Talking Computers with Spam-fisted Luddites

Rage Against the MachineMost of you will be familiar with the concept of tools from primitive hand axes, clubs, and even prehistoric smoothie makers, we humans have used them for millennia (and if you’ve noticed several animals use them too).

Of course, our tools have grown exponentially more and more sophisticated, so much so that we now have tools we call machines that transport us from place to place, allow us to chat to people on the other side of the world, and of course allow us to sit hunched over a glowing panel like a lonely saddo writing inanely about whatever subject comes into our heads and hoping that someone will actually read our words…

Now, these tools, machines, they are now rather sophisticated and often take quite some mastering. My Dad, for instance, used to be a civil engineer, but is still reluctant to program my parents video recorder. Whereas my Mother is perfectly at home with half a dozen remote controls in her hands, uses SMS texting like a teenager and is the archetypal silver surfer now that she’s turned 70.

So, why is it that younger, otherwise highly intelligent people create for themselves an aura of technophobia? Why do I receive emails and hear people claiming to “not understand computers” on an almost daily basis? Well, no one is perfect certainly and some people have a greater affinity for these electronic tools than others…but in this so-called digital age and in an environment where understanding the basic concepts of information and communication technology is almost mandatory, that they’d get to grips with the fundamentals so that we can have a sensible conversation about blogs, RSS, Twitter, whatever, without one having to explain everything from first principles?

One contact recently added the phrase “whatever that is!!!” in an email talking about the web and email. Another asked me how to get an RSS for their website and wouldn’t hear of running blog software because it was all too much and they just wanted a simple site…

As some of you will know, I also run the SciScoop Science Forum and often point correspondents to that site as a possible outlet for their novel theories of how the universe formed or where Darwin, Einstein, Newton went wrong. One such correspondent told me that she couldn’t possibly submit the article to SciScoop because her “brain was fried” just working out how to login and she couldn’t navigate the meanderings of the submission system. (It’s a standard registration page and a post submission form, nothing particularly complicated).

Is this post just a rant about people who are less adept at using the common tools of the modern world? I suppose it is in one sense. But, what scares me is the pride with which many of the people who claim they don’t understand “computers” brandish their ignorance. There is much overlap between this group and the group that laughs when they explain how they’re no good at maths or never got science at school.

Why does it scare me? Well, humans have, since the aforementioned hand axe and probably before that used tools and we’ve always been curiosity driven, seeking out new knowledge…science in other words…so what is the problem?

Fine if you want to live outside the technological world we’re building, but the majority of the people with whom I engage and here these claims of technical and scientific ignorance are not living outside that world. They are corresponding or talking to me about technical matters, using sophisticated tools such as email and telephones to do so. RSS…Twitter…Logins…Computers in general, and the science that allowed these tools to be created are not some alien mission, they are the current state of evolution of human tool use.

I asked my good friend and fellow tech blogger Kim Woodbridge what she thought of this situation. “I encounter a lot of these people too,” she told me, “but I think there are a couple of other issues. There is this cool kid vs the geek mentality that still seems to exist well past high school and there is the anti-intellectualism attitude, at least in the US.”

She recalled that while working in tech support she and her colleagues were forever butting heads with the sales reps. “They were cool and we were geeks,” she says. “They wanted us to ‘just make it work’ and didn’t want to bother learning what it was that they might be doing wrong.”

Another contact suggested that the answer may lie in the two extremes of human types. “There are those who have an innate understanding of artificial machines,” she told me, “and then there are those people who have a natural gift for grasping things concerning living entities, with most people in between.” She confesses to being in awe of nature and longs to unravels its secrets but has no patience or empathy with machines.

To my mind, that attitude, which seems to be quite common, is just so bizarre. It’s not as if humans and the tools we make and use are not part of nature, just because they don’t photosynthesize or have fur. Anyway, I don’t think even ubergeeks empathise with their computers, although I have seen grown men weeping over a car they wrote off in a crash.

To my mind, our brains are perfectly adapted to using the tools humans create without pandering to some self-deprecating notion that being useless at computers is a good thing. It just takes an extra internal push to build up a little more momentum. Moreover, there are hundreds of web sites and courses available that can easily be accessed to improve the e-skillset of even the most spam-fisted Luddite. Most don’t even require a login although some might have an RSS newsfeed and…perish the thought…be on Twitter.


It occurred to my while chatting over a glass of wine to friends after singing yesterday evening, that what I am getting at in this post is what Robert Persig tries to get across in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that is the idea that you can actually get more out of life by accepting everything around you, which includes the tools you use, in Persig’s case the eponymous motorcycle and in my case, as far as this post goes, computers.

Persig is concerned that his co-riders are missing out by not getting to grips with the maintainance of their motorbikes. I guess I feel the same about the (mock) ignorance people feel about these electronic tools many of use on a day to day basis. But, I concede rage against those who don’t like machines is probably not very Zen.


13 thoughts on “Talking Computers with Spam-fisted Luddites”

  1. At last a riposte! Thanks for that Richard. I would argue that on the surface you are correct, but two points: First an A/C unit is not a creative tool. Second, if you had to call out an engineer every time there was something you couldn’t work out with your computer your computer you’d be skint within weeks…

    Plus, I’m not fascinated by the workings of these tools at least not in the sense that I want to know what’s going on while I’m writing a blog comment, say, but unless you’re minted, don’t you agree that it makes sense to get to grips with the tools you’re using rather than relying other people to fix stuff for you. It can be so much more satisfying to stand back and admire one’s own handiwork than to observe someone elses, and generally cheaper.

  2. Imagine your air conditioner breaks and the repairman you call to the house wants to explain to you the (fascinating to him) inner workings of air conditioners. You don’t really want to know WHY it works, you just want him to make it work. He goes back to the shop exasperated with his Luddite customer who just wants the damn machine to work when he turns the knob to “on.”

  3. Hi David – “a madmax concotions” ? Wow! It’s like people like her think that developers primary goal is making the software harder to use rather than easier.

    I also wonder if younger people realize what a pain basic research was before we all had computers. Card catalogs, writing to colleges to apply, typewriters with no backspace correction …

  4. I just had some feedback via email on this from a reader. She was quite lengthy in her response, and I took issue with almost every point she made. Her opening gambit was:

    “You are right that computers are a tool and that we are supposed to understand basic tools. However one of the bigest problems, if not the worse, is that softwares are madmax concotions created by computer wizards that never put themselves into the skin of the common human.”

    Of course, that is just soooo not true (for reasons you alluded to in your comment Wayne). If it were true we wouldn’t have GUIs, we wouldn’t be commenting on blogs, we’d still be using command lines for everything and grabbing piles of green computer printouts or punch cards…sheesh.

  5. There’s another way of looking at this, and it’s _sort of_ Darwinism for technological development.

    Essentially, people’s reluctance to use new technologies forces us (those that will) to consider ways of creating not _just_ new, but novel technologies that are simpler to use.

    Indirectly, people are asking the innovators to make them a better widget, one that’s less hassle and simpler to use than the last one.

    Apple understand this only too well…

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