Fluency With Technology

I teach a course called “Fluency With Technology”. I did not come up with that designation – it came from up above, and the first time I saw it, I considered it silly. Over the years however I grew to appreciate it and like it. It is a wise course name – a poignant one. For we must be fluent with technology the way we are fluent with languages to function in modern society.

Technology surrounds us, and permeates every aspect of our existence. It is a conduit through which we do business, conduct our social affairs, trade, maintain our health and even meet potential soul mates. If you don’t speak the language – if you can’t produce electronic data on your own you are like a foreigner in your own country. Like a stranger in your own home land you need a translator and a guide to help you fill out forms, order goods online or do any kind of business. You are helpless and dependent on the good will of other – a digital invalid.

Our society is quite open minded and forgiving of the differences of it’s individual members. Those who are physically or mentally challenged usually receive aid and assistance. We make accommodations for them, we go out of our way to meet their needs and make things accessible to them. Granted we don’t always to enough, but we try. Technologically challenged individuals however receive no such assistance. There is no aid, pity or accommodations for those we cannot exist in digital age. If you can’t navigate the information highways, it is by your own choice and nothing else.

We already make our user interfaces as accessible and as easy to use as possible. We study usability, we observe how people use electronic devices and make them bend to their needs. But we can’t make things that use themselves. We build tools, not electronic, mind reading butlers. There is a degree of fluency that is required to operate them. Most people will agree that cars are not difficult machines to figure out. The concepts and principles upon which they are built are fairly intuitive and straightforward to understand. The user interface is quite simplistic. And yet, no one expects a car to “just work”. Mastering the machine takes some practice. But somehow, somewhere we got this silly notion that computers (which are infinitely more complex than cars) should “just work” without any effort or learning involved. People see an electronic computing device and immediately switch their brain off.

“I am not a technology person, and therefore I don’t need to learn this!” – where did this attitude come from? Why do people behave like this around electronics, but understand that everything else requires learning and effort to master? Is it a holdover from a bygone era when computers were still considered a fad? Or is it our fault? Have we coddled our users too much? Is our constant struggle to make user interfaces simpler and more accessible hurting the average users in the long run?

It can’t be the latter, because improved usability is intrinsically a good thing. It helps everyone – both power users and novices alike. So it must be the former. People cling to the past that no longer exists – analog era. The great the slowness of the pre-information age. They cling to it, and instill the old values in their children. They hobble their impressionable minds by hammering in Luddite philosophies and installing learning barriers.

“You can learn anything if you put your mind to it son, except electronics – that’s black magic not to be trifled with.”

It is a defeatist attitude. It is harmful. It produces adults with crippled minds, and only partially able to participate in the collective mind share of planet Earth. Consuming some, but not contributing much to the ever growing body of human knowledge. Only able to dip one finger in the ocean of the information (or maybe wade in up to their ankles if they are lucky), whereas those fluent swim and dive in it every day. Granted, you don’t need to be a diver – but you ought to be a swimmer, least you want to drown.

Non swimmers get easily overwhelmed. They burn out under constant flow of information. They have to disconnect, take vacations from the internet. Those of us who swim daily have learned to effectively filter such things. We are infovores, but we do not usually consume more than we can chew. We let the information flow over us, past us and carry us along it’s current. We let it trickle through our fingers, as we sieve for things of importance. We know how to flow with the current, and when to get out. We have intuition, and gut instincts about these things. But you can’t develop these if you are barely able to use the tools that connect you to the turbulent seas of data. You need these to survive the relentless tsunami of irrelevant data that is on the horizon. Information overload is not something you avoid – it is something you learn to surf, to navigate, else you burn out quickly.

Recently, something changed. There was a paradigm shift. Smart phones are cool now – everyone has one. People use them with joy and unprecedented glee. Being good with your iPhone for some reason does not bear the “computer nerd” stigma. Everyone partakes in the joy of discovery as they share new apps, new games and new social network gimmicks on their mobile devices. This is good. This is brilliant. This is game changing. Information age is sneaking up on people who swore it off long ago – who were raised and taught to distrust and despise it. They are becoming subverted. The hip and cool smart phones are a bridge to the new era. As we slowly transition away from traditional desktop and laptop computers to mobile wearable devices, and as those devices become more powerful we will not be leaving these folks behind. Maybe not fluent, but conversational. No longer strangers in the digital realm.

