Like many people who spend their working hours with computers, I’m often asked by friends and neighbors for help. I’m an ex-teacher, and I volunteer at the free clinics held weekly by Free Geek Vancouver, so I don’t mind; teaching is close to a reflex with me. But one thing I do mind – very much – is when I ask the person I’m helping for some information about their computers or what caused the problem and they reply, “I don’t know. I’m just a techno-peasant” or say that they leave such technical matters to their pre-teens.
What irks me is not just the little giggle or the helpless shrug that accompanies such statements, regardless of whether a man or a woman is making it. Nor is it the fact that the term is at least twenty years out of date. Instead, it’s the fact that the people who make these responses seem more proud than ashamed of their ignorance.
Why anyone would choose to boast about their ignorance is beyond me. Of course, nobody can be an all-round expert. Moreover, if you don’t mentally bark your shins against your own ignorance from time to time, you’re probably leading too shallow a life. But why boast about your shortcomings? Personally, I consider the fact that I am not fluent in another language, and know little about wines or central European history to be defects, and hope to correct them some day. Meanwhile, if I have to admit to my ignorance, I do so shamefacedly, and quickly change the subject.
As for computer skills, surely computers have been around so long that an average middle class North American should know their way around a computer. I don’t expect them to be able to write a “Hello, world” script if threatened at gun point, but how could they help not learning some basic system administration and hardware care?
I mean, I’m an English major with no formal background in computing whatsoever. If I can learn enough to write about computers, then surely most people can learn basic maintenance. After thirty years of the personal computer, defragging a hard drive or plugging in the cords to your computer should be as much a part of everybody’s basic skill set as cooking a meal or changing the oil in their car. Yet, as I continually find when asked for help, most people still haven’t learned these skills.
What’s worse, the implication of these reactions is that those who make them have no intention of correcting their ignorance. It doesn’t seem to be a reflection of class, an implication that they’re too important to bother themselves with details, as though they’re a high-powered CEO and I’m the janitor. Rather, it’s as if, having reached some landmark of adulthood – turning 21, perhaps, or receiving their master’s degree – they’ve decided they’ve done all the learning they need for this life time, and nobody can trick them into doing any more.
As someone who’s always believed in learning, this attitude horrifies me. So far as I’m concerned, the only time you stop learning is when you die. The idea that anyone would want to anticipate this end to learning is hard for me to understand. If nothing else, what are they going to do with the next fifty or sixty years?
Just as importantly, this refusal to learn undermines the whole idea of teaching. To me, the point of teaching is give students the skills they need to function on their own. But when people describe themselves as techno-peasants, what they’re telling me is that they have no intention of learning to function independently. They’re calling me in, not to help them learn to cope for themselves, but as a convenience that allows them to keep from learning.
And, considering they’re asking me to do the sort of things in my spare time that I do in my working hours – and for free — the request is a high-handed imposition. They’re asking me to waste my time for their convenience – frequently not just once, but often for the same problem, over and over.
Despite these lines of thought, I almost never turn down the requests for help. Some people are making a genuine effort to learn, and there’s always a chance that the rest will learn despite themselves. Yet I wonder if any of them guess that I think less of them once I understand that the only thing they’re willing to learn is how to excuse their own helplessness.