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Computers and Networks and Cars, oh my…

by Zygo Blaxell

(Using the automobile as an analogy, Zygo Blaxell argues
that the important educational object is not learning the
operational techniques of a particular operating system but
learning what is really happening when computers are used. He calls
this goal “information technology literacy”.–Editor)

“Computer literacy” is
irrelevant. Computers are not interesting in and of themselves
except to a handful of their users, and those users will educate
themselves whether they get help from public education or not.

“Internet literacy” (or “information technology literacy” or
“network literacy”) in general is a lot more important. Most
computers these days are being used to create, store, retrieve,
search for, and communicate information more than for any other
purpose–except possibly entertainment. Most of the economic
impetus behind computing has been and will be for its side-effects:
orders placed, advertisements transmitted, business operations
completed, customers entertained, research materials collected, and
so on. That means networking, multimedia, and databases, not
simulations or programming. That doesn’t mean that people won’t be
doing simulations or programming on computers, but the number of
computers doing that kind of “real computation” will be dwarfed by
the computer of computers doing computationally uninteresting stuff
in the same way that microprocessors in embedded systems outnumber
desktop microprocessors by about six to one.

I have grown weary of the argument “cars are complex devices,
but no mandatory training is required in order to operate a car due
to its intuitive and familiar interface. By analogy, no mandatory
training is required for information technology, specifically
computers, if it has an intuitive and friendly interface.” This
argument is based on an absurd premise.

Cars are complex devices used in a complex environment. Most
governments require some level of certification for all operators
of motor vehicles on public roads, which may include mandatory
training and almost always includes some kind of examination. Other
users of public roads, such as pedestrians, also require a minimum
level of competency to avoid dangerous situations that arise as a
result of motor vehicle traffic. I for one received such training
many times during elementary school. I know people who did not have
such training and I routinely pull them bodily out of the path of
moving traffic at intersections.

In addition to this legally-required, minimum competency, most
drivers understand issues such as basic maintenance schedules and
performance monitoring related to cars. The drivers that don’t
understand these concepts drive cars that eventually die because
they haven’t had oil changes in 60,000 miles and the driver didn’t
notice the “check oil” warning light, the horrible noises the
engine was making, or the smells, or the temperature gauge running
at twice the normal engine temperature. Many people don’t actually
know how to do an oil change, only that it
needs to be done; many of us prefer give
the actual job to a mechanic.

Once you’ve figured out how to operate a car, you have to master
the environment you drive it in: full of other drivers with varying
levels of competence, full of hidden and overt physical dangers,
and full of social and political issues related to how to drive
from where you are to where you want to go, where to park your car
legally when you get there, why you can’t drive on sidewalks even
though they are unobstructed, and why you don’t go as fast from
point A to B if you drive during rush hour. By understanding these
issues, drivers have an improved overall driving experience, avoid
being an inconvenience to others, and even materially improve the
safety of the whole motor vehicle environment. However, you will
learn nothing about these issues if you only learn auto mechanics
or motor vehicle operation skills.

These are all concepts that anyone reading this can probably
understand. Even those who do not have direct exposure to cars can
probably understand the fundamental concepts from second-hand
experience. Cars and car-related activities are ubiquitous within Western culture. Cars are usually
accurately portrayed in popular media (except perhaps for a few
high-speed chase scenes where the laws of physics get slightly
exaggerated). Cars are easy to understand in a direct physical way:
they are essentially big steel boxes on four wheels. Most people
who are exposed to cars daily know everything that is significant
to know about them by the time they reach adolescence, including a
rudimentary understanding of the user interface. By the time a new
driver sits in the driver’s seat for the first time, they have
learned all the background and are mostly concerned with
infrequently used safety procedures and practical driving
technique. They are not struggling to understand basic concepts
like starting the engine or even what an engine is.