Few people realize how much power they are holding in their hands right now, and how that power is incrementally growing with every year. For your phone is not a toy. It’s not a phone either. That little black rectangle is your exo-cortex. It’s your mind outside of your mind. It is a brain without neurons. It is your in-silico memory. It allows you to record your memories at any time and anywhere. It connects you to the entirety of human knowledge and achievement from anywhere and at any time. It connects you to your loved ones, your acquittances and your clients. It is your mobile computing platform, data storage and communication hub. So is your laptop for that matter, but you don’t always have a laptop, and even if you do, you don’t always have it connected to the internet. Your phone however is online 90% of the time – the connectivity is it’s main function and the main selling point.

If you fancy yourself a “computer illiterate” person, please realize you are someones burden. There is a person in your life – maybe a relative, significant other, or your IT guy at work, who is doing all the heavy lifting for you. You are like a child – you must be held by hand, and walked places. You do not speak the native tongue of the land – you need a constant aid of a translator. You crawl on your belly, whereas everyone around you has learned how to walk and run upright. You are a blast from the past, and you are dragging everyone around you down. You should feel bad. You should be ashamed.

Become a productive member of society. Take responsibility and learn the tools you need to use in order to succeed in the modern world. They were not made to confound you. They just require time and effort to master – just like everything else in this world. You can start by getting yourself a bridge – iPad is a good choice because of the large screen, but phones are good too. Walk it daily. Learn every inch of it. Make it your primary computing tool. It’s your ticket to the future.

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10 Responses to Fluency With Technology

  1. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Love it! Now, if you could just re-write the second-to-last paragraph in such a way that makes me able to present it to my boss without getting fired… ;)

    But yeah, I don’t get it either. I’m not a grease-monkey type. I have friends who are, and I respect their abilities to tinker with vehicles, but that just isn’t me. Sometimes it feels odd, because the mechanics and such are the type of thing that should appeal to me, but they don’t; not when it comes to vehicles. Yet, I’ve still made sure I can operate one just fine. Not racecar-driver or master-mechanic level by any means, but I can perform the basic functions without having to call someone every time I need fuel and ask “How do you fill this thing up with energy juice, again?” Were I to do that, I would be looked at as an embarrassment by most of the people I know. Yet, it’s completely socially acceptable for my co-workers to ask me “how do I print this pdf to scale?” every time they run into the issue.

    To be fair though, I think that a lack of standardization among technology interfaces is partly to blame. If you’ve only ever driven a 1980′s ford pickup truck, you may have a bit of orientation to do when getting behind the wheel of a brand-new hybrid compact car, but most of the basics will be about the same. Yet, show me two printers, made at least two years apart by two different companies, that share nearly that amount of similarity when it comes to maintenance or preferences. When your skills don’t transfer well — and in technology, they often don’t at the user-level — it’s easier to adopt the defeatist attitude of “why bother learning this, when next year I’ll just have to start over on the next piece of equipment?”

    Would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on that part.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ StDoodle:

    I think you are right. I wouldn’t expect a lot of people to be able to open up their computers and for example replace a hard drive, or remove one of those nasty bastard malware suites that hooks deep into the guts of the OS and prevents you from running binaries. But I would hope that a person would know how to print documents, and maybe know how to fiddle with Word documents and fix the layout when it breaks. That’s the difference between a competent driver and a mechanic.

    Fun fact: I lived most of my adult life in NJ where all gas stations are full service by law. I hardly ever travel out of state, and when I usually don’t drive. As a result I have never actually pumped my own gas. :P

    If you see some people behaving like they have never used a gas pump in their life, chances are you are observing us New Jersey denizens.

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  3. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Hmm… Smartphones as an exocortex. Well, I could already record my thoughts with a pen and paper notebook, but now I can share everything instantly, and I can “remember” anything someone has decided to record on the Internet, accessibly though Google or on Wikipedia.

    Then again, if Google and Facebook really are extensions of my mind and memory now, does that mean that I now lease my higher brain functions from corporations who now have the ability to beam advertisments right into my thoughts?

