Insufficient knowledge hurts users

Adam Schoelz

I’d like to tell a parable. I wish this parable were as simple as “a fool and his money are soon parted,” but, because of the complexities of brand name marketing and the human brain, it isn’t.

To put the truth out there, I’m just not comfortable with Apple computers. I’m not a huge fan of them. I dislike their draconian policy toward software development and the App Store and their inflated prices.

However, I am not a rabid anti-Apple death machine either. I think that Apple is a spectacular design manufacturer, especially in its way of revolutionizing human-computer interaction every couple of years, and if one has the money there is nothing wrong with spending a few hundred dollars on a more intuitive operating system.

The problem is not with Apple computers, per se; it’s with Apple fans. Or more specifically, my brother Michael the Apple fan.

Now, my dear, dear brother who, by all accounts, is intelligent, amiable and has even been called kind, turns to a belligerent and hostile curmudgeon when it comes to the subject of computers. You see, while my brother Kevin is an equal lover of all UNIX-based operating systems, a popular sub-operating system, my brother Michael is quite discriminatory, eschewing not only Windows but also Linux, the freeware OS, for the warm and anesthetic qualities of Apple Macintosh computers.

My brother Michael, a college student, stays in contact with my parents by check and stops in on the holidays to say “hi.”

This Christmas, in addition to the usual presents and food, he had another request: an upgrade to his nearly dead MacBook.

Such a request was not unreasonable. In fact, I think it quite admirable he would want to upgrade his laptop as opposed to replacing it entirely. However, he paid some $80 for two gigabytes of random access memory (RAM) to be installed. He, and many like him, have no idea what two gigabytes of RAM do or why $80 dollars is a silly price for them.

People must stop treating computers as if they are magical boxes powered by mischievous elves. They’ve been commonplace for what — nearly two, arguably three decades now? Computers are fairly simple, yet their seeming complexity drives people away. The large and scary words like GIGAHERTZ! or MICROPROCESSOR! make people want to crawl under the nearest wood crafting table or Amish community.

In truth, computers are fashioned out of a few major parts, each with unique properties that make the screen glow and words appear. These are the hard drive, the motherboard, the microprocessor, the RAM, graphics/sound cards and the power supply unit. Then there are disc drives, monitors, keyboard, speakers and other components with more obvious effects.

Now that list may still seem overcomplicated, but it’s really quite simple. This brings me back to my brother Michael. Despite my kind and completely-not-condescending offer to teach him the basics of computers, he refused even to try to learn. And though it may have been my tone, I think that it was more that he was unwilling to learn at all.

All those parts have simple functions. Most people know what a hard drive does — it stores stuff. Most everything else in a computer is almost just as simple. Microprocessor does a certain number of actions per second — a figure measured in hertz. Thus, gigahertz measures how fast a processor runs in millions of actions per second.

Graphics cards are the same thing, just with thousands of weak microprocessors running at once. Running programs are stored in RAM — this is why adding RAM makes a computer much faster. Power supply units, or PSUs, power the machine. Motherboards hold the whole thing together.

That’s a pretty brief explanation, to be sure. It’s almost absurdly short. And yet that’s all a computer is. A plethora of lengthier explanations can be found in books and online. There is a whole world of information out there, easily acquired. It’s not terribly difficult to learn, but many people, like my dear brother Michael, just don’t seek it out.

I was once like my older brother. I had little interest in how computers worked, being more invested in playing video games and generally screwing around. But then I decided to build my own computer — a good project I recommend to anyone — and a veil was lifted from my eyes.

It’s the big secret: if you have valuable information, you can charge other people lots of money for simple things. If you have information, you can understand what is wrong when something has gone wrong. If you have information, you can control things.

The ‘rule of knowledge’ applies to many things. To bring the idea of free information back to Apple, they control to a great degree what every iUser sees on the app store, and therefore control the flow of information to those users.

On the hardware side, Apple has created a user base that largely does not care how the computer works, only that it does, and thus can control prices for computers and repairs.

The same idea goes with media — newspapers, television, video games. Because people are not invested in knowledge, companies can take advantage of them to control their spending habits, their eating, even their vote. It’s important to know; otherwise one is just fumbling in the dark.

We have to understand this integral part of our daily lives so that, as citizens, we can make informed decisions. The recent near-passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), demonstrates the importance of knowing.

Many of the senators voting for the bill had no idea that the bill would authorize domain name system (DNS) blocking, let alone knowing what DNS is. And in this day and age, with the battle over the privacy of computers and the Internet being fought daily, it’s important to ask the right questions of the things we buy and the laws we create.

And if we don’t know how something as simple and fundamental as a computer works, how will we be able to know what to ask of it?
By Adam Schoelz