Cars have little in their interface that is intuitive. It may be
easy to figure out how to activate the turn signals, but it is not
entirely clear what turn signals are for unless you have some kind
of experience with other drivers in traffic. To the uninitiated, a
turn signal is a blinking light that appears to be unrelated in any
way to the act of conducting the vehicle through a turn. Indeed, a
bit of empirical testing will show that a turn signal in no way
materially affects a properly functioning car’s ability to drive in
a curved path; nonetheless, turn signals are in fact an important
and necessary part of safe driving in traffic. Other parts of a
typical car are equally confusing: the pedals on the floor tend to
be unlabeled; the instrumentation on the dashboard is littered with
symbols that have to be learned and understood before they are
meaningful; the placement of that instrumentation and the subset of
instruments available varies from vehicle to vehicle with no
industry-standard layout; the order of required operations for
leaving a parking space is often undocumented in the vehicle
owner’s manual and is certainly nowhere to be seen within the car
itself. One car may have an interface similar to other cars, but
that is not “intuitive.” In fact, given no prior knowledge of motor
vehicles, it’s difficult to see at first how a car could move you
from one place to another at all, unless you actually saw one
moving.

Computers are complex devices in a complex environment too. I
believe that they are more complex than cars in environments more
complex than any highway system, but I won’t try to push that
concept very far when there’s a much more significant one:
Computers are “new,” and we’re not “ready” for them yet.

Computers are far from ubiquitous in real life or in popular
culture. Computers in the popular media are often portrayed in a
grossly distorted fashion, totally unlike any practical computer in
real life. It is difficult to find anyone in real life who truly
understands a given computer system, and much harder to get them to
explain it in a short period of time. This explanation is often the
equivalent of trying to explain traffic regulations to people who
do not drive: while they might understand the general concepts, the
information will seem irrelevant to them, and without a framework
in which to fit the individual pieces of information, even a simple
explanation turns into a confusing jumble.

It is difficult to “explain” a computer at all. Most of what a
computer does is invisible and abstract in the extreme. The only
effect that the user has on the machine at all is the tiny part of
the system that is exposed by its user interface, and many user
interfaces are designed to hide as much information as possible
from the user. It is possible to explain some of the abstractions
within a computer system efficiently using a graphical interface,
but graphical interfaces cannot efficiently handle all of the
possible–or even typical–abstractions within a computer
system.

There are people whose only exposure to a desktop computer
occurs when they are in their local bank branch, cashing cheques at
the human teller booth. Even this is not direct exposure, because
the interaction with the computer is mediated by a trained human
operator. Such people are totally unreachable by task-oriented
computer training because these people simply do not understand
what a computer is for, or why they would
want to use one. When they are finally confronted by a computer,
their first question is not “How?”, but “Why?”

Even if computers are in fact easier to use than cars, the cars
still win on total usability simply because cars have effective
training infrastructure and experience already in place and
computers do not.

Computers, for some reason, cause people to lose their basic
common sense. People seem to expect that they can make effective
use of a computer without any prior training. People expect that
“the computer” will solve all of their problems for
them–automatically. This notion is completely absurd on its
face.

There is nothing that a user interface can do in the short term
to assist a user who does not understand the basic concepts of
manipulating information, yet for some reason modern computer
interfaces are intended to do exactly this. Cars do not routinely
distract a driver with animated paperclips that indicate when turn
signals should be used in traffic. Drivers do not demand this kind
of feature because it is entirely useless when it’s not measurably
counterproductive. But for some reason this is accepted as normal
when it comes from a computer.

We cannot be effective users of information technology, or
information itself, if we do not have a basic understanding of what
it is that we want to do with the information, what a machine can
do for us, and how to put human and machine together to get a job
done. No amount of fine-tuning a GUI, springing “helpful”
information on an unsuspecting user, or training in the finer
points of Bourne Shell syntax or vi command keys will help
if the underlying concepts required to understand the human
relationship with the machine are not already familiar to the user.
Without question, it is necessary to educate people, especially
children, in the basic concepts of information and the technology
that manipulates it.

