The Decline of Tech Literacy and What We Can Do About It

I feel like this topic has been harped on a lot in this community, but never formally as a forum thread, so here I am; What are all of your opinions on the seemingly harsh decline in tech literacy (or lack thereof)? I’m thinking about situations like young adults not knowing how to save or navigate file systems, lack of curiosity about how things work, and over-reliance on ‘closed’ systems like chromebooks and smartphones.

More importantly, I’m wondering if any of you have found success in your lives in helping others achieve better tech literacy. My first instinct is “run a workshop to teach it”, but if someone doesn’t care then why would they bother going to a workshop? It feels like a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point; people that aren’t great with computers just assume they will always suck at it forever and so they don’t bother to learn anything new, no matter how crucial it is (like where their files save to!).

So I’m wondering what everyone’s thoughts are :)

9 Likes

I’m not convinced there’s actually a decline.

I think that most people have never been particularly computer-literate.

I think this is because most people have, to them, more pressing concerns than understanding how the technology on which they’ve come to depend actually works.

As far as I’m concerned the only people who need to understand how tech works are programmers, sysadmins, designers, and lawmakers who presume to regulate tech (I don’t want some politician who can’t tell a compiler from a Cuisinart telling me how to do my job.)

Would it be nice if everybody at least knew how to navigate a filesystem via a commandline interface, knew the basics of vi or emacs, or could even do a bit of shell scripting? I think so. I think that sort of knowledge is empowering; it allows people to command computers instead of being commanded by them.

But that’s the equivalent of a muscle car enthusiast thinking everybody should know how to drive a stick shift when automatic transmission is standard and a manual transmission is a premium feature.

My stance is this: if somebody wants to dig deep into how their tech works, and they ask me for help, I’ll do the best I can. If somebody asks me to help them build a website, I’ll do it (but if it takes more than an hour I hope they have the courtesy to order a pizza and offer me a beer). I’m one of those Gen X “do your own thing” types, so crusades and evangelism aren’t my style.

I think that wanting to treat a computer as an appliance because you have more pressing concerns to think about is perfectly valid, and I am much more concerned with young people not reading for pleasure.

9 Likes

The thing that got me more interested in coding and tech was learning that I could do some really cool stuff (like make a personal webpage!) with it.

When I was a kid, computer skills were never really presented in a way that meant something to me.

2 Likes

I definitely see this a lot, and it’s not even limited to non-techy people, either. If I were born 20 yeas earlier I’d probably have learned proper assembly at some point, rather than relying on high-level tools like C++ (/s)

For real though, the most commonly-used computers (smartphones) barely let you access the file system, and themselves aren’t suited to writing code or tinkering much so the easy avenues of natural engagement with the tech part of things has gone away. On top of that, you can’t easily change much about the devices or how they work, so there’s much less a feeling of ‘system ownership’ and fewer reasons to care.

I honestly blame Apple and Google (mostly apple) for popularising platforms that don’t let you do anything.

For my part… As a younger person I tried to get all my family / friends on linux and some of them actually kept it. Also built my friend her first desktop PC and introduced her to the concept of ‘this is your digital temple, your second home’ which sparked a lot of interest in her-- I think so many people are going to miss out on that experience these days. She actually took some HTML/CSS classes at our uni not long after!

So for me, I guess that’s the main part: people need help redefining their relationship with their devices. My friend had her phone and laptop before, but they were social /work devices and she had no concept of creating her own digital space / experience until she saw it.

5 Likes

I’m tempted to disagree when it comes to macOS because it’s still a solid UNIX as long as you don’t mind jumping guardrails, but iOS is definitely limiting. I honestly think that smartphones were a mistake.

If I ever get to retire, the first thing I’m going to do is yeet my smartphone into the Kuiper belt. I’ll buy one last computer, maybe a MNT Reform, and if landlines are still a thing I’ll get one, a USB hardware modem, and a dialup account with SDF.

