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?