The Problem Exists Between Nerds and Normal People

Last week, Marc Scott published a very earnest critique of the current state of the broader public’s understanding of computers, based on the premise that it’s necessary for people to understand how to replace a hard drive and dick around at the command line for them to more accurately be able to isolate computer issues. Only one problem: that premise is completely misguided.

People aren’t trying to use computers. People are trying to get shit done, and a computer is simply a tool for that — a means to an end.

This is similar to the way in which people use their cars. Most drivers simply want to get from their house to the grocery store and back. They want to know how much gas they have left, how fast they’re going, and what song is playing on the radio. The niche group of enthusiasts, on the other hand, are interested in tinkering with the mechanical aspects of the engine.

Through the hard work of engineers in the past hundred years, cars have become more reliable than ever before. As parts which were once regarded as owner-serviceable have been improved to the point where necessary repair or replacement was a rarity, these parts have migrated under layers of plastic or tucked into nooks at the bottom of the engine bay. The only intervention required of the owner of a modern car is to add fuel, and occasionally top-up the windscreen washer fluid. Any greater issues are dealt with by a mechanic.

Automotive enthusiasts were dismayed by this changing ownership paradigm.1 “How will people know the reason for the metallic grinding noise coming from their engine bay?,” they cried. But most people don’t care why there’s a metallic grinding noise coming from their engine; they just want to get their milk. And, in modern cars, it’s exceedingly rare for major calamities to occur. And even if there were such an occurance, the driver will book their car into a nearby mechanic for them to diagnose and fix because the mechanic has the expertise.2

In this analogy, Marc Scott is the enthusiast. Take his examples of frequent issues amongst those in the school where he teaches and serves as occasional IT guy:

A kid puts her hand up in my lesson. ‘My computer won’t switch on.’ she says, with the air of desperation that implies she’s tried every conceivable way of making the thing work. I reach forward and switch on the monitor, and the screen flickers to life, displaying the Windows login screen. She can’t use a computer.

Yes, she can use a computer. The idea that the display needs to be switched on separately from the computer is an issue of poor hardware interface design — an issue which is being remedied by the increasing share of tablets, laptops, and all-in-ones amongst new computer purchases.

A teacher brings me her school laptop. ‘Bloody thing won’t connect to the internet.’ she says angrily, as if it is my fault. ‘I had tonnes of work to do last night, but I couldn’t get on-line at all. My husband even tried and he couldn’t figure it out and he’s excellent with computers.’ I take the offending laptop from out of her hands, toggle the wireless switch that resides on the side, and hand it back to her. Neither her nor her husband can use computers.

Yes, they can use computers. This is another example of poor hardware design. Imagine if a computer had a physical switch which independently toggled the hard drive’s power — ludicrous, right?

A teacher brings me her brand new iPhone, the previous one having been destroyed. She’s lost all her contacts and is very upset. I ask if she’d plugged her old iPhone into her computer at any time, but she can’t remember. I ask her to bring in her laptop and iPhone. When she brings them in the next day I restore her phone from the backup that resides on her laptop. She has her contacts back, and her photos as well. She’s happy. She can’t use a computer.

Yes, she can use a computer. This is another example of a convoluted user experience. She just wants her stuff on her phone (and this is why it’s so critical for iCloud Backups to work properly every time).

I am an enthusiast, too. I think people would be better off if they knew their way around the annals of Stack Overflow, or the more labyrinthian quarters of OS X’s networking settings. But people shouldn’t have to know this stuff. Things should just work. Trying to get seven billion people to know their way around a Terminal shell is impossible. But it’s possible to get the few-million tech-savvy people who make all of this stuff to reduce its complexity to the point where nobody has to manually fiddle with network settings ever again. Make no mistake — we would all benefit from a reduction of complexity.

Last year, I bought a new wireless base station to replace the older one as the primary station, with the older one to be used as an extension. Imagine my surprise when AirPort Utility migrated all my settings from the old one to the new one; then imagine how delighted I was that the old one defaulted to extending the network. It took less time for me to set this network up than it took to purchase the base station.

