Why I finally embraced computer literacy

Computer illiteracy
It’s very likely that you know someone who self-identifies as “computer illiterate.” That person may even be proud of being so.

I was once one of these people. I was one of these people for a long time. In fact, I was quite offended when my Latin teacher in high school thought I liked computers (I assume she assumed so because I’m of Asian descent, as that is the stereotype, and I gave her no other reason to assume so). Yes, even though I took AP Computer Science senior year in high school, I still didn’t like computers and did not want to be identified with computers, but I hated hard science more than computer science, so I took computer science, got a 5 on the AP exam, and then quickly forget everything I learned about Pascal (does anyone even use this language any more?) and programming.

Even after graduating from college, I was still computer illiterate and pretty technologically helpless. I didn’t really understand how anything in a computer worked. I just memorized steps (click this icon, type this phrase, click that menu item, select that menu item, use this keyboard shortcut). In 2000, I had to call my future wife internationally to ask her what to do about my printer not working. She was a big help. Until 2004, I remained in technologically blissful ignorance, as I was too busy grading papers and preparing curriculum to care about learning computers. After all, literature was far more important than computers. Computers helped me do my grading and handouts—that was about it.

The turning point
Then in 2004, the Dell laptop my wife and I had got a serious case of spyware/adware. It was impossible to clean off. I tried to reinstall but couldn’t, at the time, find the drivers CD or InterVideo WinDVD—only the Windows XP CD. I had quite a frustrating time trying to get Windows to work properly without drivers or DVD playback. That’s when I first tried Linux (in the form of Blag), gave up on Linux, and then switched to Firefox on Windows (eventually did find those other two CDs). One year later, I became a full-time Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) user.

A combination of quitting teaching and getting malware pushed me to want to make myself computer literate. Quitting teaching helped move me in that direction in two ways.

From teaching to office jobs
First of all, teaching sucks a lot of mental energy out of you. It can become difficult to take on a new hobby when you’re worried about parent conferences, student struggles, classroom management, lesson plans, grading, professional development, faculty meetings, coaching, etc. Yes, of course, I was busy at my office job, too, but once I left work, work was done. I didn’t take work home with me.

Secondly, teaching is still a rather low-tech profession. There are some ingenious ways some teachers have managed to work technology into the classroom, but most of the time when technology is used in English classes, it’s more technology for the sake of “technology in education,” and not for any real pedagogical value. Office jobs, however, usually depend almost solely on the use of a computer. Suddenly, I was stuck in front of a computer monitor and keyboard for eight hours a day, five days a week—and with no summers off. I had to know how to use Excel. I had to know how to use Word (never previously knowing how to do a mail merge or anything remotely fancier than bolding or bulleting text). I had to learn a rather counterintuitive and completely inflexible database program. My boss wanted regular reports from me. I was an office worker, and I needed to know how to use this tool called a computer.

Moving away from Windows malware
And, of course, the spyware/malware infection made it impossible for me to deny that the days of care-free ignorant computing were long gone. In the preinternet days, home users didn’t have security threats. Even in the early internet days of the mid-1990s, the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting bad “funny” forwards from friends. Spam wasn’t terrible in those days. I got maybe two spam messages a week. No, I didn’t have to know all the internals of a computer and how all the transistors and whatnot worked, but I had to learn basic safety and sensible operation—just as I can’t fix a car’s broken transmission, but I have learned how to minimize wear on the transmission, how to minimize the chance of an accident, and how to get the best gas mileage.

And once I had finally given up Windows and embraced Ubuntu, I found computer problems to be fun challenges to be solved. Even now, if I experience a problem in Windows (which I have to use at work), I curse the computer and usually get frustrated at having to figure out a cryptic error message or no error message at all, but if I experience a problem in Ubuntu, I’m eager to troubleshoot it and fix it. It’s perverse, I know. Don’t worry—many Linux users suffer from this malady.

The digital age
Computer illiteracy for me in 2004 was an impracticality. I had to suck it up and realize we live in a digital age. Gone were the days of exchanging lettes and postcards with friends. Gone were the days of trading mix tapes. Everyone I knew was on email and listened to digital music.

Now it’s 2008, and I’m still in an office job (albeit a different one). I’m still no programmer or officially trained computer person, but now people ask me for help when they have computer problems, and very rarely now do I have to ask my wife for tech support. Time to embrace the geekdom. Computer illiteracy is no longer an option.


  1. If I may quote from Peter Wayner’s Free for All:

    “The best, and perhaps most surprising, part of the whole bloom of e-mail came when a fellow I had never met, D. Jason Penney, converted the program from the fading Pascal into the more popular C. He did this on his own and sent the new, converted software back to me. When I asked him whether I could distribute his version, he said that it was my program. He was just helping out.”

