Computer Literacy - It's Not What You Think

Software, in its many forms, has utterly devoured modern life. The ubiquity of digital automation in today’s world cannot be overstated, and there are few hints that the relentless progress of technology will abate any time soon.

Many students will be acutely aware that this has led to generic ‘computer literacy’ becoming just another box to tick on the checklist of employability. Most (or at least most millennials) would tick said box without much hesitation. However, I would contest that the popular understanding of what it means to be ‘computer literate’ is insufficient, and that it is leading to a populace that does not feel empowered by technology, but bewildered by it.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. This is how many people view contemporary technology, often at the cost of being better suited to using it. By perceiving something as magical, we see it as beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, and conventional logic no longer applies.

While a mere mortal could perhaps use such a magical thing for a few basic tasks, they will never be able to apply it to new tasks, to make it their own, or to be empowered by it. The majority of people do not understand how digital technology works at its most basic levels, and therefore are at a disadvantage when it comes to using it.

Understanding what a computer does, how the internet works, or why code is important, even at a very conceptual level, are crucial steps towards computer literacy.

The definition of ‘literacy’ is the ability to read and write. When it comes to computers, most are only able to stumble through the standard reading list. An understanding of grammar and language allows someone not just to recite specific books, but to read, write and edit anything they choose. Likewise, an understanding of the building blocks of digital technology allows someone not just to use certain programs, but to fix them when they break, to learn to use new ones more quickly, and to apply technology to problems new and old.

And just as someone who is verbally illiterate is unable to engage in literary criticism, someone who is computer illiterate is equally unable to properly engage with many important contemporary issues such as mass data collection. If they do engage, their misguided influence can be very damaging.

To be truly computer literate you should at least have a basic understanding of the building blocks of modern technology.

Understanding technology is not as scary as it seems. There are countless fantastic resources for learning about technology. You can find hundreds of great books on almost any field of technology you can imagine. If you want to learn to code, is a great place to start.

The next time you find yourself wondering how exactly a YouTube video gets onto your phone, try Google-ing it. Someday, maybe you’ll find yourself being able to solve problems with technology on your own, and perhaps that’ll score you your dream job, or at least allow you to avoid emailing the IT helpdesk.