09 Feb 1998

Computer geeks

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Note, this was written before I had a blog. I recovered it from the Internet Archive. Back in graduate school I had a “musings” section of my site and those essays are in the same spirit as this blog so I’ve added them with retroactive datestamps.

I really feel that our society cannot sustain the “computer geek” model for very much longer.

Of course, I’ll now have to describe what I mean by that model. It’s something I’m sure you’ve noticed, but probably never given much thought to. It’s bound to be the case that there are people who are more expert at any given job than others, and not long ago computers were hard for anyone to use, even experts. Therefore it’s not surprise that there are adults (but mainly kids) out there who are better than most at using computers.

However, I feel this edge will soften really soon, and perhaps disappear entirely.

I think some examples are in order. I work in a math department, and for years mathematicians have been into their email. That’s simply because mathematics is so specialized that the likelihood that all your favorite colleagues in your area teach at your school is nil. So, you need fast, cheap channells of communication open all the time, and email fits the bill ideally. At around the same time email was getting hot in math, so was TeX. TeX is a document typesetting system which allows us math folks to typeset our own papers and equations with completely professional appearance. It requires a fair bit of computing power, and it’s so esoteric that at first it was only to be found on UNIX workstations. (The sad pathetic story of UNIX, which sucks, will be the topic of at least one other essay at some point, I’m sure. What a joke.) So that’s two reasons to have UNIX around a math department. Running an FTP server to distribute your papers, which are now completely electronically-based is a third, and for some the computational power of C programs is a fourth. In more recent days, web surfing is a must, and so is a web server. If students can’t get their homework and solutions and grades online these days (at least at Columbia), they start complaining (especially at Columbia, I bet).

Fine, so math departments have UNIX networks. Big deal. Well, you try running a UNIX system, even at home on your own PC or Mac, where you’re the only user. It’s hard. It’s hard mostly because UNIX sucks, but it’s hard nonetheless, and someone has to do it. It’s so hard, though, that to figure out how to do it is a full-time job! (Man, does UNIX suck.) So, each department needs at least one individual whose responsibliity is to keep the system up and working smoothly, including the individual programs running on it like email clients and servers, or web clients and web servers. As people break the system (because it sucks and is impossible to figure out) this person has to deal with the offenders and fix the problems. It’s really a social job, requiring the monitoring of a large group of independent people. Sometimes technical announcements have to be made (“From now on, please don’t lpr a .dvi file on lw421“). Sometimes this person gets mad. And here is my point: what if this administrator gets so mad that they stop doing their job. What if they quit? Well, the entire operation of the department would be put in jeopardy. No one would get their email. At first they would be mad. “Hey, why is the damn email broken? For christ’s sake, do something!” Then they’d realize that the only person who knows how to fix it is gone. “Crap, Peter left.” They’re powerless. They’d realize that they were entrusting a large and important element of their working life to one individual.

That’s too much power for one person.

People need these technical programs working all the time. But they depend on one single individual person to do it. In some larger organizations, several people or a whole IS department may take care of it. But that means that those people can do something you can’t do yourself, even if you need it done now. It means that you have delegated responsibility for your machine and your email and your work to another. If it breaks, you can’t fix it, and they have to. People won’t stand for that kind of balance of power for very long. How many secretaries out there have figured out how to fix their copiers because they can’t stand how long it takes for the real copy dude to show up, let alone do a decent job?

The same principle applies here. I think people will gradually devote more of their time to learning how more complex computer operations are managed, such as networking and email. I think the software will get easier to use also, like it does in every other segment of the computer industry. The knowledge will decentralize. It won’t be a specialization anymore. Everyone will know how it works, just like people tend to know a little about how their car works, or how their washing machine works.

Now, you may ask, what about plumbing? I don’t know how to fix my plumbing, and I use that all the time. In fact, I use it more than email (speak for yourself!). I don’t know how the insides of any of my home gadgets work, like my stereo, my TV, my phone, or even my computer.

Good point. But computer software is somehow different, I think. So many people are using computer software these days, in so many incredibly complex ways, that something is very different about it. I think using software and email is like using the phone. It won’t be a big deal to restart your SMTP client or whatever, 5 years from now, because you just double-click this little icon, or select this menu entry. People are so comfortable with computers, that anyone who uses one today would be considered an expert four years ago. People know what GIFs are now, and how JPEGs can suck, so there’s a tradeoff. They know about 8-bit versus 24-bit color depth. They know how big 800×600 pixels is. They know how to defragment their hard drives. They know how SCSI works, and that it’s faster than IDE. They know that an en-dash and an em-dash are different typographically. They know what <html>…</html> means. They may even know what SGML stands for. Or the difference between a Postscript and a PDF file. These are extremely technical points, but some of us don’t see them that way anymore, because we literally work with them all the time. Computer technology is completely pervasive today, and will only get more so. Technical literacy is on the rise big time. And just in time for when your local guru gets fed up and quits. Maybe there won’t be IS departments in the future. Every working adult will know how to handle all that.

They will probably know from age six.