I just read an interesting opinion column about technology illiteracy over at TidBITS. The author, Adam Engst, argues that as technology becomes easier to use and hence more transparent, society has lost the ability to converse about technology.

With that, comes a generation of people who can find information on the Internet proficiently, text message at ridiculously high speeds, and do any number of standard computing tasks (word processing, email, IM, etc.) fluidly – until something goes wrong, at which point they become completely helpless and haven’t the slightest clue how to fix the problem on their own.

At this stage, these people will probably throw away their “broken” iPod and buy a new one, or bring their computer into the shop for costly repairs. Even if they realize that the problem is fixable, they lack the vocabulary to express the problem clearly and so they find themselves unable to coax Google into giving them useful search results that help them to fix their problem.

Here are some highlights from the article, but I recommend reading it for yourself:

Dissatisfaction is the mother of exploration - only if Safari or Internet Explorer isn’t meeting your needs do you have much impetus to learn about and switch to Firefox. So the better technology works, the less we’ll learn about how it works.

I’d argue there was a more insidious effect from the loss of manuals - it caused an entire class of users to become technologically functional while remaining technologically illiterate. When I asked my mother-in-law, Linda Byard, what browser she used, she became somewhat flustered and guessed at Outlook. This is a woman who uses the Web fluidly and for all sorts of tasks far more sophisticated than simply browsing static Web pages. And yet, the fact that she used Internet Explorer to do so escaped her.

Being fluid with technology doesn’t mean you understand how it works or can fix it when it breaks. Being able to dash off text messages on a mobile phone demonstrates fluidity; being able to troubleshoot a dead Internet connection down to a corrupted preference file or flaky cable demonstrates understanding.

Before Apple, before the IBM PC, we had mainframes and minicomputers that we interacted with via dumb terminals. You couldn’t do all that much, and you were sharing resources with many other people, but you also didn’t have to worry about things going wrong as much, because when they did, the computer operators would fix them. They were the gatekeepers, the wizards who controlled access and could say who was allowed to do what. Personal computers were supposed to democratize computing so anyone and everyone could do their own work. While that’s come to pass in some ways, it seems to me that we’ve returned to the days when you need a wizard to solve problems or do anything beyond the norm. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable situation, since those of us who grew up with personal computers are finding that we’re the new wizards.

via TidBITS Opinion: Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?

Update (10/07/2009)

I just stumbled upon a cool video from Google that attempts to explain what a web browser is to non-techies. Props to Google for mentioning Chrome competitors Firefox, Safari, and even Internet Explorer in the video! I love Google!

(If you liked this, you might like Cheating in Video Games.)

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Feross Aboukhadijeh Hey, thanks for reading! I'm Feross Aboukhadijeh, a programmer, designer, teacher, and mad scientist. I am currently building WebTorrent, a streaming BitTorrent client for the browser, powered by WebRTC. In my free time, I work on StudyNotes, a website to help students study better and get into college.

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