Computer Literacy Not What It Used To Be

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 24 October 1998

A new book, Extra Life by Wired magazine writer David Bennahum, gave me the opportunity to reminisce about those good old days when kids had free reign of the networks. Now those kids are the adults responsible for designing everything from Netscape to the Palm Pilot. By giving us the keys to the kingdom, our teachers (perhaps unwittingly and by necessity) gave us the best sink-or-swim computer education we could have asked for.

They – and the proliferation of Tandy, Commodore and Atari equipment that required an understanding of programming – bred a generation of computer geeks who played with the building blocks out of which today’s communications infrastructure is formed.

As Bennahum puts it, these early machines were “untamed, undisciplined by `serious’ uses, like accounting and word processing. . . . What they were for was not up to marketing experts and advertising agencies to decide. It was up to us.”

After reading this poignant coming-of-age story, I spent a week in dreamy nostalgia that ended only when I thought to compare the computer education afforded us pioneers with what is available in most public schools today.

Although our best schools now have rooms filled with Apple computers and Internet connections, our children are taught how to apply computers to tasks rather than how to build or program them.

But computer literacy should mean more than understanding how to operate commercial software. Our competitive advantage in industry and defence might depend on it.

Working together on the old mainframe taught us to see our computing time as valuable and instilled in us the community ethic and social responsibility that allowed for the development of Internet standards and networking etiquette.

More importantly, learning computers meant learning computing: how these things work, and how to write code that makes them do cool and important stuff.

For any nation to maintain the ability to compete in the information economy of the future, it will need to take steps to promote real computer literacy now. Ironically, in addition to hiring teachers who can explain the intricacies of code to young minds, we will have to exercise less, not more, control over the machines and networks on which this education is performed.

We’ll have to accept the fact that if young people are someday going to understand computers better than we do, we have to even encourage them to burrow past the ready-made interfaces we’re so comfortable teaching them how to use today.

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, a bestselling portrait of 1990s cyberculture. He lives in New York.