What form this mandatory education should take is the important
(and often heated) discussion. I feel it should provide a student
with sufficient knowledge to understand general concepts like
storage, data formats, networks, and so on. A student should be
answering questions like:

  • “What does it “mean” to send an email or publish a web
    page?”
  • “Why can’t the person receiving it read a file in Word 97
    format?”
  • “How much storage capacity does my computer have, how much have
    I used, how much do I have left, and how much will my next task
    require?”
  • “How do I find out who is responsible for the content at a
    particular URL? Should I trust them?”
  • “Why should I be aware of the security risks inherent in
    operating a publicly accessible web server?”
  • “What is privacy and how is it threatened when I use a
    computer?”
  • “How do I find other ways to use a computer to do my work more
    effectively, such as by automating tasks or customizing system
    components?”

All of these are questions I was asked almost every single week
while I was doing full-time tech support for corporations of all
sizes. These are questions that will not significantly change with
the next generation of technology, because the next generation of
technology will not eliminate the basic problems from which the
questions arise (replacing disk drives with some new kind of
storage media doesn’t mean we will ever stop running out of disk
space, and “Word 98” can be substituted into the second question
without altering the answer to the question). These are all
questions that have to be answered before we get to the stage where
we are trying to figure out which menu the “Preferences” dialog box
is hidden under or what configuration file needs to be edited.

When driving a car, we must determine where the car is now and
where the destination is in relation to the car before we can drive
from point A to point B. When operating a computer, we must
determine what we have, what we want, and how the machine can help
us get it. The sooner the concept is introduced, the more natural
it becomes, and we can then take advantage of the utility of the
machine more than it takes advantage of us. Learning how to do any
of these tasks with any particular computer is irrelevant
trivia–the software will change every few years anyway, and so
will the user interfaces. Pen-based computing, anyone? How about
speech recognition? Which icon is your floppy drive today? The true
constants in information technology are the end goals of the users,
because the users do not re-invent themselves every three years.
It’s the concepts that are important, the value propositions, the
social and political issues, not the technical details. The
important parts of this material can be taught without touching a
computer in the classroom at all.

“Which operating system” is therefore a bad question. I think
that what Martin Vermeer was saying in Unix as an element of
literacy
about using an operating system people have
almost no knowledge of is a good point, in that it teaches students
how to cope with new implementations of familiar abstractions, and
from there allows a student to learn what is abstract and what is
mere implementation. A student must learn that a floppy drive is a
floppy drive, whether it appears in the user interface as
“/dev/fd0”, “/dev/floppy”, “/D0”, “:0”, some kind of icon, or “A:”.
At the same time, there are wildly different ways to look at a
floppy disk–it can be a simple container for data, a swiss-army
knife of useful software tools, a secure portable private data
storage device, or a transport vehicle for viruses. If you don’t
know what a virus is, in terms of where
they come from, how to avoid them, and what one can do to your
happy little virtual world, then all of the other information isn’t
going to help you.

If one of the operating systems taught to the student is
available on computers that the student has access to, then the
student gets a short-term benefit, but not an essential one. The
essential benefit is that part of the education that lets a student
answer the questions that arise because humans are using networks
of computers, not because of the software that happens to run on
them.

I’d support training on two operating systems as different as
Win95 and Unix, or Unix and MacOS, or MacOS and Win95, or WinNT and
QNX, to reinforce the idea that there is more than one way to solve
any particular problem. But I wouldn’t choose any one OS over any
other OS. The concepts that are necessary in a mandatory education
program on information technology are already implemented in every
OS worth speaking of.


Zygo Blaxell is a
“Linux Engineer” at Corel Corporation in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
He was one of the first 50,000 Linux users, and has found a home
for Linux in a variety of IT jobs at large and small organizations
too numerous to mention.