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The limitations of car-computer analogies

I’m less understanding of those who don’t want to learn how to take care of and fix their own computers than of those who don’t want to learn how to take care of fix their own cars. In many ways, cars and computers are similar—both cars and computers are complicated machines made up of various hardware pieces and some software (newer cars have software, anyway).

Nevertheless, there are some important differences between the two as well.

  • Even if you’re getting ripped off for car repair services, rarely will the cost of a repair rival the cost of buying a new car. The same cannot be said for computers.
  • While there are certainly communities and jobs that involve a lot of driving and no computer work, we are increasingly living in a digital age. If you work an office job of any kind, chances are you spend upwards of 50 hours a week on the computer, combining work and home use. Unless you are a truck driver, it’s very unlikely you are spending upwards of 50 hours a week driving.
  • Car repair is often more involved than computer repair. Yes, there are exceptions. It’s much easier, for example, to change an air filter in a car than to change a processor in a computer. That said, if you regularly do your own repairs on a car, you need an extensive workshop of tools and a dedicated garage. And it’s sad to say, but cars these days are being made so as to make it difficult to do your own maintenance. When I was growing up, my dad showed me how to change the oil and oil filter on my car. When I got a newer car, the oil filter was positioned in such a way that it wasn’t possible to get to it without a car-lift and specialized tools. Usually, with a computer, if there are hardware repairs or replacements that need to be done, all you need is about nine square feet of space, two screwdrivers, and your own two hands.
  • Computer repair is less physically dangerous. Yes, it’s possible if you do something stupid, you could probably electrocute yourself with some of the electronics inside the computer, get a minor cut from some of the sharp metal edges of the computer frame, or get a bruise on your pinky if you stick it in the fan while it’s running (shame on you for not unplugging the computer first). Still, I know of no one who has suddenly died from interaction with a home computer. I do, however, know people who have been seriously injured or killed by cars. If a car isn’t in proper working order (particularly the tires and brakes), you could kill someone. It’s okay to fiddle with your computer, as probably the worst you’ll do is fry your motherboard or cut a wire. It’s not okay to fiddle with your car unless you know what you’re doing.

The other thing to keep in mind is that almost all problems with a car are hardware-related. If there is a software problem with a car, you can’t just boot your Linux CD into the car and scan for viruses or edit configuration files. Computers can have hardware problems (loosely connected cords, failed hard drives, dusted-up fans), but the vast majority of computer problems are software-related.

Not everyone repairs her own car or computer, and that’s fine. Nevertheless, the level of ignorance of basic, common sense computer use I see goes way beyond the ignorance of good driving practices I see. Not everyone obeys traffic signals, changes their motor oil regularly, or drives defensively. But almost everyone I know who drives knows to fill up the tank when it’s low on gas or petrol. Drivers know to turn off the car if they aren’t using it for extended periods of time. They know not to drive 100 Km per hour in 1st gear.

I don’t see this same level of common sense amongst most computer users I know. They don’t think it’s worth their time to get to know how to take care of their computers (back up important data, learn how to navigate menus, avoid social engineering).

I’m not saying all this to be some kind of snob. I was in that place before, not long ago. I was a computer user who lacked common sense for a long time. Eventually I finally embraced computer literacy, because I realized it makes sense to do so since I had to spend a lot of time using the computer at work and began increasingly spending more time using it at home as well. I don’t think it’s that most computer users are stupid or lazy. I think it’s mainly that they’re scared.

To most computer users I know, computers are mystifying. When you’re scared of something and don’t understand anything about how it works, it’s easy to use it only for what you need it for and then ask for help whenever you need help instead of exploring things for yourself. I’ve had to teach a Mac OS X user how to install VLC, teach another Mac user how to add songs to iTunes, teach a Windows user how to change her Firefox homepage—these are all things that can be easily explored through the GUI if you just click on a few menus and read the directions.

If we do want to make an analogy between cars and computers, let’s consider a little bit of social engineering. Someone goes to a website and sees she “needs” to download an “ActiveX plugin” to view the site properly. All of a sudden, the computer slows down and there are pop-ups everywhere, and if she closes one pop-up two more pop up in its place. This is like driving to a store and having someone in front of the store say “Can you give me the keys to your car? You’ll need someone to watch your car while you go in the store.” Would you give that person your key? If it’s not a store and it is a restaurant, do you quickly learn to tell the difference between a genuine valet and a con artist valet? Maybe not with 100% accuracy, but I’d say most computer users indiscriminately click on things without considering what is trustworthy and what is untrustworthy, while they’ll at least consider whether a valet might be a real valet or not.

I’m not really sure what the solution to the problem is. How can we demystify computers for computer users who are afraid of computers? How can we convince them it’s okay to explore menus and read the messages in those menus? How can we get them to recognize that it’s worth getting to know how to take care of something you spend 50+ hours a week using? All I know is that the car-computer analogy doesn’t fly in terms of maintenance and repair.