A lot of people I meet tell me that they are not good with computers/technology when they hear what I do. I often wondered why do they do that. It seems like a silly self deprecation. In this day and age it is kinda shameful thing to say – almost as bad as for example publicly admitting you dropped out of high school. I used to think that not being able to deal with technology was an intellectual or developmental problem – that these people simply had a low IQ and probably also struggled with math, science, and basic logic concepts. I really had a low, opinion about people like that. There were exceptions – for example I didn’t expect certain age groups or professions to have a lot of exposure to computers, and thus didn’t hold it against them. For example my dad never really had to use a computer in his life, so I fully expect him to struggle with it. However some of the young kids who spend their lives on myspace, or professionals whose job revolves around sitting in front of a computer have no excuse.
Over time however I notice that a lot of these people who should not have any excuses are actually fairly bright. Many of them were good students, or diligent professionals considered to be very good at their job. They were able to excel in certain fields, and actually understood basic math and science. I realized that this is not an intellectual problem, but rather an attitude issue. They were unable to deal with technology not because of stupidity, but because they simply didn’t want to deal with it.
The main difference between me and most of my coworkers is that when I encounter a computer issue, I don’t go into a panic mode, but rather try to troubleshoot or work around it. Someone from the peanut gallery will say it’s because of my education, but let me shoot that concept down right away. It’s bullshit. I never had any training in IT. My degrees are in computer science, which, despite popular belief has nothing to do with tech support. When I landed my first tech support job, my only prior experience was actually owning a PC or two. Everything I know about tech support I found on Google. And that’s precisely what I’m getting at – doing rudimentary tech support stuff simply requires essential problem solving and online research skills.
On a daily basis I see very smart people who can go into a random company, dig through cooked books and all kinds of financial shams, uncover fraud and unmask all the shady shenanigans based on numerical discrepancies in the documentation they can get their hands on. These people are great at problem solving – this is what they do! But if they hit a technology issue at some point, all of a sudden they drop everything and turn into bumbling fools who can’t even read the error message from the screen back to me. Why is that?
The difference between us and them seems to be the fact that we have this weird intangible “good with computers” thing going on. I dubbed this trait as “machine empathy” because I believe it is more about understanding technology and being able to relate to it. It’s fairly simple if you think about it. If you want to work with animals you need to learn how to read them, know what they are capable of, and how to interact with them to get desired responses. Same with people – if you want to be a good motivator, or counselor of some sort you need to figure out how people work, and how to push the right buttons.
If you want to work with technology, you need to familiarize yourself with how machines work, and how to interact with them. I believe this is a skill that can be learned over time and through practice – just as the people skills. Only machines are much easier because they do not have mood swings, bad days, pms or just plain old bad attitude. They do not get angry and they do not hold grudges. They are always consistent, and for the most part reliable. It’s really not that difficult to figure out how to approach them, and how to make them cooperate. In comparison handling people (or animals) is much more difficult task.
I believe there are two major factors that contribute to the popper attitude towards technology:
“I’m bad with computers” is a self fulfilling prophecy
The very notion that someone can be bad with technology (or for that matter bad with anything) is deeply ingrained in our culture. But it is such a defeatist, self deprecating approach. If I ever have kids, I will do my best to try to root out this kind of thinking in them as early as possible. The major problem is that if you truly believe you are not good at something you will never actually get better. People simply go “I don’t seem to have the natural inborn talent for this thing, so I’m not even going to bother trying to improve this skill” which is absolute bullshit. While you may not have interest in particular subject, and others may actually be able to progress faster, if you apply yourself, practice and make a real effort you will eventually get better – it is inevitable.
People who consider themselves “bad with computers” simply refuse to learn about their machines. They use this excuse because it is easier to claim one is genetically incapable of learning technology, than it is to actually put some effort into figuring the inns and outs of the machine they use on a daily basis to do their job. Sadly, there is no “technology” gene. No one is born with the knowledge how to operate a computer. Each of us has to learn it at some point. Some people may learn faster than others, but every single human being has the capacity to learn how to use technology properly.
Fear is the mind killer
The second big issue for many people is fear. They are literally afraid to break their computers by doing the wrong thing. Fear is a show stopper – someone who is constantly worried about breaking something will never experiment, and never deviate from a beaten path – and thus will not learn new things. Fear must be extinguished – and the only way to do it, is by facing it head on.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
My attitude is this: so what if it breaks? Hardware can be replaced. Software can be reinstalled. Data can be restored from backup (you remembered to back it up before you started tinkering, didn’t you?). The only way you could actually suffer material or monetary loss is if you hose your hardware, which is very difficult to do if all you are doing is messing around with the software. So really, the worst case scenario is reinstalling the operating system if you really fuck things up. In fact, I know people who change their OS the way some women change hand bags – they get 3 or 4 new ones each season. I can pretty much install Windows and/or Ubuntu in my sleep, so the worst case scenario is really not so bad. As long as you have backups of your data, you are fine. Once you realize that, the fear will go away, and you will be on your way to become the local computer guru.
These are the two show stoppers. Once you remove these roadblocks I believe a person will become much more receptive and attuned to technology – assuming they will make an effort to actually learn something new about it. I refuse to believe that there is a single person on this planet who would be physically or psychologically incapable of developing this sense of machine empathy. It is all about the desire to learn. And once you get it – once you figure out what you can expect from your machine, you can do anything with it. Google is your firend. :)
Next semester I plan to try tackling these two major show-stopping issues in my class in a much broader way. I’m hoping that if I try to change their attitudes (even slightly) I might be more successful in showing raw knowledge down their throats later on. I probably won’t reach everyone (some people simply refuse to learn anything in college on a principle) but it might be worth to try this.
[tags]machine empathy, learning, computers, technology, tech support[/tags]