The Moving Target of Technical Literacy

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In the eighties, I made it a point to become ‘computer literate’. In today’s world of tablets and smart phones, ‘computer literacy’ begins to take on a new and shifting definition.

The March of Progress

In the long view, most skills become obsolete. Few people alive today know how to build fires, create pens from turkey feathers, or hand-crank an automobile. Then why am I surprised when I realize the ├╝ber-geek of just a few years ago might be hopelessly out-of-date today?

I grew up with the generation that saw the first Apple II computers put into schools (just one or two per school at first). Then in middle and high school, Macintosh rose to dominance. 3.5-inch hard plastic disks replaced the aptly-named 5 1/4-inch ‘floppy disks’ in our backpacks. When hard drives appeared on the scene, they seemed like miracles of speed and capacity, packing 20, 40, maybe even 80 megabytes of storage space.

As the hardware and software changed, people slowly adjusted their thinking about what computers were supposed to do. Before the Internet, computing really did mean computation: put in data, get out answers. Meanwhile aspiring young programmers got pulled into the primitive graphics capabilities of personal computers and spent hours trying to make something impressive appear on-screen to show their friends.

With computer prices dropping and more and more people putting PCs and Macs in their homes and offices, computing developed a lighter side. People were willing to use the computer just for fun and indeed many switched their view of a computer as an entertainment rather than a tool. Of course games were usually solitary pursuits before the advent of the Internet.

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Even though the basic technologies of the Internet existed in the 60s, computers had to become cheap enough to make the Internet available to more people. The 90s represented a pivot point between people ‘using computers’ and people ‘using the Internet’ (by using computers).

Slowly computers are losing the spotlight. I used to care how fast the processor was, how much memory I had, and a slew of other details. Now I mostly care if I can reach the Internet. Tablets and smart phones are on their way to becoming the portal of choice for Internet access.

The Family Geek

Most families include an identified ‘geek.’ The geek is the go-to guy (and usually is a guy) when computers break or passwords are lost. Serving this role myself, I find that people have some erroneous ideas about what it is to be a geek.

The first misconception is that a geek knows all kinds of computers equally well. As Apple so eloquently demonstrated with a series of ads featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long, some of us “are PCs” and others “are Macs.” I’m a PC, and so have almost nothing to say about what might be going wrong with a Mac.

Another illusion is that geeks can fix any problem. Now that nearly all computers are Internet-connected, a problem is just as likely to be in the Internet itself as with the computer. Users are understandably frustrated when their trusted geeks report “the site is down” and therefore the problem is out of our hands.

The illusion that I’m seeing more and more is “once a geek, always a geek.” In the 90s and 2000s I had a pretty good understanding of what was going on in computing. Now, as a working therapist, father, and husband, I don’t put in nearly as much effort to keep up with that march of progress I’ve described above. I can still do some basic troubleshooting and fixing, but not like I was ‘back in the day.’

Rolling with Change

When a family member or friend comes to me for technical support, they often harbor the belief that I have some gigantic storehouse of knowledge that allows me to diagnose a problem over the phone and rattle off a solution from memory. It absolutely does not work that way. Technical problem-solving requires poking around in the system, looking for clues, and using the interface itself to remind me what to do. This is true even of systems familiar to me.

And this final misconception is what separates geeks from people who feel helpless around computers. Geeks have a level of comfort and confidence when they explore a system or a problem. They are willing to try things they don’t fully understand and then make sense of the results. The Internet makes this detective work all the more powerful. Put some obscure error code into Google and as often as not a solution will be staring you in the face on the very first page. Looking back, when I have been really stuck on a problem, it was often because I froze up and lost my willingness to keep exploring and experimenting.

As much as I sometimes worry about losing my ability to stay ahead of the onrushing wave of technology, I realize that ephemeral knowledge isn’t the limiting factor. Rather, the openness to ‘dig’ and try things without certainty of the results are the quintessential geek personality trait that is as useful today as it was when Apple IIs roamed the earth.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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