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.

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9 Comments

  1. This is something that has always bothered me. Almost everybody knows how to operate their car, their toaster, their dishwasher–actually, pretty much everything *except* their computer (with the possible exception of the VCR clock =). There are multitudes of people who are perfectly intelligent and logical and perfectly proficient with all of their home appliances and machinery who seem to lose every shred of common sense they ever had when they step near a computer.

    I think a lot of the knowledge and confidence about cars and simpler appliances stems from the fact that these people learned how to use cars, dishwashers, etc. while still kids and computers weren’t introduced to them until they were adults. Most of the younger generation does much better with computers simply because they have grown up with them. (There are exceptions, of course, but there are exceptions to every trend.) Based on that, we’re unlikely to see much improvement in computer literacy for another twenty years or so, when the majority of the current computer-illiterates have grown old and been replaced.

    A similar sort of thing happened in the early days of cars, when car owners hired mechanics and chauffeurs because very few people could operate the fancy new devices.

  2. “Most of the younger generation does much better with computers simply because they have grown up with them”

    I disagree, and I know you said “There are exceptions, of course”, but still, I disagree, the generation that works best with computers, is the one that had to learn everything “the hard way”, now, with user interfaces over simplified, most of the younger generation does not know how to take care of their computer anyway, it may seem like that, but only because they may spend more time at it, and eventually learn a thing or two, but the young average user is as much computer illiterate as the old average user, it’s only the “young” interested in learning the basics (which is far from the “most” part), and the “old” that had to learn the basics anyway, that are “good with computers”, we could also argue, that what used to be considered the basics, is now considered advanced (think command line)

  3. I’m speaking anecdotally, of course, but I haven’t really seen a generational trend.

    I grew up in that generation that “had to learn everything ‘the hard way’,” but I still don’t feel as if all my peers “get it” or don’t “get it.”

    Most people I know from my generation, even the ones who had to learn DOS and F-keys, still are deathly afraid of their computers and exploring menus.

    But I find roughly that same proportion amongst older folks and teens.

    Generally, almost everyone I know, regardless of age, is afraid of computers and thinks if they do anything new or explore anything, the computer might just blow up in her face… and it may do that, too, even if she doesn’t do anything new.

    Then there are the few “tech-savvy” people who really do just do what I consider the basics – know how to operate a computer and do weekly virtual housecleaning. No age bracket has exclusive rights to that demographic.

  4. A.Y. – I have to agree with what you said above. In my experience computer illiteracy knows no generational bounds.

    This is a bit of a surprise, actually. I would have thought that the current under 25 generation, having grown up with computers and had mandatory courses in school would have more facility with them, but I don’t see that trend.

    In my last job I worked in an office where we had a number of coop students and other young people working. We had one young woman who reprogrammed the database to produce the graphs and reports she wanted to see. That was impressive!

    The remainder of them could play minesweeper, chat, use hotmail and surf the internet. They couldn’t use a word processor application, create graphs on a spreadsheet, use a search engine to do research on line, create a slide presentation or avoid downloading tons of viruses and spyware, because they didn’t know how. It was actually very disappointing. Since they had taken computing classes in high school and college I had hoped that they had some computer skills, but they were almost at “nil”.

    I have actually run into a number of 30-somethings who have never used a computer, ever. Usually they have jobs like “truck driver” or “plumber”.

    I always expect older people to have lower computer skills, but every now and then I find an 80-year-old who can write XHTML!

  5. “having grown up with computers”
    They have grown up with point-and-click interfaces, not exactly with computers

    “had mandatory courses in school”
    those classes don’t teach you computers, they teach you Microsoft Office, and that is the problem, people who create those classes in the first place, think that is the only software you will ever need, and it’s not, even if you only do office work

    “Since they had taken computing classes in high school and college I had hoped that they had some computer skills”
    I would expect they had Microsoft Office skills, nothing more (but according to what you are saying, they didn’t even have that)

  6. ME: You are quite right, it seems most of what is taught in school is MS Office. In talking to young people they generally ignore that as “too boring” and spent the class time doing MSN chat with each other instead.

    In my case, my first computer experiences were with command line and APL on an IBM mainframe in the 1970s. In that environment there was no alternative to learning how to use it at a more fundamental level. Even the games were text-based and done on CLI! At least it left me comfortable doing CLI on Linux now!

  7. 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.

    You don’t know how many times I wished that I could. Not just with cars, either.

  8. MINOR CUTS?!?!?

    I got a cut, to the BONE, that required no less than ten stitches. Seriously. But it was doing something rather stupid. Well, CLUMSY at any rate.

    Hey, sorry for the late commenting…

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