Ignorance and power

This post is about whether we’re sufficiently educated in computer technology to live in a world that increasingly depends on it. I’m going to argue that although we may be doomed, perhaps we’re no more doomed than we’ve ever been.

Allow me to set the scene with a [possibly paraphrased] quote from astrophysicist Carl Sagan, circa 1995:

“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. 

This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” 

It’s hard not to agree with this. The observation is accurate and the prediction makes logical sense. This time-bomb has been ticking for a while though:

These are technologies born of science that we quickly relied upon. Every generation thereafter would be born with this technology to hand and would not know how to live without it. Take it away from us now and the world would end.

That’s just the last century or so, but as Carl’s quote alludes, perhaps this has been hanging over our heads since the dawn of civilization. As technology advances are we just spinning more plates? or stacking them higher? (spoiled for plate analogies here)

The present (being the closest to the future) always seems more ominous than the past. Perhaps we just worry about today’s technology blowing up in our faces because we don’t have the hindsight of seeing that we coped with it just fine.


Coping with today’s technology

in 2013 we still need electricity and water, but we rarely think of those things as technology – they’re just there, like the sky. Most of us wouldn’t know how to provide ourselves with electricity if it went away, but it won’t – right?

Today’s technology in our eyes is mainly electronics and the Web. These are the high-tech things upon which we’re starting to depend now. The first generation that never knew a world without the Web are already young adults.

Apply Carl’s quote to today’s digital technology and it’s just as convincing. The cleverest people I know search “Gmail” to get to their inbox, because even educated people using the Web every day of their lives don’t understand (or have no interest in) one of the cornerstone concepts of the Web – the URI. This was never supposed to be a mysterious technical detail, it was designed right into the human interface and it’s still there.

The Web has brought with it new threats that the average consumer is ill-equipped to deal with. These threats are successful where there is ignorance and complacency and the explosive growth of the Web has provided this in abundance. A three year old may be able to use an iPhone, but will they be able to spot a phishing attack in their inbox by the time they can read? Can the average thirty year old spot a fake PayPal link today?

Every new ‘smart’ device that enters our lives is potentially another opportunity to exploit our ignorance of relentlessly marching technology. Here’s an exploit found in Samsung TVs. It’s an extreme example and chances are that your firewall protects you from this, but the point is that despite my smug Web-veteran status I have no idea how my TV works.

The fact is that we get by with a very low level of computer literacy. If the world is getting more high-tech and bringing with it new dangers, then is this a problem? Perhaps we need to educate ourselves out of trouble.


The new literacy

I came across Carl’s quote in the introduction to a series of posts encouraging programming for all. This is fitting, because the recent trend in learning to code seems to be a direct reaction to this feeling that we are ill prepared for our digital future (possibly even our present). Some will tell you that it’s not enough to just use computer programs, that we must know how to program them too. Some mean this quite literally and will tell you that coding is important to everyone  – that it’s the literacy of the twenty-first century“.

There are also initiatives to teach kids to code. I have no idea what IT is like in schools today, but I know Eric Schmidt isn’t impressed. “[Our] IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

To put some of these arguments into perpective – I don’t think you’ll need to know C++ to buy a loaf of bread in 2020, but seeing as we’re not going to be given more time to adapt to technology, better education can only be a good thing.

I still have questions though: How ‘literate’ is literate enough? What’s going to happen to those that are ‘illiterate’? Cybercrime aside, we’re doing pretty well with the Web considering how new it is. You don’t need much technical literacy to hold down a good job. Perhaps this is fuss about nothing.

Personally I’m struggling to spot a trend towards this future that demands high-tech skills of everyone. Where is the increased demand on our technical proficiency in every day life going to come from?


The digital elite

We could sit and argue how tech-literacy will divide society. We could try and predict the consequences for those that don’t keep up. It could start to sound like a science fiction novel, where a digital elite rules over an illiterate underclass of users.

In my view the power-grab has already taken place. The big tech companies that run the Web are already in power and have left the rest of us equal. They are the reason that a person googling “Gmail” doesn’t need to type http://gmail.com/ into their address bar. They are the reason that technology can permeate your life and yet you don’t really have to worry about how it works.

Ask yourself: are these companies placing higher demands on your technical competence? Since you saw your first ‘home computer’ they have rocketed in sophistication, but have they got harder to use, or easier? Do you think it’s in Google’s interest for you to be able to read and write a URI, rather than search and click? Is it in Apple’s interest for you to jail break your iPhone and nose around its file system?

I’ve been writing code for 15 years but I use my iPhone the same as anyone else. I bought a Nexus 7 last week and discovered I’m not even provided with an administrator account for the operating system. In order to keep me safe and maintain the Google experience, I’m even protected from myself. Look no further than the Chromebook to see where nasty, complicated, virus-ridden personal computers are headed.


Sustainable dependency

Our providers have lulled us since the dawn of home computing into a sense of security, (false or otherwise) but in doing so they’ve taken responsibility for our safety and well-being. We are locked in a dependency cycle with them. Please imagine the following list as a cool infographic that I couldn’t be bothered to draw:

  1. More sophisticated technology becomes easier and safer to use;
  2. You are required to understand it less in order to use it and you become reliant upon it;
  3. Your ignorance and complacency is exploited by ‘threats’ and you demand greater user friendliness;
  4. Vendors innovate solutions to new dangers and react to consumer ‘confusion’;
  5. Go to step 1.

I’m aware I sound like a conspiracy theorist at this point, but I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing. The big tech companies now have the same responsibilities as governments. They don’t have to be evil – they probably don’t want to be evil. They work for us and all I ask is we keep them in check.

The evolution of the Web perhaps mirrors that of modern civilization itself. The more we’re protected and the more we’re provided for, the more we relinquish our own power. But how much power do you actually need to live your life? I can’t jump in a rowing boat and go to France without my government’s permission, but I’m a free man and I want for nothing [much].


So, is it going to blow up in our faces?

I think it probably will blow up at some point, but I don’t think it’s going to be because we can’t all program computers. The digital age is just another advance of mankind. We can only take so much progress, but who’s to say this is the last leap?

When our kids have all got DNA printers in their bedrooms maybe we’ll wish it was only the old digital stuff we had to worry about.
Source of quote: Possibly this book, I’m not sure.

Photo credit: State Archives of Florida.