Technical Literacy is Empowering
By Graham L. Wilson
Copyright (c) 2010-2012 Graham Wilson.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included at this link: see my profile page.
I was watching a promotional on a television station the other day about a four part documentary on the history of literacy. One of the things that was most striking was a quote by an educator: "the word I would pick when it comes to teaching literacy is empowerment" or something like that. Of course it is obvious what this is meant to entail. Being able to read and write allows one to take in and communicate new ideas easily. Without the written word I would not be able to communicate this to you now. However, I then came to a more disturbing realization. In the technical field we are being forced to put up barriers and walls in the name of so called "empowerment". What do I mean by this? Read on.
I have been noted as being a person of decent if above average technical literacy. I can administer my own computer, reconfigure my settings, the presence of command-line does not scare me to death. I program applications for amusement and for practical purposes. As used in the written word analogy, I find my skills empowering. I do not need to be enslaved to tools or distributors. I can write my own tool if needed and break down any lock-ins or lock-outs. This is why I and people of a similar background value free software and open standards. Proprietary companies like Microsoft try and break down our freedom in the name of control. Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), known by public relations people more benignly as "Rights Management", is of course the more obvious example of this. They are allowed to spy on us and manipulate us in the name of forcing us to follow their draconian licensing texts.
This is why the Free Software Foundation has so viciously fought Windows Vista and now Windows 7. It is not that they want to promote GNU/Linux, the FSF in the long run does not care if you use BSD or OpenSolaris/Illumous or the like as long as it is free, it is that they do not want you to use anti-free software like Windows. During the late 2008 close of the the "Bad Vista" campaign they described it a success. A commentator on a technical site complained saying that since most users switched back to Windows XP' rather than to free software like GNU/Linux why did they think about it a success? The commentator rightly noted that people like Apple should not crow about the failure of Vista because most people just down-graded. However, he did not seem to realize something important - it is about fighting for freedom and not GNU/Linux adoption. That and there was still a statistically noticeable amount of migration, but moving on... The campaign was a success in that it largely fought off a threat to our freedom to be empowered by technical literacy. A move back to XP is still a victory because XP may be proprietary, but it is not going to spy on you and it is not going to so actively fight against you with measures like DRM. The campaign was a success in that its goals were achieved, to fight Vista and DRM.
Now to move on from the age old tradition of picking on Microsoft, comes the even worse threat: Apple. These two monoliths are corporate empires of different sizes and, as it turns out, different imperialist systems. Microsoft is a tributary empire similar to that of the Aztecs or the Romans. They conquer territory and ground but leave local affairs alone as long as they get their cut and the conquered respect their system. They do not care what hardware you use or what software you use, as long as you buy Windows. They probably would not even care if you did not actually use Windows as long as they somehow got their payment. Apple is an authoritarian empire, they demand that you use Apple hardware, Apple software and Apple everything. You have even less choice than with Windows. Microsoft wants your dollar, Apple wants your soul. What does all this have to do with technical literacy? Well, consider literary censorship. Literacy is a fundamental human right and everyone should be allowed to read write whatever they want. People have a right to choose which technology they learn and use. Literacy is only empowering when we have the freedom to explore it in all its variety. Apple wants us to use only the "iTech", and thus we are forced to be only limitedly literate. Apple literate. However, there is a trend even more disturbing if less deliberately nasty. The trend that made me write this. Again, read on, and use that gift of reading and writing.
My note at the beginning of this piece states that: "in the technical field we are being forced to put up barriers and walls in the name of so called 'empowerment'." What did I mean by that? Well, think of it this way. You have two books on a topic, one is 30 pages and one is 100 pages. They naturally both have their advantages. One is shorter and easier to read and may omit details you do not really need to learn to have a basic understanding. However, to become a real expert you need to read the 100 page piece. This is how you become truly knowledgeable about the subject. Now there is a way this fits in with modern technology: the GUI ( ) and the command-line. The GUI is noted as removing the need to move through wave after wave of data, most of which is irrelevant to the task you are hoping to complete. The command-line and a system with transparency in its processes requires you to specify and note every or most aspects of what you are doing. It is good to have GUIs as an option, and sometimes an information filter is nice. However, what if transparency and the command-line is repressed from their user public?
The 100 pages of information are useful too. In fact, to be truly technically literate you need to use it to truly understand how these systems work. It is like reading a pulp novel compared to reading Shakespeare of Leo Tolstoy. It is like reading a political blog of simplistic statements compared to reading Marx or other, complicated, political philosophers. We need the 100 pagers just as much as we need transparency and the command line. However, we are being forced to read and use the simple, while the complicated is being repressed. We are losing the choice to learn more. How so? User friendliness as a watchword. It all began in the late 1980s when people started to state that they wanted to move computing away from the the purely engineering and academic realm and into the consumer and and business realms. To do this they began to simplify it or, to use a less complex but in some ways more descriptive term, "dumb it down." They put in GUIs and hid technical information that might confuse and disorient the technically illiterate. At first this sounds noble as they attempted to bring technology to the masses so that it may improve their lives. There was a problem though, a serious problem.
