster.

Its good that these systems be made easy for people to be able to use, yet I think there should be a limit as to what we define as “easy-to-use”.

Nowadays, they’ve made operating systems so easy, they require almost no configuration, the system does everything  “automatically”, providing you easy access to all needed drivers, and generally ‘just work. How then are people supposed to learn and understand how a computer works? At least, I remember Windows 95, although I was a kid then, but I still do. I remember being taught in school how to troubleshoot with a ’95 Windows PC. Today what do we have? Windows 7 and Windows 8. People no longer understand the workings of a computer. They think its only meant for the “geeks” or interested persons.

I should think the same thing will one day be said about the ability to drive. There will still be the auto-mobile geeks out there that’ll build kit cars and spend days down the track honing their driving skills, while the rest of us sit back and relax as Google car and the likes ferries us to and from work.

Mobile

Important: Fanboys of Apple Inc. please read with care.

I must admit that they’ve managed to achieve quite a lot, but then they’ve destroyed so much more than you can think of. Well, you don’t really care, so?

Mobiles just came to completely kill technical competence; something we thought we could strive to revive. We now all carry around computers that pretend to be mobile phones(smartphones they call it) or tablets. Most people don’t even think of their phone as a computer. They see it as a selfie device which allows them to post pictures on Instagram or Snapchat. It’s a device that allows us to play games and post our scores to Twitter. It’s a device that locks away the file system (or hides it from us). Google, Microsoft might be doing the best they can to help the issue with the likes of Android and the Windows mobile OS; they call it Windows Phone right? I’m not even sure! On the other hand, Apple works at its best to worsen the problem with the likes of iPhones and iOS.

They produces device that only allows installation of sanitised apps through a regulated app store. It’s a device whose hardware cannot be upgraded or replaced and will be obsolete in a year or two. It’s a device that’s as much a general purpose computer as the Fisher Price toy.

My first mobile phone

“So this is the state of the world. Let’s make up some statistics to illustrate my point. If 20 years ago 5% of us had a computer in our homes, then you could pretty much guarantee that 95% of those computer owners were technically literate. Today, let’s assume that 95% of us have a computer in our homes, then I would guess that around 5% of owners are technically literate.”

This is frightening, and trust me when I say that the real statistics would even be more frightening. We should all be worried.

Take it as a duty to learn something new, at least, about a general purpose computer everyday.

Why Should We Be Worried?

Technology affects our lives more than we can even comprehend, far more than ever before. “Our computers give us access to the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Our computers enable us to work, socialise and entertain ourselves. Our computers give us access to our utilities, our banks and our politics. Our computers allow criminals to interact with us, stealing our data, our money, our identities. Our computers are now used by our governments, monitoring our communications, our behaviours, our secrets. Cory Doctorow put it much better than I can when he said:”

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

Tomorrow’s politicians, civil servants, police officers, teachers, journalists and CEOs are 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? David Cameron in the UK was proudly said that internet filtering is a good thing. William Hague is somewhere saying you have nothing to fear from GCHQ. Same kind comes from John O. Brennan of the CIA. However, just one question for these policy makers:


Without reference to Wikipedia, what is the difference between The Internet, The World Wide Web, a web-browser and a search engine?


 

If you can’t answer this question, 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?

Fixing it all

I have decided to use the direct words of Mark Scott since we share the same passion and seek for the same goal. Here is how he thought we could fix it all:

Parents

Again – always the first to be blamed!

Stop fixing things for your kids. You spend hours of your time potty-training them when they’re in their infancy, because being able to use the toilet is pretty much an essential skill in modern society. You need to do the same with technology. Buy them a computer by all means, but if it goes wrong, get them to fix it. Buy them a smartphone, give them £10 of app store credit a year and let them learn why in-app-purchases are a bad idea. When we teach kids to ride a bike, at some point we have to take the training wheels off. Here’s an idea. 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.

Schools

In the UK and EU, as a whole maybe, they’re moving some way towards fixing this issue. Gove and I have a love-hate relationship, but I genuinely like what he is doing to the Computer Science curriculum. We just need to make sure that Academy Heads stick to Computer Science, and don’t use curriculum reform as a means to save some money by scrapping the subject all together.

We could do more though. We should be teaching kids not to install malware, rather than locking down machines so that it’s physically impossible. We should be teaching kids to stay safe on-line rather than filtering their internet. Google and Facebook give kids money if they manage to find and exploit security vulnerabilities in their systems. In schools we exclude kids for attempting to hack our systems. Is that right?

Windows and OSX

USE LINUX. Okay, so it’s not always practical, but most Linux distros really get you to learn how to use a computer. Everyone should at least have a play around at some point in their lives. If you’re not going to use Linux then if you’re on OS X have a play around in the terminal. It really is fun and you get to feel like a hacker, as does the Command Line or PowerShell in Windows.

Mobile

This one’s tricky. iOS is a lost cause, unless you jail-break, and Android isn’t much better. I use Ubuntu-Touch, and it has possibilities. At least you feel like the mobile phone is yours. 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.

Conclusion

This has happened before. It is not a new phenomenon. 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. I doubt my five year-old son will even need to learn to drive. It’ll be done for him by his car. When he needs to get it fixed he’ll be directed to the mechanic that pays the most for on-line advertising. When he wants to stop for a bite to eat he’ll be directed to the fast-food outlet that pays the most for on-line advertising. When he needs to recharge his dilithium crystals he’ll be directed to the filing station that pays the most for on-line advertising.

I want the people who will help shape our society in the future to understand the technology that will help shape our 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. Let’s build a generation of hackers. Who’s with me?

 

Important

Final part of article was was originally written by Mark Scott. Likewise some other parts of the article.

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