Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Nebulous Notion of "Computer Literacy"

Techdirt stumbled onto a problem I think is worthy of note the other day.

Apparently studies have shown that a lack of good IT literacy can have someone waste up to 40 minutes per day. Of course, the real question is how to solve this problem. As the article notes, the answer is in better training for employees -- but it's not yet clear what kind of training is really needed. Perhaps part of the problem is that it's different elements of basic IT skills that are tripping up people and there isn't really one silver bullet for solving all those problems.

I think this presents an interesting paradigm shift that we'll have to make in our day to day language and interaction in the near future. Namely, the question of "are you computer literate" no longer carries any real meaning.

Because computers can be used to do a thousand things, asking if one knows how to use a computer has become akin to asking if one knows how to use an education. To give a meaningful response, the counter question needs to immediately be asked, " well, to do what?"

Several sectors of society have already shifted towards in this direction, asking for competence in specific software packages instead of general literacy. After all, in house a company tends to devote its entire IT layout to Microsoft or Lotus or some other all inclusive package. Without knowledge in that application, an employee would require nearly as much training as one who knew nothing about computers at all.

However the more important shift is a cultural one, one that will move the question of computer competency into the background instead of the foreground. I suppose this will move hand in hand with the gradual shift towards a more ubiquitous computing experience. I know I look forward to the day where computers fade nearly entirely into the background, allowing for free form creativity and action from it's users.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Where's the Counterpoint?

There has been a lot of media attention paid to the dangers of social networking websites like MySpace and others can create for our children. Such stories often star shady abductors misspelling words and carefully luring children into their web each night, preying on their naivety and innocence. However, as one might expect if one looked at any national or state statistics, abductions have not risen dramatically since the rise of these websites. Nothing terribly significant has occurred since then.

As I watch the one-sided news coverage I find myself asking a question, why aren't their any voices present in the mass media countering this argument? It seems like every good point should have a counterpoint like every story should have (at least) two sides. However, on this issue, the voice of reason seems to be especially lacking in popular media.

It's not lacking elsewhere however. Adam Thierer at The Technology Liberation Front has a new study out, and his most recent post on the subject contains the following counterpoint among others:

A final myth about social networking that I discuss in my paper is that teens are at a much greater risk in these online communities than they were in the offline social communities of the past. It’s clear that part of what is driving the push to regulate social networking sites is that many adults simply don’t understand this new technology and have created a sort of “moral panic” around it. But parents misunderstanding teens—or a new trend or technology that teens love—is really nothing new. For example, today’s grandparents will recall that when they were teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, their parents worried about their hanging out at burger joints and roller rinks. And today’s parents will remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, their parents were concerned about their hanging around shopping malls and video arcades. Those places were the social networking sites of their eras. And so it continues with the networking sites that today’s youngsters enjoy: digital, interactive websites.

It's an argument that eloquently and politely debunks the hysteria surrounding social networking sites. Hearing it's reason makes me wonder twice as hard as to why this sort of thing isn't heard from the popular media on the heels of each scare story.

If the goal of the news networks is to scare people, I can understand it's absence. However, I think the point Thierer raises here is both simple and engaging. It gets people to think about times from their past (most likely positive ones) and settles their minds a little bit about the future. Thus his argument should have an appeal to most Americans, qualifying it as mainstream material.

Yet it's absence persists. So why isn't it on the nightly news next to the scare stories? Is it too hopeful for society to be more stable than we thought? Is it too complacent with criminals we should obviously find evil and detestable? Is it too reasonable to ask the public to use its intellect instead of its base emotional response?

I don't know the answer, but having taken no journalism or media courses, it's interesting to try and guess from an economic standpoint exactly what influences demand to reach this equilibrium. Does the public desire to be scared and nothing else? Are the network executives keeping the scare stories unchallenged for a reason? Is there greater profit in scaring America rather than informing America? Is there another influence I don't see?

Granted there is challenge to the mainstream ideas in a few public arenas, like some blogs and the handful of debate shows on television, and while I believe those sources are vital to the public discourse, I think their influence simply isn't enough to balance out the presentation in the mass media. So I look to the Nightly News and ask myself again...

Where's the counterpoint?

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The ATHF Witch Trials

Let's begin with a picture.

Now for some background.

Recently, a publicity stunt by a late night Cartoon Network show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, caused a big scare in Boston. So reports The Boston Channel: