The hacker/”normal” user tech divide.

Posted: May 31, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

So, I never really thought of myself as the tech-savvy type, but I’m taking an Information Technologies class right now so, in some ways, it’s on my mind because of that. Having it on my mind because I’m in a class where we learn how to use all this stuff that’s out there, however, has really clued me into a lot of the social/political implications of computer/tech stuff and I’ve been thinking about it in a broader scope than just what we learn in the class.

One thing that is on my mind is the fact that there is this divide between “hacker” types and “i’m-not-a-computer-person” types. I have always fit into the latter category and I am now starting to question that.

This is not because I just discovered my own personal secret computer genius, but rather, in a more broad sense, because I’m starting to question this binary opposition that sets us up as either folks who want to get on the computer to check Facebook, and folks who want to know how Facebook works and why it works. It seems like, for most people, the decision of which of these two (and only two) categories of users is made at some point and then never questioned.

I am a smart guy, though. In any other area of study, I can decide that I want to learn about something, then learn about it—if I want to replace an old electrical outlet, I can read up about it a little or have a friend show me, then do it myself. I might not become a master electrician, but I’ve just added one more thing to my list of technical skills and I get to feel good about myself for moving closer in that direction. But this non-hacker identity that has been with me since I first saw a computer and someone showed me how to use it feels more like this unwavering roadblock. When someone starts to explain something high-tech to me, I glaze over and nod my head and finally say something along the lines of, “so, um, what should I click on.”

I don’t think I have to be “that guy,” though. I don’t think anyone has to be “that guy.” Pushing my comfort zone as far as tech stuff goes does not suddenly mean I will start understanding computer languages, but it does bridge the gap between me and the folks who do, and empowers me to claim ownership over my computer use. I don’t think computer stuff is as black and white as some would make it out to be, and I think people (myself included) let ourselves get completely taken advantage of by software companies as a result. Maybe those companies want us to think that way?

I recently downloaded a couple different open source programs for my computer. I did it reluctantly, at the recommendation of a number of different friends when I discovered that, in order to get this program I needed for a class on my Mac, I was going to have to buy and install Windows 7 in order to get the program. Operating system? That’s when I tend to glaze over. Instead, I reluctantly took my friends advice. He basically had to push me into it though (I’m glad he did)

I’ve had it in my head that open source software is so much better, yet when I’m in a tricky situation that probably would not exist if giant corporations didn’t make billions of dollars off of stuff you can get for free, I totally freak out and instinctively go for the corporate software. But why?

Is it unreasonable for me to speculate that software giants want to encourage a cultural divide between the hackers and the “normal” computer users because no one would pay hundreds/thousands of dollars for their products if they felt empowered to do something scary and just get the software themselves if we realized “normal” people?

It bothers me that a class in Library & Information Science, a profession which is supposedly built around an ethic of helping people gain access to information, would support the virtual monopoly of a software giant when there are other comparable programs out there which do not support a corporate interest. It kind of reminds me of the “Computers in Management” course I had to take in undergrad that actually felt like Microsoft might as well have sent a representative out to teach a class on their products. Needless to say, neither the teacher nor the book even mentioned there were other options. Are there industries apart from software industries that have entire college courses devoted to basically advertising/marketing their product?

I am trying to tell myself that not being the right kind of geek doesn’t mean I have to be part of the masses of people who blindly supports giant corporations’ software monopolies while cool alternatives actually exist, just because I’m scared.

*While these ideas are my reactions to a million different things I’ve been learning/hearing /thinking about/reading while taking this class and being around library school folks in a way that is not the kind of stuff I feel obligated to cite, I think I owe some specific credit to a friend from whose paper I drew a lot. I’ll check with him about how he wants the credit rather than just going and posting his name on the internet or something, though, so check back.



  1. x1c4n0 says:

    The fact that college courses teach to specific software, as opposed to focusing on teaching a skill set, irks the everloving hell out of me. The two worst examples being the adobe and microsoft office suites. If you learn what KIND of tasks you’re looking for (applying a filter, increasing character spacing) as opposed to the specifics for a task, it’s fairly easy to navigate through a particular interface.

    But it does these companies a lot of good when you have a whole generation of workers who, every year, end up leaving behind student licensing prices (in the tens of dollars) and have to pay for real licenses (in the hundreds) for software they don’t know how to leave behind.

    Great points to jump on.

    • Jackson says:

      That seems unprofessional to me that they do that. Don’t schools have an ethical obligation to present their students with an unbiased body of information? Isn’t information that serves one corporate (or, I guess I should say “personal”, since corporations are actually people now) interest and does not even mention alternates–or only mentions them insofar as saying, “this one’s really complicated, normal people can’t use it,”–inherently biased?

  2. Mike B says:

    You pin-pointed the difference in people perfectly. There are folks that want to know how it works, and there are folks that just want to be able to use it. I work in a very technical area as one of the technology leaders of my company and I still see it with the people that work for me and with me.

    I am guilty of being at a dangerous point in my geek/hacker life where I have got lazy and just told you to get Windows 7 instead of the myriad of other alternatives that came to mind. That would have been heresy for me to recommend Microsoft 10 years ago. However, much like everyone else using those tools, they tend to be easier/more mature than many alternatives, and it depends on a cost trade-off of time/frustration and money. Even if you do end up using Windows 7/BootCamp because it’s easier, or you just can’t get WINE or OO to work, the effort in trying to use the alternatives will be invaluable.

    Just keep asking “how” or “why” and you’ll do wonders.

    • Jackson says:

      I was actually totally surprised when you suggested I use Windows, Mike! I didn’t think you were that kind of geek 😉

      But I do agree that even the process of trying to use alternatives is a great learning experience, even if I end up having to use Windows anyway (which it’s kind of looking like right now–mostly because I’m not ready to piss off my professor too much this early in the term/program and she seemed irritated that I was even looking into alternatives). Being comfortable with not only deciding something is possible computer-wise, but asking for help rather than asking for someone to just do it for me is a really empowering thing and this new attitude has really helped me to figure out that things are not as difficult as they seem and I do not have to be as helpless about computers as I have made myself out to be (and as lots of users on “my side” of the computer user binary make ourselves).

      • Mike B says:

        That’s good that open source alternatives don’t seem overwhelming, for some that is definitely not something they can say. You may have a knack for it, even if you don’t feel like you have the knowledge yet.

        I too gave up on using alternatives for school work so I don’t have to explain why my stuff is “different”. I am using VMWare Fusion/XP to use the standard Office tools.

  3. Jackson says:

    So far it’s only overwhelming because:
    a) it’s unfamiliar and looks different from what other people use
    b) it seems like a complicated process to install it in the first place–which it doesn’t seem like it has to be–the process I had to go through to get Microsoft’s database software was so much more complicated/overwhelming than just downloading the Open Office version. I assume that other things are complicated to do, too, but if the tech kid who would have been helping me with something anyway just walks me through it, I’ve learned something and can probably get further along before needing help the next time. Plus, geeks love that stuff and I’ve never had trouble finding folks who are totally into showing me how to do stuff.

    It seems like the overwhelming part is totally outweighed by the fact that I just saved $300 bucks and not by stealing Windows–and definitely did not do $300 worth of work to save the money

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