I don’t think there’s been a decline either. Most people aren’t interested except for maybe something specific they want to do, and sometimes not even then. They never have been, and never will be.

It used to irk me that people would ask me about something that was seemingly obvious or easy to look up.

I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, it’s just a progression of the technology. Some software takes a long time to master and there are even various certificates of competancy for using some. Some work out of the box, but configuring it to work properly is a skill in itself.

OSs are something else. I can see others here should be comfortable poking around at the command line or whatever management tools they provide, but it’s really not for everyone.

Some people are just a little challenged like that. One day a neighbor borrowed a crowbar. After a while I had a look at what he was doing and had to explain that without something solid to act as a pivot it wasn’t going to work. I’m not sure if he did that on purpose because a couple of weeks later he borrowed a circular saw. I lent him mine then thought about what I’d just done and stopped him using it before he lost a couple of fingers.

This song and cartoon always makes me smile. Someone sent these just after work moved to Drupal CMS. I used to come home and my wife asked how “Dribble” was coming along. I just answered “Aaaarrrrggghhh”.

5 Likes

I think whether it’s in decline depends on what’s meant by tech literacy. To me it means fairly basic things — like sending an email, writing a document, knowing the difference between a web browser and a search engine, and navigating your documents and folders (in a GUI, not command line).

I think at the very least that last one is in decline, and it worries me. I’ve heard people say it doesn’t matter if people know where files are stored if a program can find them, but what if the program stops working? Suddenly that tab of recent documents isn’t there to help you find it. And when everything goes into one place, you lose any ability to organize it in ways that make sense to you.

4 Likes

I think the problem here is that if somebody has only ever used a smartphone, and never a general-purpose computer, they might never be exposed to file systems, directories, or files. I learned about this because I was exposed to DOS in high school and then UNIX in college, but if I had turned 18 today I might have had that foundation.

2 Likes

There’s millions of articles written about computer literacy and the lack of it. There’s some commonality here and it probably applies everywhere.

  1. We were mostly all exposed to computers when you had to know your away around the things to get to do anything at all.

  2. We were all interested enough to explore on our own without being scared of breaking something too badly.

Maybe that’s the only way to improve things. When a computer starts there’s two windows that open on top of the usual desktop and icons. One is a blinking prompt and the other is a browser window asking “What are you trying to do?”

Maybe something less obvious, like a game. “We created an image named myprogtest.jpg in your documents folder. We want you to move it to your pictures folder and then delete it. Do you want to see an animation about how to do this? Do you want to practice?” (Some sort of secure file manager, that will only manipulate the target files).

1 Like

My 2-cents, although some of this has been said already…

To look at the history for a moment: Microcomputers in the mid-to-late 1970s often came as a kit and one would follow a schematic to build it themselves (e.g.: the Altair 8800 or Heathkit H8). Some of the pre-assembled microcomputers of the early 1980s came with a manual that literally taught one how to program, while many computer magazines printed source code to try out. The relative simplicity and openness of the systems meant that one could get a decent understanding of their operation as a whole, on both a hardware and a software level. The environment was conducive to learning. A lot of that started to disappear throughout the 1990s as computers increased in complexity or their internal functioning became obscured.

It seems like tinkering with electronics has decreased in general. Of course, one can still order parts off of Mouser or build a circuit board on PCBWay, but they aren’t going to walk into a RadioShack and browse anymore. Things like increasing amounts of “miniaturization” can also make it difficult to work with components, and in more extreme cases, some companies have purposely tried to undermine “right to repair” and other kinds of hacking. Your warranty gets voided if you attempt to open up a device to explore, and the chips are probably hidden behind epoxy blobs anyway.

On top of that, software interfaces have continuously become abstracted away from the underlying hardware. While “point-and-click” made things intuitive and accessible for many people, it doesn’t do much for getting a deep understanding of how stuff works beyond buttons and menus. Before, one had to use the command line to some extent in order to navigate a computer. Software was still close to the hardware (e.g.: one could read and write individual bytes of data directly to memory through “PEEK” and “POKE” statements). But, as it has already been pointed out, even basic things like file structure are now mostly hidden away as people press icons on the screen of a tablet or smartphone.

