One way is to contrast two definitions of literacy:
- the ability to read and write
- the ability to read and write AND express original thoughts
But I think it's better to define literacy as feeling competent and fluent in the medium. And I think it's true to say that most people don't understand what the computer medium really is, that there is something deep below the surface.
I heard a Sudanese describe recently his first encounter with a motor bike, as a child. He and his friends had never seen anything like it. They ran away. They didn't know whether it was living or non living, a strange type of beast or a new, amazing invention.
I think that is what is happening when people use computers. It's mostly done by handwaving and magic. The GUI and the operating system hides a lot. Of course people adapt and get "used to" computers just as they get used to cars. But the computer is a stranger beast. The fact that it is often used inefficiently (driving with flat tyres) is only part of the problem.
Even at the surface level the car analogy does not hold up.
Lots of little things that cause paralysis for short or long times go wrong with computers all the time. Just think of how many times you have seen an expert user come unstuck whilst presenting with a computer at a conference.
More basic skills are required to drive a computer than a car. Here are some examples of essential knowledge you might need:
- how to operate a GUI (windows, icons, menus, pointer)
- how to save and to navigate when saving and / or loading a file
- the difference b/w Save and Save As ...
- how to backup
- what to do if and when your window freezes
- how to get out of trouble (eg. using Undo or when to close without saving)
- what are directories, files, different file types, drives
- a knowledge of security concerning viruses / trojans / spyware, firewall, automatic updates
- email: how to compose, send, forward, edit
- email: don't open unsolicited attachments
- You will need to download plugins to run many programs, so you need some awareness that there are useful and harmful files out there and how to distinguish between them
But beyond the lists of basic skills there is something deeper.
A computer does computation. And most people don't really understand computation and what it is capable of. I was struck by this passage from Rodney Brooks book, Flesh and Machines, where he compares the impact of the computation idea (not disruptive intellectually, continuous with existing ideas) with the impact of quantum mechanics or relativity (which marked a sharp intellectual discontinuity with previous ideas) :
... computation was not disruptive intellectually, although the consequences of the mathematics that Turing and von Neumann developed did have disruptive technological consequences. A late-nineteenth-century mathematician would be able to understand the idea of Turing computability and a von Neumann architecture with a few days instruction. They would then have the fundamentals of modern computation. Nothing would surprise them or cause them to cry out in intellectual pain as quantum mechanics or relativity would if a physicist from the same era were exposed to them. Computation was a gentle, nondisruptive idea, but one that was immensely powerful... [pp. 188-9]This was a new insight for me, that an idea could be intellectually non disruptive but have enormous technological and social ramifications, which ultimately are disruptive. Maybe the quiet, powerful ideas have the last laugh, because they sneak up on society. It might also explain why many people don't seem to think deeply about what a computer is.
Some computation links for future reference / study:
Turing Machine Gallery
Theory of Computation
There is a very interesting dialogue between Tony and Paul, about do we need more than immersion to learn the computer (computing concepts), at Paul Chandler's wiki, where Paul suggests that the underlying architecture does pop up at important times:
The somewhat more general context is this: I am deeply suspicious that simply by "immersion" one doesn't develop any concept of von Neumann architecture, and such a conceptual framework is actually quite important in developing good computing skills, and this extends to seemingly trivial matters such as what's in the file menu.
The relevance of von Neumann is, I believe, the $64000 question. I wouldn't presume it's relevance, but its a hypothesis worth testing, I think. Also, I used "von Neumann" (above) to refer to the general concept that a computer has a working memory and a 'permanent store' (von Neumann' contribution was basically to build a computer with a processor and a 'working memory' operating hand-in-hand); I'm guessing, but subdividing down below this general concept is possibly pointless. Lots of stuff goes on behind the scenes.
My point for raising the von Neumann idea in the first place is to postulate that it is not _all_ happening behind the scenes. Loads of it is, but every so often some "thing" comes along and suddenly you are expected to know what's going on. More than the "von Neumann" idea, there is the idea that a document we are working with sits in context with a software environment; when we are working our consciousness has to 'sit' main on the 'internal' world of the document we are working on, and a little on the 'external' work. How many people don't get the idea that a program can have a default printer, which is different to the system's default printer? How many start doing file management in the 'open' dialogue box in (say) Word and look at you slightly odd when it's suggest that you are not 'in' Windows Explorer. There's "something", I reckon ... call it awareness of von Neumann, call it inside/outside ... but a "something" of this ilk which the better, more flexible users "have got" that the strugglers haven't.