It’s not a big truck. --- Senator Theodore Fulton Stevens, Sr., 2006-06-28


When the wheels spin, the car moves. They spin because, somewhere inside (but definitely not the cupholders), gas is going boom. If there’s no gas, there’s no boom, and there’s no spin, and there’s no successful trip to acquire an additional pair of sweatpants.



(...I considered ending the article right here, but feared it might not be published.)

When link turns from blue to purple, a sandwich order is written up. The order is chopped into pieces, put on numbered postcards, and mailed to the sandwich maker. The sandwich maker gets the pile of postcards, puts them in order, and makes the proper sandwich. Then, the sandwich maker chops up the sandwich and staples each piece to a postcard. These postcards are sent back, the patron glues the sandwich back together, and everybody wins, except for the guy who just ate glue, and PSYCH the sandwich was a website all along. Statistically, it was probably Netflix.

There is one main difference between that grossly oversimplified description of a car and that grossly oversimplified description of the internet: The former is an element of the amorphous, arbitrary blob of ideas which society expects its adult members to understand, and the latter is not. The computer is not a machine, it is a magic box---and like any magical artifact, its powers maybe accessed through ritual.

Why? Why is it expected to treat our everyday devices like magic?

(Please note that the scope of this article only ranges across U.S. culture.)

At first coquettish blush, the above comparison seems unremarkable. Cars are a significant part of our society, and have existed as a technology to build up considerable inertia in our cultural consciousness. Most Americans use them every day, and most of those who don’t still at least interact with them every day. There are about 0.8 passenger vehicles per capita in the US, and the best-selling toy on Amazon is… okay, so it’s actually Cards Against Humanity, but still. Toddlers like them some Tonka, and post-toddlers like them some Hot Wheels.

While that may have held in past decades, we have in the last few years transformed ourselves into a digitally networked society. About 75% of households have computers, and 72% have internet access. Computers have been not only applied to but fundamentally integrated into countless facets of society, and I’ve heard through the grapevine certain disreputable postsecondary schools even require laptop ownership of their students. For many, the computer and in particular the internet are bigger direct elements of day-to-day life than internal combustion engines. While the stereotypical nine-to-five office worker may commute an hour each way to work, their 8-hour shift will be spent staring at a screen and typing.

One of the strongest contributing factors to this phenomenon is the ill-named idea of “user friendliness”---a marketing term that has successfully forced its mythology into our collective notion of truth. A “user friendly” interface is one that caters to a preconceived notion of the user’s behavior, and obscures the user’s ability to do anything else (try moving a Final Cut X project with images onto another computer); moreover, user friendly interfaces often rely on tenuous metaphors to avoid requiring the user to understand what’s going on. These metaphors are often quite useful, but can obfuscate the actual behavior of the computer.

A prime example is the idea of the desktop. Ubiquitous in graphical operating systems, from Windows 8.1 to Lisa Office System to Plan 9 From Bell Labs to Hannah Montana Linux), the desktop is tied into the larger metaphors of the computer as both a physical space, and specifically as an analog to the pre-electronic workspace (viz. a desk, filing cabinets, piles of documents, sticky notes, etc.). The desktop is a place to pile up the things you’re working on (and to leave things for months), whereas the file system is like the desk drawers where you sort things into folders. This dissembles the fact that the desktop is itself a folder within that same file system. For most users, who are introduced to computer use starting with the use of the file system, the idea that their file manager is just another program installed on their computer never arises.

This brings us to another contributing factor: software bundling. Windows and Mac OS X (with market shares of 78.94% and 6.72%, respectively[1]) are both bundled operating systems, meaning that all their parts come plugged into each other, and with few exceptions none of them can be pulled out and replaced. Instead of a car with a hood one can lift, the operating system is instead a monolith---a magic box.

I’ll run the risk of using myself as an example. My current computer is triple booted with Saucy Salamander (primary operating system), Windows 7 (used for video editing), and Lucid Puppy (used for testing purposes). As I run my machine pretty close to the metal, and have a bad habit of debugging at three in the morning, I have induced crippling errors in both Saucy Salamander and Windows 7. In the case of Saucy, I was able to open up its root directory with Lucid Puppy and within an hour put everything back together, in some cases downloading replacement parts (video drivers, keyboard drivers, clickpad drivers, wireless drivers). In the case of Windows… I have a dead and twitching monolith. (If anyone knows how to repair a win7 installation which does not render text, feel free to lob some knowledge balloons my direction.)

A third, related factor to the technical literacy gap is the mythologized inaccessibility of expertise. Figures like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Wozniak are discussed ad nauseum, with relatively little specifics. The film The Social Network contained nothing of Zuckerberg’s technical accomplishments, with the implicit assumption that even high-level discussion would be impossible for audiences to understand. A class division arises between the semimystical digital wizards and the rest of us.  Attempts to cross this divide, then, become imbued with a revolutionary, upstart vibe. Underlying this are issues of socioeconomic class, although the correlation is gradually falling away, with equipment costs plummeting, public computer terminals becoming more common, and online learning resources exploding.

Within the “layman class” arise self-declared experts, whose expertise lies exclusively not in the workings of systems but in a broad knowledge base of particular quirks of their interfaces, and the manipulation thereof. This gives a more approachable alternative to technical knowledge, and is treated a bit like an 18 ability score in D&D: The best you can get before getting into superhuman territory. The conflation of this type of knowledge with “computer expertise” is less willful ignorance than it is anosognosia, a psychological defence blooming from the false axiom that the computer is, in essence, a magic box.

A trumpeted balm for this socioeducational dilemma is the teaching of programming at younger and younger ages. Finland is currently ruminating on introducing programming into their elementary school curriculum. While this is definitely not a bad thing, we must remember that programming is only one part of the problem. Plenty of Dartmouth students can ace COSC 1 without ever knowing much about drivers, or even the existence of the BIOS, both of which are arguably more relevant to computer use than parallelization of quicksort. An introduction to the basic physical architecture is often left until later (at Dartmouth, it’s COSC 51).

The epistemological danger of treating a commonplace, everyday item as inexplicable magic is the chilling effect this has on general inquisitiveness. Accepting computers as aluminum voodoo dolls is to accept the idea that the world around us---the things we touch on a daily basis, the things that move our economy, our communication, and our Aziz Ansari standup binges---is to abandon the idea that our understanding of our own experience can be expanded.


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