Is That So Hard?

Thoughts on computer literacy

I don’t get it… how hard is it to understand what a browser is and what a URL is and how to use a search engine? Is it just that people don’t bother to try and blindly flail their way through life?

One of the first frontline support tasks I ever had was staffing an AOL support chat room. Specifically, the AOL Macintosh Beginners Help Desk chat room. It was the muddy blob at the center of a very, very dense Venn Diagram of Not Getting It.

I answered questions, day in, day out, for people who didn’t understand what a menu was. Or a mouse. They had only tangentially heard of modems. And they asked these questions sitting in a chat room that they could only get to by dialing a number with a modem, using their mouse to click on menu items, then typing their questions.

There is nothing quite as bad for a 16 year old kid as doing support. It’s easy to come away with the conviction that stuff you’re good at is the baseline requirement for being a functional human. It’s easy to decide that the world is full of mouth-breathers who just don’t understand and are essentially a lost cause.

The “Ahah” moment for me — and it was a very humbling one — came when a few of the people who had lots of questions started showing up frequently, and even hung out in the chat room outside of normal support hours. Being the egocentric nerd that I was I considered myself a young prodigy who was coincidentally an expert on every topic I found interesting, like literature and organic farming.

I mentioned some stuff I was trying to figure out, and discovered that two of the people who were always confused by concepts like clicking and windows were, in fact: A 52 year old master gardener who made her living answering incredibly stupid questions from schmucks like me, and an english lit professor who (obviously) knew more than I could even pretend to about the writing I’d been casually preening over.

Obviously, not everyone is a topical expert. But it really was a lightbulb moment for me: the realization that my area of expertise (limited as it was at the time) was just one particular pool of topical knowledge that some people happened to need… Just like the things those people knew.

I was lucky in that I had been given the opportunity to casually absorb many fundamental concepts about computers at a young age. I was lucky in that I discovered some important conceptual anchors at a time when computers were simple enough to make sense without a massive flowchart. I was also lucky in that I discovered these things when I was a slacker in junior high and high school, rather than an adult with a family, a job, and a life. If I’d had to balance those things I might have easily moved on or learned just what I needed to do to get by, rather than diving in and learning how the whole damn thing worked.

Today a fair share of my professional time is spent training and teaching. If anything I have had to become even more humble about the limited scope of my own expertise in the face of the people who come to me looking to learn. There are some flat-out impossible people, sure, but they are a tiny minority of the group that “doesn’t get it.” Most are just people who are trying to get a handle on a very complex tool, and are overwhelmed by the scope of what you have to “get” if you’re not “into” computers.

how hard is it to understand what a browser is and what a URL is and how to use a search engine?

The problem is not that a URL and a Search Term are two different things. The problem is that that particular distinction is one of thousands that are hidden under the surface of simple computer and internet tasks. What’s the difference between a “program” and a “web site?” What’s the difference between a local and a remote file? What’s a remote file? What’s caching? How do you tell the difference between a browser window that looks like a dialog box, and a modal window that contains a browser pane? Because guess what? All of those things matter at some point — and somewhere out there is a development team working hard to blur the distinction for their application, just for the hell of it.

Some days, as I’m walking a group full of relative newcomers through something technical, I marvel not at what they don’t get, but at the fact that anyone is able to get it.
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