Sunday, February 9, 2020

The New Illiteracy

I belong to a an online group for my block. We're not a very up-market neighborhood, but, still, I'd guess >75% are college-educated. Yet it's stunning how bad people are at the basic tasks of forming a coherent posting and knowing exactly what usefulness to expect from an online forum.

For example, someone just posted:
Does any one know of a CPAP supply store that is open on Sunday? My mother is visiting and our puppy chewed part of her mask. We’re looking for replacement or alternative parts.
There are occasions for web searching, and occasions for posting in an online forum. This would be a web search moment. I was joking with a local friend about it:
Uh, yeah, my kid’s heart stopped beating. Does anyone know like a pediatrician or whatever? Really, I guess any kind of doctor, even, heh, a vet, at this point could potentially be helpful. Standing by.
But it's a serious thing, even at a more basic level.
  • Many people don’t know how to choose an online tool for a given task.
  • Many people can't devise effective search terms for web searching
  • Many people can’t type worth a damn.
All three should be taught. Not in schools - kids are already good at this stuff - but for adults who've missed out. It’s the new illiteracy, afflicting many otherwise well-educated people, and no one’s talking about it because those who've developed these skills are only dimly aware that many haven't, and those who haven't lack a sharp sense of exactly what's missing.

Such people blurrily shrug it off by saying they're "not good at computer stuff”. And if it's a big blurry blob of "computer stuff", there's no hope of fixing it. In fact, the blobbiness is the problem. It feels like an enormous mountain of ignorance built from every tech situation that's ever frustrated them. From reinstalling system software to changing desktop background to creating macros and spreadsheets, all that stuff gets globbed along with the far simpler and more necessary basics.

You don't need to be a speed demon with the mouse or know how to set up a peripheral daisychain, but you do need to effectively web search, choose appropriate online tools, and type out a couple sentences in under 15 minutes. And here's the key concept people don't get: These are not computer tasks. They're more like home appliance tasks, like punching in a phone number or adjusting a thermostat. There's no soldering required. It doesn’t take a "hacker".

Media doesn’t help. They still categorize stories about YouTube videos or Twitter trends as “tech”. We need to finally decouple basic tasks accomplished with a computing device from tech/computation. By 1950, telephone users felt no need to understand, say, switches and trunk lines. Web searches, online tools, and typing are more involved than using a telephone, but they are still appliance tasks, not tech tasks...though lots of people don't realize this.

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