The Digital Illiterati

Jul 1, 2015

Once upon a time, about a 1,000 years ago in Internet years, people who wanted to use a computer had to invest some time into learning the fundamentals. These were in the ancient times before the Graphical User Interface, or GUI (pronounced “gooey”), which enabled users to use a mouse-pointer or a stylus or their finger to click on colorful icons and drop-down menu items.

I don’t want to return to the DOS days
any more than I want disco to make a comeback.

Back in the pre-GUI era, you had to type specific commands in order to make the computer do any work for you. You learned those commands by reading books called “user guides” and “manuals.” These books were usually several hundred pages long and accompanied the software you bought. They were written by people called “technical writers” who painstakingly went through the software and documented how it worked.

That’s okay, go ahead and label me “nostalgic,” but make sure you understand what I’m being nostalgic about. I don’t want to return to the DOS days any more than I want disco to make a comeback. I’m not nostalgic for antiquated technology; I’m nostalgic for dedicated and competent users of technology.

These types of users are becoming extinct and being replaced by the mindless masses who go about their daily lives with little to no mastery of the technological tools they attempt to use on a daily basis. That’s a harsh indictment against many of us, but it’s not unfounded.

Now in my 20th year working in the information technology field, I can look back over the years of implementing information systems and training end-users to use software tools and tell you that, in general, users have become less competent with using their technology.

I’m not saying that they’re dumber. Many of the people I work with today are smart, well-educated, and accomplished people. In general, however, most of them are not as adept at using their technology as folks I worked with in the past.

There are several reasons for this. One of them, I’ll admit, is that I’ve been down in the IT trenches for a long time and have become a bit jaded and snarky. So there’s that. Another reason is that there’s just a lot more technology than there used to be and perhaps the best one can hope to be is a jack of all technologies and a master of none. But perhaps the primary reason is the growing IT profession itself and the rise of “technical experts” that everyone else can rely on to figure something out when they can’t or simply just don’t want to.

I know this first-hand because whenever someone has an issue with their technology at work or in their personal life, they’ll ask me for help. Sometimes their issues are truly technical and need a “technical expert” to resolve. But more often than not, the issues people bring to me are not technical, but stem from a lack of knowledge about how to use their technology to accomplish a task.

Erika Poole, a Penn State Information Sciences and Technology assistant professor, recently conducted a study to examine whether having a technology expert around the house hinders less savvy family members from developing technology skills of their own.

“As a society, we’ve reached a point where we have so many possessions that rely on technology,” said Poole. “It all requires maintenance, and I was curious to explore how we handle and cope with all these things.”

I can tell you how my family handles and copes with all these things: they get frustrated and come to me exclaiming, “The computer is stupid!”

I then resolve the issue, which usually turns out to be that something wasn’t working the way they thought it should or they couldn’t be bothered with the 2 seconds it took to Google whatever it was they were struggling with and read up on how to do it.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve Googled “How do I [insert tech thing you want to know how to do]?” There’s even a website for snarky tech people like me called “Let Me Google That for You” ( that records your screen as you type in a Google search. You can then send the link to the person who asked you the question so they can watch as you conduct a Google search for them. I limit my use of this tool as I’ve found that most people don’t respond so well to being humiliated like that.

Poole’s study concluded that when there is a tech expert in the home, other family members rely on that person to the detriment of their own learning and becoming more technically savvy. She also found there was a pattern of the more technically savvy person just quickly doing something rather than teaching the person who asked for help. I’m certainly guilty of that.

This pattern is present and common in the workplace too. As technology has permeated every facet of modern organizations, IT help desks routinely respond to “technical support” requests that are less technical and more procedural in nature. While this type of support may improve productivity in the workplace, it creates a dependency on tech people and a lack of initiative on the part of end users to take the time to figure how to do something themselves.

“Tech is becoming more important everywhere, but not everyone needs to be on the level of a systems administrator,” said Poole. “I wish I could say there’s a set list of skills that everyone needs to know, but it’s a very individual thing. It’s about learning what you need to know to navigate the technology that’s important to you.”

That’s sound advice and the key word here is “learning”. You will always be learning a new technology as the pace of change continues to accelerate. When it comes to technology, what you learn today will become obsolete tomorrow like DOS and disco dancing.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.