    Maybe I should go bomb some looms…

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Uh, yes. You are renting higher brain functions from corporations, but only small parts of it, and only by choice. Facebook, despite of what it claims to be is only a small part of the online experience.

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  5. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Is it still a choice if we become dependent? I can’t find the link, but I remember reading at one point about a study which suggested that certain segments of a persons brain deteriorated when that person spent a significant portion of their time online because their brain found it could suplement those functions with services like Google or Wikipedia.

    I’m not a help desk guy. I’m a programmer with sysadmin duties and never have to deal with luddite types. But I do find that the availabilite of the Internet is often a hindrence to me. To think through a difficult programming problem I generally have to leave the room with the computers in it and prefereably go someplace with greenery. If I don’t, my brain starts multitasking, and that’s terrible for cognative performance.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Well, yes – our minds are adopting to the environment in which we exist now. Instead of storing random data points and relying on our fuzzy, failure prone recall mechanisms we become adept at performing quick search queries using available tools and “outsource” remembering large data sets into silicone.

    To me this transformation is akin to how we mostly lost the memorization methods of the ancient bards when literacy took hold. Homer and his predecessors had to memorize the Illiad along side with bunch of other epics, and be able to recall it piecemeal or in it’s entirety. That was the only way to preserve it and “record it”. Nowadays we don’t have to do that – it has been written down, and so we can refer to text if we want to hear it again.

    Granted, we lost something in the process – the Illiad no longer mutates. It does not change as it passes from bard to bard, from storyteller to storyteller. It has been fixed in time. But as a tradeoff we have gained something new – accuracy and permanency. Not only that – storytellers of modern times have gained unprecedented freedom. No longer must they concern themselves with meter, rhyming and mnemonics that were essential, and fundamental part of the oral tradition. No longer do they have to construct their tales in ways that lend themselves to easy memorization. Now we can tell abstract, difficult, challenging, non-linear stories and preserve them that way for eternity.

    We traded memory capacity and recall accuracy for high level abstraction because we found a better, more permanent way to store and organize data.

    Now once again we are making that trade – we can remember less, because our technology got better at indexing, categorizing and fetching data for us.

    Multitasking is another problem entirely and I agree it is the deep thought killer. However most programmers, and most creatives for that matter learn to zone out when they work. When I’m coding, or writing an article I usually don’t get distracted by the web because it mostly ceases to exist for me. You get in your groove and you work – you do the deep cognitive processing, then you disengage and multitask when it’s time to goof off, read emails and etc.

    I get this at work sometimes:

    “Did you get my email?”
    No, I was coding.
    “I sent it three hours ago…”
    Yes.. Well, I was programming.
    “You don’t check email when you code?”
    No, I mostly write code or look stuff up.
    “Well, check your email when you code too cause it’s important”

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  7. Morghan UNITED STATES Safari Linux says:

    People should also bear in mind the opposite issue with technology. These devices being in everyone’s hands aren’t always a good thing. I remember going to the coffee shop or diner and actually talking to the people at the next table, now everyone is stuck in their blasted phones even to the point of texting people who are in the same bloody room with them.

    I’m all for technical fluency, but lets keep an eye on becoming a society of social retards who would rather do their social networking online than spend time with people in physical reality.

    I don’t see much of a balance being struck, from my observations people tend to fall into the luddite category, or jump to the opposite end of the spectrum and favor the aides we have created to social interaction and communities hundreds if not thousands of miles away over actually taking part in the world around them.

    On a side note, many people have yet to learn how to filter their digital communication in the same way they do for older forms such as letters or face-to-face contact. I recently deactivated my Facebook account because it was nothing more than game spam, “I like tacos” style blips, and threats/insults in the e-thug style of posturing. These aren’t idiots, at least most of them aren’t, but put a keyboard in their hands and any sense they have flies straight out the Windows.

