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The dumbing down of technology

© October 2002 Tony Lawrence

People do stupid things. We've all heard the stories of the guy who tried to force multiple floppies into his computer, the cd-less laptop user who wanted to hook up his stereo boom box to install software and more. The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes almost tragic in their implications of technological helplessness.

This is in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that computers get are getting easier to use. Just a few years ago, mention of an "email address" at a social function drew mostly blank stares. Today, grandparents routinely email digital pictures around the world. The technology has been "dumbed down" to the point where people can use computers without much understanding of the technology behind it. The proud grandmother sending off a picture of her new grandson has no idea that the picture has to be encoded for transmission, has no idea how the email client figures out where "jimmy@aol.com" really is. A lot of regular computer users don't understand the difference between hard drive storage and RAM: it's all "memory" to them. Since the new computer user doesn't need to understand these things anymore, they don't.

It's that lack of understanding, that "cluelessness" that causes someone to use a calculator to add up columns in a spreadsheet and type in the result (yes, that really happened). Those of us who aren't quite so helpless sometimes shake our heads in amazement at the flounderings of the computer illiterate, but we need to remember two things:

Dumbing down is the trend of technology and always has been.

Our own skills will become irrelevant

Back when humans worried more about tigers than hard drive crashes, we had technology. Most of it was related to hunting and food gathering: which plants are edible and which are not, how do you find and recognize safe water, how do you find and safely kill meat animals and so on. Plop most of us down in the environment our arboreal ancestors lived in and we'd be dead within a week, probably sooner. We literally would not have a clue- we have lost that technology. It has been "dumbed down" for us over thousands and thousands of years. Specialists provide our food and water, the rest of us are just dumb consumers.

Every human technology has taken that path. Just a few decades ago many of us knew at least a little bit about the workings of our automobile engines. It wasn't at all uncommon for us to do our own "tuneups", to change spark plugs and adjust timing. If I broke down on the road, I'd pop the hood and I might even be able to fix the problem. That's pretty rare today, because the engines have become too complicated. If my present car breaks down on the road, I wouldn't even bother to open the hood. There's no point: I'm too clueless. Call AAA and wait patiently.

It's a matter of concepts, of how you view the world around you, of how well you understand it. We have mental models of how things work. Those models aren't always accurate. My mental model of my car's engine is good enough that I will keep it in gas and oil, but that's about as far as it goes. I really don't need to understand much more than "keep the gas tank filled". That's a long way from what my grandfather needed to know about his Model T Ford. But so what? I don't need to understand to use. In fact, if I had to understand everything I use, it would be impossible. Dumbing down is not only inevitable, it is also very necessary.

New computer users need to understand less and less- they expect things to work without effort, just as I expect my car to work. Cars are pretty much at that point now, but computers still have a way to go. That's the direction though: simpler and simpler. So while we laugh at the guy who expected that his computer could be hooked up to his boom box to use the cd, he's actually just a bit ahead of us. Yes, ahead, not behind. In the future, he probably could get his computer to talk the boom box into transferring data from its cd. That "clueless" user has a slightly incorrect conception of how things work right now, but he actually had a good idea about how they should work. Someday that spreadsheet will "know" that you need a total for this column and an average for the other column. Heck, someday you won't even have a spreadsheet: you'll just say "How are things?" and the computer will say "Fine. Go out and play now. "

Technology will continue to dumb down. Although it may seem hard to imagine now, the day will come when "computer geeks" are about as important as someone who knows how to identify edible plants growing wild along the road. It will be a quaint skill, bypassed by ever advancing technology. If we old geezers are still around, we might be able to amuse the grandkids by actually writing a shell script- though the "computer" will probably immediately correct our style and suggest a better way to do it.

How far away is that day? I don't know, but as I'm only a decade or less away from retirement, I probably don't need to worry about it. If you are much younger, you might. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who made extra money testing and changing vacuum tubes in TV's and radios. Try earning money that way today- there is actually a very small market for that kind of thing, and there are still people who sell tubes and the like, but that market is pretty small. In the dumbed down computers of the future, there may still be a few antique machines kicking around here and there, but that isn't going to support very many of us.

Keep that in mind the next time sometime does something "dumb" with a computer. Was it really dumb? Or maybe they are just a little bit ahead of reality- for now.

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More Articles by © Tony Lawrence

Computers are tools which evolve to match the users expectations, albiet too slowly for most users.
The addition of 'simplifying' program layers on top of the silicon means you need ever-faster silicon just to process the simplifying layers and you need an army of programmers and support staff to create and maintain those layers. Keeping it simple for users means a lot of work, using current technologies, for the developers.
So I do not worry about IT becoming obselete, rather it will evolve through complexity back to simplicity - but someone will still need to know how to program it.

Further: A computer is a tool and until someone finds a better tool for doing what computers do, or we decide those things do not need doing, computers will endure.
You do not need a bank to run a computer [ banks pre-date computers by a few centuries ] but try telling your bank to close down their computers and revert to ledgers and clerks.


Tue Mar 25 19:10:55 2008: 3895   anonymous

I see your point but technology is not for idiots:

The truth is that MS saw grandparents as a market and dumbed down Windows to the point they could use it. Also AOL sent a CD to everyone in the world. Some people shouldnt be online and the techs who help them and are constantly more devalued every day would agree.

Also with regard to automobiles, people shouldnt be ignorant there either.

Ignorance MAKES YOU STUPID not PROUD. Ignorance is not a source of pride and never should be.

How many people brag about the fact they suck at math. Not many. I am just so stupid and proud.

But its a freaking badge of honor to be computer illiterate especially if you are old. Maybe its just their way of forcing their grandkids to call.

After doing ISP support for 3 years in a retirement community I started thinking that Soylent Green was a good idea.

Tue Mar 25 19:38:04 2008: 3896   TonyLawrence

Hey - I'm not ready to be liquified! :-)


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Let us change our traditional attitude to the construction of programs: Instead of imagining that our main task is to instruct a computer what to do, let us concentrate rather on explaining to human beings what we want a computer to do. (Donald Knuth)

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