In that sense, I would say that overall “tech literacy” has declined, but not for lack of information. It is because the inclination to make something with it has lessened as many people are conditioned to chase after things like “convenience”.

I had put together some educational articles to help contribute to the reversal of that trend, such as “Computer & Programming Basics” and “An Introduction To Using Linux”. I also started one called “Web Development Basics”, but it remains unfinished for the time being. There is still so much more that I would like to share…

I like @brisray 's idea of turning the acquirement of these skills into a game. There are a lot of games that simulate being on a computer, but one that I find particularly interesting is Telehack.

4 Likes

I think this is a very good take on whats going on. It seems like a lot of the big companies everyone uses are actively trying to discourage tinkering around yourself. Of course computers are more complex these days and they want to make them user friendly for anyone, but it makes me wistful to hear they used to include programming manuals. Its at least somewhat comforting to hear from @brisray that it isn’t an entirely new issue for most people to not really be interested/proficient with tech.

I’ll have to check out your linux intro guide (and other guides)!

Any form of literacy will closely parallel standard literacy. Seeing the standard literacy rates of the USA and of the EU go down. See this article on the subject, backed by this paper. This is with regards to the USA. The EU has always been the younger brother of the USA in most trends(such as obesity and political beliefs), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow through.

Seeing the standard rate of literacy go down, it should not come as a surprise that more specialised forms of literacy are also going down. Computer literacy. With regards to computers, most people use phones, which are not an environment conducive to learning computer programming or learning the standard structures and operations of a computer.

That said, this also mirrors the crisis of competency. We’re seeing more and more engineering failures because they are complex systems, and we’re not adequately selecting as a culture and society the qualities that keep them working well- instead we’re prefering qualities that are relatively anti-achievement and anti-meritocracy. As a result, computers being among the highest complexity systems around(and this is really not a good thing. See this lecture by Casey on this subject). High complexity systems do not survive without competent hands on deck. It should be noted, social ideals and engineering ideals aren’t mutually exclusive, however I think engineering ideals and virtues are far far more important, as they withstand the changing tides of fickle opinions.

This last point might seem unrelated, but the drop in literacy leading to the drop in tech literacy which itself, leads to a drop in competency, which leads to a drop in the understanding of complex systems which leads to these complex systems failing due to entropy. It doesn’t help there’s multiple factors multiplying the difficulty in addressing each point along the way.

The only thing I can say with regards to this, is to be Christ-like in nature with it. “Give a man a fish, he feeds himself for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he feeds himself for the rest of his life”. In hearing the help that people ask for and want, read between the lines and give them both what they want and what they need.

1 Like

I’m strongly tempted to buy a MNT Reform the next time I need a new computer precisely because it comes with not only a printed manual but schematics. I don’t know if I’d use the latter, but they would be nice to have regardless.

2 Likes

I work in a library and sometimes assist patrons with computers, but I’m still trying to organize my thoughts on tech literacy.

One thing I’ve noticed is that many people know how to press a button on their phone to get to the gmail app, but they don’t seem to fully understand that they have a gmail account with a password, or that said account can be accessed from any computer with internet access, not just their phone.

2 Likes

That’s interesting — and it makes sense now that I think about it. You need a Google account for a standard Android phone, and it just keeps you logged in automatically for all Google apps. So if you didn’t have an account before you got a phone, they’re now intrinsically linked in your mind…

1 Like

That’s interesting. If passkeys take off then maybe that would actually be more compatible with current mental models of accounts.

1 Like

Another game that comes to mind in this vein is: Oh My Git!

As a teacher, I’m quite familiar with gamificiation. It can help with the learning process, but it can also be over / misused.