    I’m trying to find a balance raising my kid, not sure how well it will work out, but I’m making sure she learns how to use technology while cautioning her against becoming completely absorbed in all the flashy new toys. Not only do they pose the threat of disconnecting us from those around us, but buying all the latest gadgets gets really flippin expensive :P

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Morghan:

    You know, I never actually had the “dinner table problem” with everyone texting and no one talking. Most people I interact with seem to grasp the fact that doing so is rude. I mean, you wouldn’t talk on the phone all the time while having dinner with someone so why would you text, tweet or email. Common sense… Actually, I should say common courtesy. I’m fairly sure that not texting at dinner is something we should teach kids along side other “good table manners”.

    I think part of the “fluency” thing is finding the right balance. As I said in my post, we live in a day and age where we are bombarded with information. You either learn to filter and prioritize it to distil some of the signal from the noise, or the noise will quickly drown you. It’s all about tapping into the power these tools give you without allowing them to control you.

    I find Facebook useful at times. I often take pictures at social outings and I post them there because it is the one place where everyone involves can be found. I sometimes check up on friends to see what they are up to – usually when people post pictures from events I either been to or missed (weddings, baby pictures, family functions, parties) etc. I mostly use it as a digital layer that adds more interaction to my Real Life social interactions.

    Twitter or G+ – I follow a lot of people, but read my stream in random bursts. Sometimes I won’t check them for days. Sometimes I have these interesting exchanges on there with people I know or strangers. Sometimes I use them to broadcast my thoughts. It depends on the mood and time constraints.

    These things are tools – I use them, but they don’t use me. A lot of people become overwhelmed by these networks, they feel like they need to keep up, and stay plugged in. A mature, seasoned user is one who knows when to unplug, and when to stay plugged in. :)

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  9. copperfish Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    In some ways I think the lack of fluency has less to do with hanging onto the old ways and more to do with user interfaces becoming far better at masking the underlying systems. Add to that our love of skeuomorphic design, are we surprised people are confused.

    Having been introduced to computing in the 80s, I had to know about typing in hex-code to get games to run and managing memory for DOS bootloaders. Nobody has to do that anymore. Like it or not, they’ve been abstracted from the technology. Add to that a younger generation who have to deal with “floppy disks as save icons” when they have no idea what the physical object is makes computing more obscure. My “smartphone” is 2% phone, 10 % camera and 88% handheld computer – so why do we still call the things “smartphones”? Start calling things what they are (not that anyone in marketing would agree with me).

    The plus is that younger people are comfortable with digital technology, but in some ways they understand it even less.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ copperfish:

    This is very true.

    I remember that when I was growing up in Poland in the 80′s there were about 2-3 polish gaming magazines on the market. All of them had devoted about a quarter of their volume to the “tips and tricks” section, 90% of which was instructions how to edit save game files in hex editors to give yourself more cash, lives, weapons, whatever. They would list byte offsets from beginning of the file, and max values you could put in at that spot. The best thing was that they never explained exactly “how” to do this stuff. They just assumed their target audience would know how to work a hex editor.

    Hell, most of the content from these times was amazing. One time one of these early gaming mags published like a 6 page dissertation about exploiting that hyperspace jump bug in Frontieer. The guy actually broke out his math hat on and not only made charts of most efficient exploit routes between interesting systems but also taught you how to calculate them. Coincidentally that’s how I learned the Pythagorean theorem ahead of schedule. Then then I learned it in school I was like “holly shit, I used these equations to calculate hyperspace jump routes”. :)

    Then that went away. As the gaming hobby got more popular it also got dumber, and gamers became more entitled. Editing saved games went from being a common-place trick to a lost art practiced only by few old-timers.

    These days you open a gaming magazine and it is 100% ads. Even the reviews are paid ads – “Modern Brofare, score 12 out of 10, BEST GRAPHICS OF THE YEAR!”. Hell even the websites that claim to be knowledge bases for game “cheats” usually deal out advice like “beat the game three times for an achievement” these days. Sigh…

    But I guess that’s something to be expected. As we make the tools easier to use the more people use them. This means that on the average the skill and intelligence of the average user is falling down. Early on, learning to work the computer was a bit of work. Only the most dedicated individuals became proficient enough to matter. Now that everyone has a computer in their pocket, the average user is less skilled, less patient and more entitled than in the old days.

    It’s the law of averages I guess. As a whole we are more connected and more in touch with the technology than ever. But at the same time the skill and dedication of the “average” user is lower than it used to be.

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