Editor’s Note: Dummy Pride

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

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

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

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