Saturday, September 24, 2011

Technology: Do you get it?

I give a lot of talks. I talk to developers, engineers, gis people, students, professors, geologists, NGO workers, and many more. And there's one statement that comes up quite often, a statement people make to me all the time. Usually not engineers or developers, but just about anyone else. It is some variation of:

Oh, I'm just not good with technology.

This statement puzzled me for a long time, even though I think I understand what they are trying to say. The truth is, even the remote stone age tribe that hasn't made contact with the rest of the world uses technology. The light switch you flipped on? Technology. The paper you write on? Technology. The radio, car, dish washer, technology. The fork you eat with. Even the fact that you wear clothes. Technology. Anyone who has played Civilization or some other strategy game with a tech tree knows this.

What they are trying to say is that they are not good with computers. But chances are, they email regularly, post on [insert favorite sns], or use some IM client.

So what do they mean? I'm going guess they mean something like this:

I am intimidated by how much you know about geo/programming/mobile phones etc. And I feel I could never learn that much.

This is a much more reasonable proposition. Still likely untrue, but much more reasonable. I generally find that if I work with them, they can learn a surprising amount in a short period of time. My personal theory is that it is fear of failing more than anything that prevents people from actually being able to do something. Once they get past that, they tend to see how easy something can be, at least at the start. I know there are things I've been scared to try for fear of failing or looking bad. That's natural. I think obsession with certain terms, like "technology" in our cultural make it harder for people to start, create a class of things they don't understand. 

I am not saying that everyone can be good at anything, or that some people aren't better at things than others. But one of our jobs as technologists and developers is to make it easier for people to understand what they are already doing, and to learn new things by relating them to things they've already learned. I've taught rudimentary JavaScript programming to people who didn't know what a text editor was, and some of them have gone on to make really amazing maps visualizations, by showing them the basics and relating it to what they already know.

OK related note, some of you have heard this before, but a short story:

A friend of mine, a UNIX systems administrator, told me that he didn't think he was a geek. Oh, he's also a SciFi fan. And I mean he organizes SciFi conventions in his spare time fan. I should say Fan with a capital F. So he says to me, he doesn't think he's a geek.

After a moment of stunned silence on my part, I said "OK. So, let me ask you a question. What's your favorite text editor?"
"Well..." he began and I said "You're a geek." He looked at me and I explained "If your response was anything beyond 'Huh?' or 'You mean like Word?' then you're a geek." He then went on to explain to me why it used to be EMACS because of the capabilities, but was now vi because it existed on any machine he cared about without installing anything extra. My point was made.


Anonymous said...

A while ago, a friend pointed me to an article about televisions sold in cabinets made by Amish. He thought it was funny - "Can you imagine? The Amish involved in technology?"

I have to admit I looked at him like he was a moron.

"The Amish have always been involved in technology," I explained, "And they've always been particularly good at it."

mblumenthal said...

I have always assumed that the comment rather than being about me was an expression of THEIR anxiety and past experience.

"I have had trouble in the past navigating computer technology" Or "When I have run into trouble with technology, I was quite dispirited" or "I seem to be less capable with technology than those around me". If it was about me it was only in the context of saying "I find that I learn slowly, please do not embarrass me".

Fraser Chapman said...

"Oh, I'm just not good with technology."

The statement is actually really rather paradoxical when you think about it. In that, it is itself using an abstract coded system to transmit thought. Spoken word is itself an example of technology par excellence.

Trevor Seaman said...

Can you imagine the technology in the future? How far ahead can you imagine? Now take an Android phone back in time hand it to Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, Jules Verne... Tell them about the new technology, tell them its not that hard to understand. IMAGINE what they could do with the technology!
Without knowing it people have understood technology for millennia, take a sundial; it computes the time based on the position of a shadow. That is four thousand year old technology still in place today, the Sexagesimal number system (base60) developed for sundials is the basis of time and navigation measurement. Google maps sits on top of that four thousand year old technology, will Google maps still be around in 4000 years?
I feel stupid, because I get the technology, but have fail to make a living from it or I am so tied up learning the technology that I forgot to make a living from it.