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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Computer Driving Skills

Someone on Slashdot tonight repeated a common refrain in a discussion about whether basic programming skills should be considered essential for computer literacy: Everyone says you don't have to be an engineer to drive a car.

That's an imprecise comparison, though. You don't have to be an electrical engineer to program a computer any more than you have to be a mechanical engineer to drive a car.

People who know how to use a computer, but who have no concept of programming, are more like people who know how to ride public transportation, but who can't actually drive themselves. You can get along fine with only public transportation, but you'll be mostly confined to those places that have routes running to them. That's also much easier if you live in a large, densely populated city rather than out on the frontier. Maybe that's why Windows is more popular than Linux: it's easier to get around it without learning how to drive.

That can easily break down, though. If you're dependent solely on public transportation, while lacking those skills yourself, then your options are limited to only what is provided to you. You don't have the option of living in a place without those services. And, when those services fail, you're left with no recourse. You'd be the computer equivalent of the public transit-dependent residents of New Orleans. When the buses stop running, you're left with few options. [1]

In fact, not to belittle the suffering of the people of New Orleans, but disasters aren't a bad analogy for computer use. When everything starts to break down, and the people who normally provide services for you are no longer doing it, do you have the skills to provide for yourself (at least a little), or will you be trapped, waiting for FEMA? Basic programming skills are a bit like basic survival skills in the event of an emergency.

In the end, I guess rudimentary programming skills aren't really essential for computer literacy, but they should be considered essential for computer liberty, since without the ability to make the computer do your will, you'll always be confined to the position of waiting around for declarations from elsewhere regarding what you're able and allowed to do.

You'll be the 21st century equivalent of the medieval church laity, forever dependent on the literate clergy to relay the scripture to you.

[1] Yes, I'm well aware that there were economic factors at work in New Orleans that went beyond mere skills and dependency. Analogies are seldom perfect -- get over it.

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