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The Problem With Computer Analogies

On different kinds of literacy

Autumn 2022

When discussing computers, it's tempting to use various comparative constructs to aid our argument: metaphors, similitudes, analogies. I'm certainly guilty of doing so myself. Sometimes these semantic endeavors are helping the discussion forward, but sometimes they're less apt and may, in fact, steer the conversation completely off track.

Take computer literacy, for example. One analogy often occurring in defense of blissful computer ignorance is that plenty of people drive cars and watch television, but they don't know how these objects work. Not really. Certainly not enough to fix them if they break. But is that a fair comparison?

Ignore, for a moment, that both cars and televisions these days rely heavily on computers and that they, like modern computers, are often deliberately constructed to be hard to fix without paying the manufacturer. Let's instead assume, for the sake of argument, we're dealing with an old cathode ray Telefunken and a Volvo 740 from 1984.

When thusly focusing on the mechanical aspects of the car, the analogy requires any driver to be at least a mechanic but probably also an automotive engineer. That would make sense if people calling for increased computer literacy argued that every user should be a chip designer, a hardware engineer, a system administrator and a highly skilled generalist programmer all rolled into one. If this was the case, I'm not sure even Dennis Ritchie or Donald Knuth would qualify as computer literate.

I therefore propose that such analogies (which I've probably used myself at some point) are if not dishonest, then at least poorly thought through.

Carhacking

Most drivers probably know how a Volvo 740 works on some level of abstraction, albeit a basic one: an engine controlled by footpedals burns fuel in order to spin the wheels, the transmission of power is regulated with the gearstick and the direction is controlled via the steering wheel. All of this fits together mechanically somehow and there's probably at least one possible malfunction you can fix with a pocket knife, a roll of duct tape and some chewing gum. There's also a spare tire in the trunk that can be mounted using a jack and a lug wrench. Even before learning to drive and formally acquiring the legal right to do so, an aspiring driver is likely to have a good idea of the dangers of motorized traffic and some insight into its rules of conduct.

The real problem with the analogy, however, is that most people already know how to utilize their car as they see fit. They learn what kind of mileage they can expect in different driving conditions and what conditions to avoid entirely. They know they can transport not only themselves but also some amount of passengers and luggage, and how to expand this capacity with roof boxes and trailers. They also know that trailers are connected to a tow hitch, which can furthermore be used to tow other cars and objects or be fitted with a contraption to transport bicycles. They probably also realize that repairing a small crack in the dashboard doesn't involve a complete replacement of the engine.

As far as car customization goes, the sky is the limit: change the interior, the hubcaps, the wheels, the paint, the suspension, the windshield - or just cover the damn thing in bumper stickers. In fact, almost every detail of the car can (with the right amount of money and effort) be changed to their liking.

The car can also be used for things other than transport. You can sleep in it (even if it isn't a camper van), you can use it as temporary shelter from bad weather, it can serve as a comfortable seat in which to eat or watch a movie or a sunset, and it can become a temporary kitchen area at a tailgate party. If you're brave enough, it can even serve as source of power or dumb counterweight in a makeshift mechanical contraption.

Even if a driver never actually does any of the above, they're aware of the possibilities and could, in a pinch, start getting creative with using their vehicle to solve those and similar problems. In fact, a lot of people who don't own or even drive cars themselves realize most or even all of this.

I'm tellying you for the last time

What, exactly, constitutes "TV literacy"? I'd say things like changing the channel, controlling the volume, adjusting the picture and tuning reception - perhaps even something like giving the TV chassis an assertive whack to temporarily fix a bad solder joint. This doesn't mean you know how a television works - it means you know how to use it. Much, I think, like "computer literacy" means something else than being able to construct integrated circuits from scratch.

If TV literacy instead implies being at least theoretically capable of repairing a flyback transformer, then that must apply to computer literates, too: Not that long ago, both computer monitors and televisions were both CRT:s. I doubt even the most fervent proponents of computer literacy are advocating this level of knowledge. At least I don't.

The problem is that the computer and the television are two fundamentally different machines with two fundamentally different purposes. The TV was never intended for personal digital data processing: contrary to computers, its construction and function has always been to enable one way communication and nothing else. In short, the implications of watching a CRT TV or driving a 740 differ considerably from using an always online computer running software designed to maximize advertising profit.

Like TV:s, landline telephones are advanced pieces of technology with a limited set of use cases. Both of these devices are now all but replaced by a general purpose tool called a computer, the defining property of which is that it can perform both of these functions and many more.

Banalogies

This flexibility and ubiquity of computers is, I think, a strong argument for raising the expected level of computer literacy. Here, yet another similar analogy might pop up, probably along the lines of "X is also everywhere but nobody knows how it really works" (for varying values of X, such as bridges or toasters). I don't think it's bad to know how things work and how to fix them. Quite the contrary: these are useful skills that will save you money and give you a satisfying sense of accomplishment. But, with regards to computer literacy, the analogy shouldn't be about knowing how to reconstruct something from scratch, it should be about using something in efficient, creative and empowering ways. If you're lucky, the latter might even lead to the former, over time.

Given this, I believe SUV soccer moms know more about using their cars than we expect phone aficionados to know about the computers constantly glued to their hands. Exactly what level of proficiency is desirable will have to be the subject of another musing (though I've previously discussed why I don't think everyone should learn how to program). Suffice to say, computer literacy isn't an all or nothing skill but a sliding scale. I suppose it's just convenient for us nerds to consider it a binary state.