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Editor's Note: Dummy Pride

Oct 03, 2008, 23:02 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

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by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

We hear it all the time: computers are too hard to use and need to be easier. Put everything behind a shiny colorful GUI, and reduce complex tasks to a few simple obvious mouse clicks. At first this doesn't sound too daffy. After all, good tools are supposed to make our lives easier. But there is an awful lot of muddled thinking going on here.

What most folks really want is not a better tool, but a magic wand. They buy Quicken and Quickbooks thinking that will give them instant magical accountant skills. They think PowerPoint turns them into publishers, Photoshop turns them into artists, and having a word processer confers great writing skills. They're under the delusion that paying thousands of dollars and cramming for a few weeks to acquire a certification means they're skilled IT professionals. Look how many people can't compose a decent business letter in an email with a proper salutation, body, and signature (or even with actual sentences), and who look at you like you're an annoying homeless person when you try to show them how to delete all the annoying bits from that ten-times forwarded stale joke, or use the BCC line. It's like the guy who collects the finest power and hand tools but has no idea what to do with them. He might as well stand over that shiny 800-piece Snap-on tool set and order it to fix his car. If it doesn't obey the first time, talk louder.

I admit to behaving like a grumpy old dinosaur at times. All of this newfangled always-connected technology makes me itch. I don't own a cell phone. I don't text, I don't Tweet, I don't IM, I don't post movies of me drunk out of my mind and soiling myself on MyFaceBookSpace, and I don't want a device in my car that tracks my movements and pesters me with stupid chatter. I'm happy writing simple Bash and Perl scripts, and don't feel any compulsion to learn Python, Java, PHP, Ruby, Lua, or whatever the current fad is. I can fling up a simple static HTML page in a few minutes with a text editor, and have no desire to become enmired in the latest Web 2.0/CSS/CMS/LAMP/WAMP/XAMMP/Tomcat/JBoss/Eclipse blah blah whatever.

But if I wanted to I could learn any of these things, at least well enough to perform some basic tasks. I daresay most of you feel the same way- you know that you can learn, and you're not afraid to try. And yet we deal with users all the time who never advance beyond "click here to install your new malware!" It is frustrating and inexplicable. How can a person use a computer every day and successfully resist learning anything new? That seems harder than picking up new skills in the course of everyday activities.

I'm writing a book on building a home recording studio using Audacity. Audacity is pretty easy to learn- the main roadblock for people new to sound recording and mastering is learning audio terminology. There is simply no way to use Audacity- or any recording equipment or software- with any degree of proficiency without understanding a certain amount of audio terminology and concepts. And yet more than one person has complained to me that this is stupid, and if it were any good why would you need to know all that stuff? As Charles Babbage so famously said, "I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."

IT professionals fall into the same traps, and whine about how stupid some graphical configuration tools are because they still require a certain amount of knowledge to perform a task. What I wonder is why wouldn't you want some depth to your knowledge anyway? It's like being content to have everything in life be a mystery, and if you randomly click enough checkboxes you'll muddle through.

My main reason for writing this is to encourage all the tinkerers, the explorers, the self-learners and do-it-yourselfers that your way is the best way, and don't let anyone tell you differently. It's hard sometimes, because the world seems to value labels and pigeonholes over substance, and views science and knowledge with suspicion. But you know what-- that's their problem.