Instead of making everybody take Computer Literacy, make anyone who wants to be a programmer take People Literacy


@gargron No! That’s my point — we expect people to contort themselves to fit the computer, but it should be the computer contorting itself to fit them.

The more “computer literacy” people have to have to use a computer safely and productively, the more we have failed to put the person before the tool.

@jalefkowit i'd clarify that: both are currently needed, but we should aim for zero need for computer literacy

unfortunately i don't think that's realistic (but yes we should try)

@sty @jalefkowit Asking for no-computer-literacy-needed computers from extremely-computer-literate people historically doesn’t lead us to Englebart’s Violin, though. It leads us to the iPads that are about as computationally empowering as a Fisher-Price child’s pretend phone.

@jalefkowit @Gargron

Yeah. There's a difference between knowing which end of a frypan to pick up vs. having to know the entire 3,000-year history of frypans in order to fix breakfast properly.

@xenophora @jalefkowit @gargron but then if you want to do more than just fix a quick breakfast, your may need to inform yourself a bit more on materials and how heat and food interact to cook something more sophisticated...

Seems original comments(s) wasn't included in the reply. What was this in response to please?

@jalefkowit @Gargron Unfortunately the people who create closed, exploitative ecosystems were very successful in enticing the illiterates.

...and all the societies are very much behind on creating adequate protections since they left the field to the "computer literates".

analogy: the more "circular saw literacy" people have to have to use a circular saw safely and productively the more we have failed to put the person before the tool.

the tools of computing are the compiler and the interpreter.

what distinguishes a computing device from an information appliance is this question of programmability: If the person operating it can change its behavior sufficiently, they are programming it. If not, not.

So the question is, what sort of power should the user have?

If the environment in which they work is Turing complete--and given the complexity of our worldwide networked computing environment this premise usually holds--then it is programmable, whether they know what that means or not, whether they are competent to navigate that reality or not.

I'm sure I'm not the first to say this but people continue try to dodge it: Computing presents a profoundly Promethean dilemma.

We want the power of programmability but are not prepared for the suffering that getting it brings.

I wish people could be spared this suffering, too, but wishing doesn't cut it.

Does 'informed consent' mean anything to you in this context, and if so, what, then?

@idlestate that's an interesting thought, but I'm not sure I understand you correctly; can you elaborate a bit in what you mean by "the suffering that programming/programmability brings"?


Thanks for asking.

I'll try not to overcomplicate this, but I have in mind suffering at two levels.

The first seems pretty simple to me: @jalefkowit seems to think it an unacceptable imposition to expect people to learn anything about the tools they use. So, whatever the type and degree of that imposition, let that stand in here for what I call "suffering".

(I don't entirely disagree with his sentiment, it's more a question of degree and in how to talk about the relationships involved.)

At the second, broader level, the suffering I have in mind is all the ways that computing clearly goes wrong, whether minor bugs in programs all the way up to "oops your life savings has just been wired to North Korea" and "oops many marginalized people have been convinced not to vote or to vote against their interests via targeted ads".

As part of that latter category I include some of the notions, as best I understand them, of the language-theoretic security efforts.

Since this reply is long enough as it is I'll leave off expanding on the langsec angle for now beyond mentioning it.

@idlestate @lizzard A good response! I would just pick one nit:

"@jalefkowit seems to think it an unacceptable imposition to expect people to learn anything about the tools they use."

It's more that, in my experience as a communicator, if you want to make people think about an idea, the way to do that is to express it in its strongest, sharpest form. You don't necessarily expect that to be the form the idea actually takes when it's ramified into law or procedure or whatever. But at the beginning, you're not worried so much about that as you are about getting people to really interrogate their own feelings about it. And the more qualifications and caveats and cavils you lard the idea down with, the less likely they are to do that.

Some will object that this means the goal is to make the idea provocative, and I would reply, yes! I want to provoke you to think about it. That is literally my entire goal.

And if the length of this thread is any indication, I appear to have succeeded 😆​

@jalefkowit @Gargron I kind of agree that we should make computer people think more about users, on the other hand, I have this vague feeling that making computers too easy to use might also be damaging: I think it would be helpful if people had a better sense of what it's possible to do with a computer and what not.; if people had a better grasp of what computers are good at and what they are not good at.

@Scmbradley @jalefkowit @Gargron It's complicated. I do all the tech support for my family and I see endless damage caused by a lack of basic understanding on how they work.

But when I try to gently educate them to make their lives easier in the future I get the brush-off, "That's nerd stuff, I just want to use it, not understand it."

They've trained me - mostly I just fix them now, without bothering to explain anything. 🤷

@bgardner @Scmbradley @gargron Yeah, nothing made today really takes this idea seriously. There's always the expectation that there will be someone technically-minded around to fill the gaps. And if the user isn't technically-minded, that work gets passed on to someone who is.

(Having been the designated "tech support guy" in my own family for decades now, I feel your pain 😆​ )


This. I am very annoyed with the current trend (hype cycle is a bit over) of "Digital Transformation".

Such a wrong choice of words. Transform? Who? Why? Going digital for the sake of doing so.