Stuff like this is beneficial to everyone. I don’t care how much of an enthusiast you may be — you may use Terminal for everything from checking email to reading Hacker News — nobody delights in configuring a wireless network. Surely nobody loves spending time setting up their email accounts on a new computer, or working around permissions errors. Normal people shouldn’t have to think of a permissions error. That’s why the iPad is so popular through a cross-section of technical abilities.3

That’s why designers of all stripes — interface, graphic, product, or whatever — need to get this stuff right. Take Bradley Chambers’ article on the iPhone’s convoluted photo management:

The kids born 2010 and beyond (when the iPhone camera actually got good), will have a ton of pictures taken of them. Parents largely don’t have a digital workflow that allows for backup, usability, and long term storage. Apple has always prided itself on making technology for regular people. This is a problem that regular people need solved. Photo storage and backup needs to be automatic and so easy that it’s nearly impossible to screw up.

Replace “photo storage and backup” with “everything”, and you’ll get the gist of what I’m trying to say here.

One of the problems that Mr. Scott reveals is not that people lack knowledge of how their computer works. Rather, it’s that critical, analytical thinking is not formally taught. Most of the time, it’s merely implied, without any consideration of what analytical thinking should entail.

Picture this scenario: a CD player is connected to an amplifier, connected to a pair of speakers. You press play on the CD player, and hear nothing. What do you do?

An analytical thinker will be able to troubleshoot this scenario, even if they have no idea of the inner workings of a CD player or amplifier. They’ll probably start by checking that there’s power, that there’s a CD in the player, and that the volume is somewhere in the middle. Then it’s a simple process of isolation and verification.

Students need to be taught these critical skills. When I was in high school, this was something that was a byproduct of cross-referencing sources and refining thesis statements. But it’s a skill that needs to be a class itself.

Last week, I linked to an article about kidergarten students learning to program. These students weren’t writing Python or PHP, but rather dragging blocks of instructions together, similar to the way in which Automator works. This requires just as much critical thought as writing Ruby while keeping it approachable, un-scary, and fun.

Marc Scott closes his post with a plea for smart public policy decisions:

I want the people who will help shape our society in the future to understand the technology that will help shape out society in the future. If this is going to happen, then we need to reverse the trend that is seeing digital illiteracy exponentially increase.

I agree — I want the people who make laws governing the use of technology to have an understanding of that technology. But there is already a framework for this: lobbying.

I’m not kidding.

Before the days of entire industries using lobbying as a means to write laws enabling them to destroy all that is good and decent in the world, lobbyists existed to inform policymakers on unforeseen implications or industry nuances of proposed legislation. Most politicians aren’t farmers, or bankers, or programmers; they’re ill-equipped to be making laws regulating these industries. Yet, paradoxically, they are expected to do just that. The people who are better-equipped to make these laws — the farmers, the bankers, and the programmers — are too busy contributing to their respective industries.

We need nerd lobbyists. We need people who can clearly communicate why the UK’s new porn filter won’t work. We need people who can articulate the expected standards for broadband internet and cellular providers. We need people who can clearly explain to laypeople the extremely technical issues which matter to consumers.

Mr. Scott has revealed a much broader issue than I think he realizes. There’s a lot to unpack in what he’s written, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. But I think what he’s written is from a backwards perspective. Normal people should not be required to know Python; people who know Python should be required to know normal people’s expectations.

We’re slowly getting to a point where things simply work as expected. WiFi networks are more robust than they ever have been, and email accounts automatically configure themselves. This philosophy needs to run even deeper through this industry. We — the people who write and build and compile and design all this really futuristic stuff — are in charge of ensuring that general-purpose computing is available to everyone. General-purpose is, after all, general-audience. Design for your grandfather and your friend’s new baby at the same time. We all like code which is self-documenting, so make the product of that code self-explanatory. We all benefit from this approach. We are part of the general audience.

  1. If you doubt this, I have a decade’s worth of back-issues of Road & Track to show you. ↥︎

  2. Like other specialized professions, all mechanics have had to deal with significant skepticism because of asshole mechanics who take advantage of broader ignorance. The latter will want to replace parts that don’t need replacing, similar to unscrupulous computer technicians who will charge for software diagnostics of a scratchy-sounding hard drive (clearly, a hardware issue). Unfortunately, there will always be people who use their specialized knowledge to prey on the ignorance of others. ↥︎

  3. The iPad is derided amongst the hacker community for being almost entirely closed-source and proprietary. In theory, open source software can do many of the same things; in practice, this tends not to be the case. John Gruber’s excellent “Ronco Spray-On Usability” article further fleshes out this argument. ↥︎