“I don’t know anything about computers.”

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One of my biggest pet peeves is when friends say, “I don’t know anything about computers.”

This sentence irks me for a couple reasons. The first is that it is blatantly not true. I’ve met folks who have never touched anything more complicated than a solar-powered calculator. Compared to them, my friends — who use their computers constantly for schoolwork and practically live on Facebook — have considerable technical experience. It is disheartening to hear how little they value their knowledge.

Moreover, the context in which I typically hear friends say, “I don’t know anything about computers,” is as an excuse when their computer does something unexpected, they don’t know what to do, and they would rather back off and let someone else fix it than try to solve the problem on their own. My friends are afraid of their own machines. I think this sentiment is a symptom of ongoing trends in the industry towards a closed-box style of consumer computer design.

Cory Doctorow explains it better than I can in his iPad rant on BoingBoing:

The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.

[...] Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

While Apple’s closed-box style contributes to the ease of use which is the hallmark of Apple’s products, I’m afraid that it is changing consumer attitudes in a negative way. Apple wants to keep the inner workings of their products a secret to the point that they want to make it illegal for consumers to alter the software running on their own property. Preventing users from controlling the software on their own devices is dangerous for several reasons, but it scares me most because it discourages users from learning about their devices. In effect, Apple is profiting from its customers’ ignorance, and the consequence is that more of my friends profess, “I don’t know anything about computers.”

Apple’s products are a timely example, but other manufacturers are guilty too, and I think it’s the generation just now learning about technology that will suffer most for it. Curious kids will never be able to tinker with the insides of their iPads as they could with the Apple][+. I think we as technophiles have a responsibility to kids to pick up the slack. Get your kids a garage sale computer to take apart together. Find out if your teenager’s high school offers programming classes. Donate to or volunteer with groups such as TechBridge, which offers after-school programs in technology and engineering for underprivileged girls in Oakland, CA. But most importantly, make sure kids are not afraid of tinkering with technology. How else can they hope to make it better?

  • http://jheriko-rtw.blogspot.com Semi Essessi

    Interesting – I too am frustrated when people say this, but only because I am pedantic. What they normally mean to say is “I don’t know enough to feel confident that I won’t make things worse when trying to fix my computer problems” or something to that effect… and actually this attitude is sensible.

    Do you own a car, TV, microwave etc. and would you try fixing these yourself? What about hardware inside your computer? Just because PCs are especially easy doesn’t make it any less wrong to be afraid of tinkering IMO.

    Whatever Apple does we will still have tinkerers… the iPad is no less tinkerable than most non-PC computer platforms, the problem is that people who have gotten used to how easy it is to tinker with PCs and they therefore think of themselves as “good” hackers, coders or whatever – where in reality they are just high-level PC coders who have let rapid application development (Flash, Python, .NET etc.) swell their egos.

    You want your kids to tinker with computers? Get them a PC…

  • Thomas

    This irks me too because it’s another sign that people expect to use the “infantilism” card and get away with it. You don’t know computers? Oh, you don’t enjoy your iPhone, laptop, WiFi’d house with the DVR, DVD, LCD, GPS? The hell you don’t know computers, you’re just a lazy ass that wants someone else to spend the time and effort to get you back to being productive on tools you’ve become dependent on!
    To claim ignorance about the tools that one uses the most is irresponsible and lazy. If you don’t know computers, then don’t come to me when they stop working. Enjoy going back to the typewriter, bitches!

  • RMBell

    It is also an expensive luxury for students to not be informed and confident about the technology that they use daily. I’m not talking about being able to replace RAM or install a new hard drive (or even a clock battery) but simply to be able to fuss with a broken URL to find the correct address or return a deleted “alias” icon to the the desktop or other similar non-lethal activities.

    Our “small rural” community college spends 5% of its budget providing computer access for students (and staff). A significant portion of that 5% goes into “support” for flumoxed or fearful” users.

    My mother-in-law is nearly 87. I’m her only computer support. She often gleefully tells me that she solved her own problem (“took me two hours but I finally found that folder”). She is as satisfied with her new capabilities as she is enamored with buying books on line for less than the cost of postage. The point being that instilling the excitement and confidence of being able to learn and solve problems is also creating the ability to make effective choices in all areas.

    Learning how to how to use the dictionary (spellcheck, Wiki Dictionary) will mostly answer “How do you spell coincidence?”. Back in the day – list serves- I quickly learned what RTFM meant. Look it up…

  • http://abramnichols.com/blog Abram Nichols

    I agree that Semi – that as other technologies have matured, people have tinkered with them less. The technology becomes more “closed,” as companies try to protect their ip and ALSO try to protect their customers from themselves. Remember how easy it was to hose your machine back in DOS/early Windows days? Remember dll hell? Also, most of the original computer hackers and tinkerers got what they wanted – more processing speed, better hardware, and more mainstream acceptance of what was once a hobby. But, just as the corporate world has co-opted every technology gone mainstream and made it into a packaged product, so too have they done so with computers.

  • Enlightenment

    I prefer stupid computer users, then I have job security for a lot more years.

