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.