To continue on this dissertation, I should like to make some notes on how the illiterate, when it comes to reading and writing, become literate, or even how someone learns a new language. They start off simply and build up. The version of a GUI when it comes to educating young children are starter books like a classic from my childhood, Frog and Toad. These simply written tales engaging to a young mind help give them a base on the language. The question to ask then is, what if they do not move on from there, or at least do not become very far more advanced? What if I was still just reading Frog and Toad and not Orwell or Heinlein? GUIs are the starter base, that is how I see them, but unlike in reading there does not seem to be a culture of progression. Once you master the starter you just use that, you do not learn and you certainly do not diversify. Over time user friendly technology has come to dominate and out number technically oriented technology. This is a problem. Imagine a library filled with only Frog and Toad, imagine an Internet with only point-and-click...
In the case of the the technically renowned and strong Unix operating system, and its modern free software clones like GNU/Linux, BSD and OpenSolaris, the starter system issue has always posed a challenge. "GNU/Linux is not ready for the desktop" or "ordinary people can't use Unix" and other such claims abound. This even persists now, over ten years after the birth of projects such as KDE, GNOME and XFCE. These desktop environment projects made Unix just as easy, if not easier, to use than Windows or Mac OS X. Why then do people not use GNU/Linux as their baby's first operating system? Because of a culture of technical illiteracy. Through a mixture of brilliant and occasionally vile marketing and corporate strategy, Microsoft has put its Windows operating system onto basically everyone's machines. Most people who have ever used a computer have used Windows.
The problem is that Windows is not perfect. It is buggy, slow, and staggeringly behind Unix and clones in terms of technical capability. It is also, as discussed above, an exploitive empire that is becoming ever more Apple-like and authoritarian itself in its quest to stop people circumventing its restrictions through what it calls "piracy" (how using a copy of software without paying a license fee compares to kidnap, murder and plundering is beyond me) through its use of measures such as DRM. Many people have realized this, particularly after the Vista debacle mentioned earlier. However, GNU/Linux and other, potentially less imperfect, alternatives terrify them - even in the user friendly age. This is because they are illiterate in that all they know is all they know. GNU/Linux uses package managers and not nightmarish registries. GNU/Linux file systems start "/" rather than "C:\". These minor differences terrify them because they have been told not to learn and experiment with technical literacy after mastering how to do it the simple and easy way.
It should be noted that this problem only persists among those raised in the Windows baby steps operating system world. Those who are technically literate have switched easily. Now that is not what is surprising, but what is is that people who have never used Windows before also find GNU/Linux easy to learn. This is because their slight literacy has not been labeled as the end for them. They will learn GNU/Linux as their starter system, they may even master it, and one day use the heavy guns like Slackware or Arch. This is because to them, liker readers all over the word, computing is a journey. Now from this you can tell that I support having measures to help raise people up. However, to move back to my point, what if the training wheels are attached permanently?
What has been commonly praised as something trying the make GNU/Linux more user-friendly is Ubuntu - a distribution which claims to be "[GNU/]Linux for human beings." Note the somewhat stomach churning assumption in that slogan - that ordinary folk are too stupid to learn how to do things properly and need to be wrapped up in layers of pretty colours and buttons to use computers. Imagine a democracy where people are assumed to need layers of padding in order to understand politics, a society where people are not assumed to become aware on their own? Some think that we already live there, but that is not the point of my writing here so I will leave it at that. Anyways, Ubuntu disregards Unix philosophy by hiding technical information, of pushing back the terminal, and making the GUI almost impenetrable. Unlike my previous stated agreement with starter operating systems, I think that this is wrong.
A starter system needs to be able to turn into one that is to be used by the technically capable. All technical and operational information needs to be available without hacking one's way through layers of GUI subterfuge. We need the terminal and the command-line ready and available for the fledgling power user. We must never, and I repeat, never damage and disable a piece of technology in the quest for "user friendliness." Note that I always say starter operating system and not consumer operating system. Because you see, I believe people can ride bikes without training wheels, I believe that people can read books that do not only contain one short sentence per page in large friendly letters, I believe people can learn and adapt. I do not believe ordinary "human beings" are utterly incapable of becoming literate. I do npt believe that people by nature are stupid, just ignorant when they enter a new field. I believe stupidity only exists when people turn off their ability to learn.
I personally created the term "Ubu syndrome" from "Ubu"ntu to describe what I call technology that can only limp along under the weight of user friendliness. Software where the base description is all you get, where press option A or B is all you get... It describes software that is good to learn with, but should never, ever, become the standard. People need computers that work, not those that are not hard on your brain. Imagine a society that did not teach maths because it was "so hard." Imagine how we would be if no one was told how to read and write. And yet, largely without ever realizing it, that is exactly how people have made technology. Now, I will ask you, gentle reader, to read on once more for my short summary. Enjoy!
Literacy is, I agree, empowering. Technical literacy is also empowering. It allows us to connect to the Internet, automate our daily tasks, and interact with our fellow human beings in ways that were never imagined before. Yet the norms of starting simple and moving on are being discouraged. We are suggested to just know the bare minimum and leave it at that. We should never just leave it at that! I am not asking you to become a computer expert. There are some that become linguists because they like the language that much, but I am not interested in it at that level. However, I still try and improve my grammar and prose wherever possible. I also try and improve my technical skills and Unix administration abilities. Note the latter, I am not hugely interesting in system administration as I am far more of a programmer. However, I do not close my mind to it. I ask all users to stop accepting that you are stupid. I ask all to realize that learning how a computer actually works is not wrong, but something to be encouraged. Stop letting yourselves stay ignorant. Empower yourselves!