  • Ryan Fox

    Just show them this: http://xkcd.com/627/

  • Pingback: A Few Thoughts… » Blog Archive » The economy of tinkering

  • Tattoo

    Have you guys ever thought about not everyone is interested to learn about computers? I find this “THEY SHOULD”-mentality really really weird. For example, I don’t want to learn to fix my car since I’m not interested in mechanics nor have time or other resources to learn (but mostly because I’m not interested). I’m glad there are people in my circle of friends who are interested in mechanics and therefore help me if I have questions etc. And I’m glad I can help them with computers, which I am interested in and they are not.

    Technology is not closing down, only the forms how YOU learned to tinker are.. You don’t have to learn the innards of your computer anymore, you can dive straight into coding if that’s what you really want (open source, anyone?). I find this better, since since the world of computers have grown so much that it’s stupid to demand everyone to know the exactly same basic skills. Why not let people learn the stuff they find interesting and let them specialize? That’s the way, I find, how innovation is fostered.

  • http://tattooflashdb.com Johnny Friend

    Great and resourceful post, you have a sweet site.

  • Ex2bot

    Apple has an extensive SDK for its iOS products. So iPad users are free to write and run as many programs as they want, including their own. If they want to learn how to change the batteries on it, they can. No one will kick in their door.

    This is all b.s. A non-issue. Doctorow doesn’t like anything that isn’t completely open source, so of course he hates Apple. Many of us very proficient folks use Apple because they put so much more thought into the ways their devices work instead of copying another company (such as Apple) or making crap phones that dial people while it’s in your pocket.

  • http://www.tesselliott.com Tess Elliott

    Bought a powerful new PC computer in 2007 and had it open right away. It turned out to be a mistake to buy a package: I would have done much better buying the parts because HP cheated me on a printer/scanner that didn’t even have Vista drivers written yet. It has never worked properly. None of this would have happened if I had built my own system. It’s NOT HARD to install your own peripherals, and it’s not even hard to build one from scratch if you do your homework. What does this save me? $50 per hour bad tech help by phone, bad parts that malfunction as soon as the warranty is up, massively expensive tech help that comes to your home, and a lot of worry that I can’t afford to take care of my own stuff.

  • N74JW

    If one has an issue with their comfort level and the computer, they should learn. I work in IT and one of the things that will make me the most unsympathetic to a user’s issue is the phrase “I don’t know much about this stuff”. Let’s fix the problem and move on with our day. Computers and the Internet are not exactly new anymore, so the novelty has to be worn off, at this point. I appreciate the users that are up front and state that they could care less about technology, than resort to attempts at self-deprecating humor.

  • Hobo

    There really is no good excuse for not knowing the basics about computers, cars, or microwaves. The knowledge is readily available, free to access, and easy to find. If you own a car, you should know how to do a tune up. If you own a microwave you should know how to tell when the wiring is faulty, and if you own a computer you should know how to remove a virus, upgrade the hardware, and reinstall windows without losing your files. The only possible reason that you don’t know any of it is pure apathy. Stop being a lazy idiot and educate yourselves. You not only owe it to yourself but to the rest of us who are tired of you acting like an idiot every time you get a pop-up.

  • shawn

    Yes you may be frustrated as someone who is always getting bugged to fixing the simplest thing that you figure friends, family and staff could figure out after 10 years…but we need to get over ourselves.

    Computers are like cars to many and we are just over paid mechanics. Some people put gas in their car and want to know nothing else…others wrench and DIY. I’m pretty sure my mother has still not put gas a in car in her entire life…but she does drive it once a week!

  • http://starfishsystems.ca Dan Razzell

    I’d like to make an observation about the statements “I don’t know anything about computers” and “I don’t want to learn to fix my car”.

    Newborn babies are helpless, but curious and eager to learn. For somone to defend and even celebrate ignorance goes a step beyond innocent helplessness. It’s pathological.

    How can you hope to engage with the world if you insist on ignorance as your point of reference? Even acting from a completely selfish perspective, you’re always better off knowing something about what you’re doing. In a primordial world, you’d need to develop skills at hunting and gathering food, at making fire and shelter, or you would die. You might not expect to become the best possible hunter, but you are expected to participate.

    Somehow many people have manufactured a belief that they can participate in our technological world while remaining ignorant of it. What happens instead – as it must – is that they place themselves in the role of victim. They tell themselves that the car mechanic ripped them off, when in fact they failed to engage with the mechanic about what work to perform. And this in turn discourages honest mechanics. They blame the computer, which is an easy thing to blame because it can’t defend itself. And it’s a valid thing to blame too, because the market for software of high quality requires consumers who are knowledgeable and discerning.

    In short, people have a choice whether to be participants or parasites. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it seems that we’ve momentarily forgotten that life can be harsh. Don’t be one of the ones left behind.

  • Wescenheiser3

    I learned to repair a computer when I was around 13 if I am not mistaken. It was an old computer that wasn’t used very much after we got a new one. The old computer became my personal project of tinkering with hardware and software. If I didn’t have the initiative to do what I did then I would become one of those who are afraid of their own machines. We human beings are afraid of a lot of things aren’t we, even afraid of a lifeless machine.

  • Onlin degree
  • Cole

    Im 14 and I am happily running linux on my computer (that i have taken apart numerous times), I also love writing code (c++, HTML, Javascript) and I absolutely love taking apart things and putting them back together. I really do hate apple for this, among other reasons… Great article.