    This was back in 1991. It’s likely that Pascal was “obsolete” by the time you began learning it. Schools tend to be conservative with the languages they teach with, sometimes too conservative. Or just lazy (overworked?) not wanting to adapt their coursework to newer languages.

    I think python and C work best today, because python exposes you to most of the logical aspects of programming (“You type the pseudocode, and it works!”), and then you can move unto C and learn the low-level stuff.

    Then again, I’m not much of a programmer, maybe they know better.

  2. No, it was probably dying when I studied it. You’re right.

    It doesn’t really matter either way for me, personally, since I don’t remember any Pascal.

  3. What’s annoying is that this don’t care, almost demonising “purely for geeks” view is still around for 80-90% of people. People, even ones that grow up with PC’s are still pretty illiterate, and still pretty mindless despite the fact that we live in an age where even the most basic of understandings would be far better than the wilful ignorance and sometimes even arrogance in the attitudes people have to modern technoology.

    Really is quite odd, no doubt helped by the proprietary software model I would bet.

  4. Yeah, I do find it odd, too, RyanT.

    After all, as you can see from this post, I am not a geek by nature. I became a geek to change with the times, and that’s what most people should do.

    Fifteen years ago, I didn’t have a cell phone, personal computer of my own (I shared one with my family), internet connection, or email account. Back then, it actually made sense for me to not care about computers. I didn’t really need them for anything more than typing papers for school. I communicated with my friends by landline phone or by mail or in person. My primary concern in terms of maintenance back then was how to keep my paintbrushes clean so they didn’t get stiff with residual dried paint.

    Now that I live in a culture in 2008 where everyone I know has a cell phone, at least one computer, at least two email accounts; and where almost everyone I know has to use a computer for work 40 hours a week or more and then chooses to use a computer at home as well… I don’t really think ignorance of basic computing is something to be proud of.

  5. Exactly. I live in a (very) small town in the US, and am the only computer-literate person I know (helps that I’m in the industry). Everyone in my family/non-work social circle has no clue, and refuses even the gentlest of advice (when they ask!) about how to do something remotely safely on th internet.

    I believe people still see computers as appliance-toys that don’t really affect their lives aside from the convenience factor of email and a bit of shopping. Of course, part of it is certainly generational I imagine.

  6. I don’t know if I subscribe to that whole appliance idea. I think a lot of people view computers as almost an annoyance rather than an appliance.

    I don’t know the internals of my computers and how it all works. I don’t know how to assemble a computer or what all those little circuits do. But I do know how to operate and take care of my computer, just as I know how to operate and take care of my toaster oven and cell phone.

    A lot of people refuse to learn even the basics of how to operate and take care of their computers.

    I think especially if you make your living using a computer, you should learn how to use it efficiently, how to prevent it from slowing down, how to maintain basic security, how to prolong battery life (if you’re using a laptop). This is true even if you view it as an appliance. It is a complex appliance, after all.

  7. “And once I had finally given up Windows and embraced Ubuntu, I found computer problems to be fun challenges to be solved. Even now, if I experience a problem in Windows (which I have to use at work), I curse the computer and usually get frustrated at having to figure out a cryptic error message or no error message at all, but if I experience a problem in Ubuntu, I’m eager to troubleshoot it and fix it. It’s perverse, I know. Don’t worry—many Linux users suffer from this malady.”

    Dang straight. When I get a BSOD, I want to see if I can fix it before I send the bug report to Microsoft. But, NOOOOOOOooo, I get a garbage error on my screen which means absolutely nothing to me and I have pretty much no tools to solve it.

    That is the problem with Microsoft. When there is a new bug or virus, they are so stubborn as to not let outside help in.


  8. I love hearing stories like this! i can identify so much, though i can say my escapades dont have as much history.

    I was pretty much computer illiterate until about 2004 as well, i used windows 2000, not updated, connected to broadband internet with no firewall, no anti-virus, and no anti-spyware. stupid, i now know, but back then i just didnt care.

    then, same thing happened to me… computer got screwed by all manner o’ malware, started trying to figure it all out and educate myself better, switched to XP thinking that some of these issues would be fixed, continued educating myself, and finally ended up disappointed with windows and not even wanting to use my computer.

    finally, a lab teacher for one of my college classes introduced me to ubuntu, started using it, loved it, now use it exclusively.

    It seems to be a common trend as well, with the whole ‘fixing issues on ubuntu is fun, whereas on windows its a nightmare’ thing. I’m the same way! Once i got onto ubuntu, got to experience the ease with which i was able to accomplish the things i normally do, tinkering with things to get them working/working better didnt seem as big of a deal, and i think i know why:

    generally, if something went wrong on windows, the whole system suffered… it seemed like any menial error with the system caused a critical meltdown, so problems were always dreaded, and difficult to work with.

    in ubuntu, most problems are generally fairly localized, and your computer remains usable while you fix your issue. That and a wonderful community… to me, i believe the community is the key!

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