I was reading @RisingThumb 's post ‘Reinventing the Wheel’ the other day, and, while not the focus, one thing touched on was the “enjoyment” of learning. Nowadays it’s clear there is an excess of exploitation of “enjoyment” in people. The common student mindset of ‘why am I doing this / learning this?’ is mentioned as well. The almost immediate NEED for gratification nowadays is concerning. Expecting education to compete / become entertainment is concerning.

I think a lot of key points like ‘times / tech / culture / mindset has changed’ and ‘it isn’t for everyone’ are all valid. I’d add that while improving the educational system is not the only thing required to boost literacy, doing so would help. I’m gonna ignore the million others problems in K-12 for a second and just zoom in on Tech:

In the USA, the highest ‘literacy’ course would currently be AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSA is programming exclusively, Java btw). There’s a lot of interesting details & history with the College Board and its CompSci courses, but in-short, in terms of literacy, I think its too broad to do any good. This course can, and is, taught to 12th Graders, as an optional elective. Frankly, I think its material should be mandatory in Middle School.

Am I really crazy for thinking basic tech education should be mandatory in schools?

4 Likes

No. I think that kids should start high school capable of reading read and write at a “college” level, doing basic double-entry accounting and budgeting, singing in tune and on beat, playing an instrument, sketching from life, cooking basic meals, providing first aid, navigating a city on their own, doing useful work at a UNIX terminal, and know how to make and keep good friends. Ideally they should have these skills by sixth grade, but we need to account for individual variations.

2 Likes

That is an insightful way of interpreting the situation! The problems really are systemic, aren’t they? I also strongly agree with the importance of empowering people with the skills to meet their own needs, presenting information so that it can be easily understood and applied in constructive ways. Help people to find a meaningful “why,” then clearly demonstrate the “how” step-by-step.

If one is self-motivated and has reading comprehension skills, they can easily become “tech literate” for themselves as most things are well-documented…The same is true for learning just about any subject.

It would seem that general literacy and numeracy have steadily increased worldwide, but there are still areas of the world that remain unequal. In the case of the educational systems of the U.S. and U.K., if we exclude all other issues, I think one of the main problems is an ineffectual curriculum:

English teaching has gone from giving children methods to break down the spelling and meaning of words through phonics and etymology, to expecting them to remember and comprehend them completely by sight. Similarly, the teaching of mathematics still suffers from the residual effects of the “New Math” of the early 1960s, overemphasis on abstractions versus concrete examples. Some areas have taken this to extremes with the introduction of technology (e.g.: relying on calculators instead of teaching the algorithms for basic arithmetic, or neglecting handwriting with the expectation that students will be typing more).

The same is true for most academic subjects. For example, I think students would have a better foundation in Chemistry if there was more emphasis on recognizing different substances and using basic laboratory equipment to manipulate them. Unless one is going to continue their studies within the field of Chemistry, a lot of the atomic models and other abstractions taught within high school will probably become nothing more than “trivia” to them, if not wholly forgotten. That’s not to say they aren’t useful, just that a lot of time seems to be wasted on concepts that are unmotivated. I want to know the Psychohistory behind it so that I can reason through its development and apply it to my life, not be given a list of dates to memorize in order to pass a test!

…But I’m not a teacher, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

In regards to complex systems, some of them also fail due to dishonesty or laziness, not necessarily a lack of comprehension. Has there also been a decrease in moral and civic education, an increase in social systems that encourage sociopathic behaviors, etc.?

It is interesting to think about how everything interconnects. I will look more carefully at the links that you have provided.

1 Like

I had seen that laptop as well and was very interested in the fact that it came with schematics (along with source code for the firmware and CAD files for the case)! It would be nice to solder in switches to physically disconnect the camera, the microphone, and the Wi-Fi antenna, and to play around with running it off of different power sources (e.g.: solar panels, kinetic generators, etc.). The aesthetic possibilities for the case and keyboard are exciting too!

2 Likes