Snoozers, Users and Lusers

September 5th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Being from a family of fixers seemed normal enough, but has proven otherwise. Being able to repair a machine and more only works consistently on one condition. You have to understand how things function and often how they are put together.

As it turns out, I have an earned reputation for fixing, assembling and configuring machines, computers and more. Lackaday, it seems most folk are quick to blame a poorly maintained inanimate servant for its failures. Often, it only needs a tweak.

My alleged magic is nothing more than applying an understanding of components and functions.

That came to mind this afternoon when my wife noted that one of the electronically controlled garage doors would not close with the remote controls. I looked out the back door and from 30 feet could see the issue.

The little beam at the base of the door track is part of a safety system. It won’t let the door move when something is in the way. It’s an ignorant optical/mechanical system and doesn’t know if that something is a human body part or a car trunk or a rake. If its light circuit is broken, it stops the motor. Period. The way I grew up, I notice such things and file them in wetware just in case.

I could see that number two son’s mountain bike was just inside the beam area. To the unusual who grew up taught to file away how things work, that was instantly obvious. I long ago accepted that even the otherwise bright generally would not see that. I liken it to my poorly developed musical skills and senses. I have musician friends and a musical spouse who hear notes and keys that are just music to me. I love music, but can’t begin to replicate it or explain how to make it.

Who You Callin’ Loser?

Specifically in the computer/internet world, there are derogatory terms for the ignorant and unobservant. Perhaps none is more common among the cyber-savvy as luser. A pun playing off a combination of user and loser, it expresses the exasperation of support types, sys admins (those bastard operators from hell) , and we alpha geeks who put together and troubleshoot family and friends’ system.

Given the rapid changes in and spread of technology, one slice of logic would suggest that oldsters are bound to be lusers and youngsters computer, internet and new media experts. Sigh. Not so.

To the contrary, from what I see, most 20 somethings and teens fail in far more ways than not being able to make change without the cash register lighting up the amount. Most are users only, a.k.a. lusers. They learn now to apply the most basic functions of software. They never went through any process that required them to understand what goes no behind the scenes and are helpless when anything unusual occurs, as it frequently does.

Indeed, as I am wont to allude to, these become the Eloi. Even if they have good hearts, the processes that keep their world perking are unknown.

In that tedious sniping between the Mac and PC universes, we see variations. The Mac types are compelled to say their computers are so superior that they plug in peripherals and connect to this or that without having to do or know anything. Isn’t that wonderful?

bombWell I suppose in the Eloi future that might be OK, if all systems were perfect. As a PC alter kaker, I know better and recall observing and working with my wife’s company’s struggles in the original Mac office decades ago. Mac lovers said their machines were well worth the 100% or more premium because they just worked. That is, until that bomb appeared. They worked until they didn’t. Then what?

Somehow, the Mac failure was supposed to be substantially different from the PC’s blue screen of death. In reality, both meant you had to reboot the computer to try again. Somehow the Mac folk had to feel their double-the-price failure was a better one.

The double seeds were planted way back then (nearly 30 years ag0). One was the Spple system and the other was the Microsoft fantasy.

The Apple system was expensive for two reasons. One was simple greed; they made everything proprietary and did not let anyone make cheaper versions, thus keeping the price up. The other was that they required much faster, more capable and expensive processors, with obscene amounts of RAM to hide the functions. The Mac was plug-and-play with peripherals before the PC because the operating system did tons of work behind the scenes.

For Bill Gates’ minions, they spawned the software version — that each of us is a perfect multitasking machine in a human’s shell. That’s absurd on the face of it. The vast majority of us do one thing at a time well and our efficiency deteriorates badly beyond that. Multitasking is cruel overload for nearly all of us.

Yet, managers love that concept and love to tell their lackeys that they expect them to use every second, meaning keeping open many documents, spreadsheets, email and more, spinning from one to another like a honeybee in a field of flowers. It is a recipe for assured failure, one that both bosses and workers cook from daily.

Me Worry?

