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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Computer Wizards

Back in the dark ages, there were men and women who understood things most others did not: herbs, the stars, metallurgy, rudimentary medicine, etc. They were revered in their cultures as wise ones, sages, or even wizards, for the level of control their knowledge gave them over the natural forces that others were at the mercy of.

Why aren't computer geeks afforded similar respect? In some cases, we certainly are, but many times it seems to be a grudging, distasteful respect, often tinged with resentment. I'm having a hard time sorting out why that might be.

One possibility is that modern people have grown so accustomed to being in control that they resent any situation that removes that sense of control. Perhaps they project that resentment not only onto computers themselves, but also onto those that they see as having some greater measure of control over the infernal machines.

Another possibility is that society in general seems to value knowledge and achievement much less than it once did. In sci-fi movies of the 50's and 60's, the heroes were often scientists. What was the last movie that celebrated engineers and scientists as heroes? Apollo 13? Everybody wants action heroes with guns nowadays, not geeks with sliderules.

Or perhaps the modern psyche sees in the "technorati" the potential for an emerging technically-skilled overclass, naturally revolts at the possibility, and seeks to suppress it by oppressing the perceived threat -- in this case, computer geeks.

Yet another possible explanation is that non-computer geeks could harbor some anger and resentment toward computer geeks because they see computers as something we have inflicted on them. And to some extent, they would have a valid point. We've always been very good at designing systems for ourselves instead of ordinary people, and on some level, perhaps we even enjoy the artificial superiority that gives us.

For that matter, even the fact that I can speak so comfortably of an "us vs. them" situation, with little doubt that readers will understand the distinction and know into which group they fall, speaks volumes.

I really do agree, though, with the suggestion that programming should be required in school curricula the same way that reading, writing, and 'rithmetic currently are. Not any specific language. Maybe no language at all -- perhaps pseudocode would suffice in the basic classes -- but enough of a basic grounding in logic that students would feel empowered rather than oppressed by computers. Spreadsheets might provide an excellent environment, while relating to a practical skill.

That would also require a considerable level of humility and altruism from computer geeks, since it would mean sacrificing some of our technical mysticism and specialness in the interests of society at large. But the tradeoff could be a greater understanding by that society of what our world is like.


Anonymous Lance said...

To quote Prof. Kirke, "What do they teach in schools these days?" :)

1/12/2006 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Eva said...

Theory on the "us vs. them" mentality from and toward computer geeks: From an extremely limited user's point of view, I have felt very condescended to by 'computer geeks' in my other life in public work. I understand that it is easier for CG's to do things themselves than to explain it to the plebians. While Regular Joes are not as well-versed as CG's, that doesn't necessarily mean we are of lesser intelligence. It simply means that we chose another path. It is like when you go to a doctor and he talks to you as if you were 5 years old until he realizes you have a medical background, then the entire tone of the conversation changes. It goes both ways, non-CG's assume that computers are the only thing CG's know! Just a theory--you know what that's worth.

1/12/2006 4:40 PM  

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