Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering the past

Clearly, the past isn't better in every way than the present, but at the same time not everything in the present is better than the past. This is specially true when we talk about computers.

A known fact is that one of the barriers computers had to trascend so that they could reach us in a massive way was the fear they generated in the unexperienced user. Nowdays that barrier has been greatly overriden, but I find myself missing it quite a lot.

Fear of computers comes from ignorance, we fear what we don't know. A hammer is used to hammer things, a screwdriver screws and unscrews, and sometimes opens a paint can, a microwave oven heats. But with computers something different happens. In their case their own nature, their own lack of clearly defined purpose due to their conception as expansible and programmable machines, generates the ignorance that produces fear. If we add an user interfase assumed as easy that really needs training to be used, we find wourselves in front of a machine capable of paralizing people by their mere presence.

Of course, that barrier has been breached and somehow trascended, and that's good and bad at the same time. The tool that's been used to achieve this is marvelous and tricky, it's called marketing. With marketing techniques computers have been lowered to mass comsumer products. They are sold in computer chains, but also in big general purpose stores. There are "new easier to use" interfases for "new easier to use" operating systems (that still require training and readapting periods). Those shiny new interfased are based on the concept of separating the user from the real computer, and at the same time they need access to the bellies of the beast for some chores. There are guarantees that don't let people open their own expansible machines (not even for cleaning the dust). All this is aimed to present computers as easy to use black boxes you don't need to understand at all to use.

In the corporate world this is an advantage, it lets the user use the computer and the systems people deal with backups, data integrity, security handling, etc.

But in our homes is where the idea of transforming a computer in something 100% accesible without knowledge becomes real troublesome. There are lots of home computers without reliable antivirus protection, without a serious firewall, without a daily inspection for spyware, no control of installed programs by each member of the family, no security updates. Lots of users that by their ignorance are unkownligly lending their computers and IPs so that people of devious purposes make massive spam deliveries, hide their own IP for ilegal actions (be it attacks on other systems or ilegal sites hosting).

That machines and that users are chain mail repeaters, and generate lists of hundreds of emails that are used for furthering the spam plague. They also are victims of a level of abstraction so strong that they don't understand at all what's going inside their computers. So they usually end slaves to an operating system just because they don't have any idea that choices are out there. The same ignorance about their own computers is what frustrates them when they find the new game they bought or that program someone at work recommended doesn't work on their machines, or does so at crawling pace.

I'm not looking for every computer user to understand 100% about computers, but it would be good if there's a stop to the deceiving they are subject to when they are sold a computer (a computer sometimes so powerfull that they probably don't need half as much anyway). It would be good if a friend comes around and opens their eyes so that they know there are other possibilities, that without being an expert and without giant efforts they can learn a lot about their computers. If we get them to have some sort of control over their computers, if we get them to know which things they can make on their own and which ones they could use some outside help, all our lives would be a lot easier. And to achieve that we have to reinstall the idea that computers are not impossible to use, but require some time from the user to learn how to enjoy and not suffer them.

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