So in this century, we allegedly have kids born tech savvy. They grew up with the internet, computers, smart phones, social networking and infinite varieties of applications for all those.

But big sigh, ask a teen or 20-something how anything works or what to do when it doesn’t and they are Eloi quivering before you. It’s like asking a high school or college student at the register to handle making change on a $41.67 bill when you hand over $50.17. If the register is not ready to do the calculation, the kid almost certainly can’t. If a software package punks out or the cable modem stops downloading, the lads and lasses get that idiot look.

Can you blame them? Well, yes.

I think of oldies, my late mother for one and a 93-year-old UU minister friend for another. They came with great period names, Wanda and Farley.

Wanda was sort of retired, although she never got the hang of not working and not volunteering. She grew up in a manual typewriter world, was a manager in the IBM Selectric days, and in her late 50s, semi-retired and moved to Santa Fe, learned to use computers in a state job. She then wanted 1) to communicate with distant children and grandchildren, and 2) to build and maintain a database for a local community college’s library. I got her the hardware and software (including what she needed for her impinging macular degeneration) and taught her how to use email, DB software and more. I set up her systems but, she was an ace.

Farley was a bit of a harder sell. He was interim minister at a Boston UU church were I chaired the board. His son and I worked him from different towns and angles. He was not a natural, but in his early 70s, he started using a computer writing sermons, using the net and emailing like a champ.

He and I laugh about the number of times he called late with, “Damn. I’ve worked on this sermon for 8 hours and it’s gone, just gone.” Almost always, I could recover it for him and off he went again. On his side, his son figured he’d move him from Windows to Mac. Surely Farley couldn’t goof up a Mac. Surely he could and did, but we perked along and still do over 20 years later. He’s moved to Mexico but is a regular email correspondent.

Neither Farley nor Wanda evolved much beyond the user/luser class. I had to help both regardless of how many times I explained how to avoid this or that on PC or Mac.

Unitarians v. Computers

Moreover, a couple of decade ago, Farley and I did a counterpoint sermon from the high pulpit of the Arlington Street Church. The sheer altitude of that locale, plus looking out to upwards of 1,000 congregants, focuses the mind and inspires.

He spoke on the human aspects of life so often lost in the modern technological times. He was truly the stereotypical humanist. I gave my view of how computers and the net (before the World Wide Web) enabled communications and advocacy, a trend that would only accelerate and magnify.

Farley’s attitude I consider unfortunate and one he and I still debate in person and by email. Many ministers, UU and otherwise, exhibit a computers v. people mindset. I don’t see the conflict. To me, computers are like cars or planes or telephones…only more so in each case.

Instead, I fret when I see the lameness of young lusers. There’s nothing I can do effectively beyond my three kids for the many who never had to master multiplication tables or learn subtraction and division. I think the boomers, under the Sputnik era pressures, did get a more rigorous education.

It’s still not too late for those in their teens, 20s and 30s to be inspired. It’s not too late for them to become aware and savvy.

The eldest of my three sons is an anomaly in his cohort. Actually he and one other of his high school chums have extensive IT experience and understand how networks, computers, routers and more work. They don’t whimper. They fix.

Truth be told though, he wasn’t always the guru. As a boy, he was absolutely fabulous in taking things, mechanical and electric alike, apart. Reassembling or fixing was an entirely different matter. Whether it was a toy or clock or radio, we’d often find non-functional groupings of parts.

Unfortunately or fortunately, he had a dad who was the fly in the ear or mosquito on the neck. “What do we need to do? What can we learn from this? Where does this part belong?”

Whether I had experience with and knowledge of the device in pieces before us, I could help or lead in the healing process. It appears many young adults and their younger siblings never got any of that. They simply don’t know how things work. They are willing to blame problems on the failure of this or than inanimate object. They have no curiosity about the problem or the solution.

I fear for a nation of Eloi. I’m not sure there are Morlocks who’ll keep our machines and processes in tune. I wonder how inert and paralyzed we might become if there are too many figurative Mac bombs.

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