Meanwhile my poor old parents are completely lost with all the digital garbage thrown at them, where they are supposed to manage their *everything* now.

@jalefkowit @Gargron I actually disagree here. Not that I want to defend the opposite point of view, either, but...

We take about 1-2 years of school to teach the basics of writing. That's not so much grammar and spelling (formal language), but mastering the tool enough to reproduce letters.

We wouldn't dream of handing a circular saw over to anybody without instructions.

Driving, while very low barrier, still requires a license.

Part of that is just risk...

@jalefkowit @Gargron ... management for sure.

But part of it is that any tool takes time to learn how to use.

Why should computers be any different?

Why should they be easier to master when they have infinitely more applications than a hammer?

Expecting people to pick up a computer and get to work with it without prior knowledge is an amazing goal! It's also orders of magnitude beyond what we expect people to do with other tools.

@jalefkowit I think literacy is about agency. If people couldn't count, how would they know that employers pay them what they deserve, and landlords don't charge more than they're owed? Computer literacy is the same. When we get a generation of people who don't know what files are, we also get a generation of people who don't know that things can be copied, owned instead of rented, pirated, and who does that benefit? But at least they didn't have to learn anything about computers...

@Gargron @jalefkowit
How this sounds from the bleachers:

J: we shouldn't teach civics, we should teach civility.

E: Civics are undertaught.

J&E: The benefits of each are desired.

My unrequested take:

A; Data civics is an integral component of an educated population in the digital society we find ourselves.

B: HCI continues to slowly adapt.

Both could/should be improved & given higher focus.

Interestingly, decrying the loss of common knowledge of the File metaphor to this generation makes me all but snicker at how well point b is breezing right on past point a.


I think the point about the "not knowing what a file is" is not that computing design or interface metaphors should not change, but that these devices they are using still use files, and they still have to be copied from device to device.

But the interface is intentionally designed to keep the user ignorant of this, and to remove their control over the process.

Someone HAS that control. It just isn't you, anymore.

@Gargron @jalefkowit

@mrcopilot @Gargron @jalefkowit

I guess, to make the automotive comparison, it's a bit like going from "automatic transmissions" (removing a degree of control useful in very few situations, except to very experienced professional drivers) to "self-driving cars" (removing almost all control over the vehicle, except destination -- assuming no one else figures out how to hijack it, which you KNOW is coming).

Every digital transition is a renegotiation of power.

@TerryHancock @mrcopilot @gargron That last sentence needs to be engraved in stone somewhere.

It's why I think the important thing is to establish principles, rather than focusing on implementations. The technology will always be changing. What you need to be concerned about is, is it changing in ways that respect my principles? Or that undermine them?


Well. I value openness, user control/freedom, ease of learning, and erasure of barriers to those.

So, the most exciting UI trend for me was seeing the idea in the "Sugar" OS and "Blender 2.5+" of adding API documentation/access to UI widgets.

I think Sugar does this in a more complete way, but I've never actually used it, just watched a demo. Blender just added API help to tool tips.

@mrcopilot @Gargron

@jalefkowit @mrcopilot @Gargron

One flaw I'd like to see corrected is that Blender's tooltip API help favors the "ops" library over "objects", leading to a "verb oriented"/"procedural style", when it's often smarter or more powerful to use the "noun oriented"/"object oriented" approach in code.

But I'm really not sure how to do that. Unless maybe we brought back the OOP view in Blender and added the API help to that? (OOP was a node&link graph of Blender objects available in 2.4, IIRC).

@jalefkowit @mrcopilot @Gargron

IIRC, Sugar used a special widget and/or the "gear" key to retrieve the code for what you're looking at.

Seemed a cool idea. Of course it was targeted at OLPC, but I wondered what it'd be like to bring that to mainstream Linux desktop environments.

I do get a little tired of the choice between "knock off MS Windows" and "knock off Mac" that seem to be what designers are aiming for.

@TerryHancock @mrcopilot @gargron Sounds a little like some of the ideas in TempleOS:

(Of course it's hard to say for certain what the *intention* of anything in TempleOS is, because its sole author was deeply mentally ill, and died in 2018. All we can judge is the execution.)

@jalefkowit @mrcopilot @Gargron

I think means exist to do this now.

IIRC, you can create your own "node editor" in Blender with Python and make your own defined nodes and links.

And you can use the API to interrogate the object structure of your document, so it should be possible to write an extension that represents the whole document as a node tree and lets you edit the links.

But I don't know if I'd have time for such a project. Just one of those things I muse about sometimes.

@gargron I can respect this point, but I think it carries its own danger: that we see being safe online as something that only the computer literate are entitled to. ("If you didn't want to get ripped off, why didn't you pay attention in computer class?")

We don't have that expectation for things like numeracy. Being numerate is definitely HELPFUL for avoiding getting ripped off, but it's not the only layer of defense against it -- there's a whole system of laws and regulations designed to identify and punish employers who short-change their workers, landlords who overcharge their tenants, etc. (It doesn't always work, but that's a different conversation.)

There is a similar potential problem with making computer literacy about implementation details, like what a file is. It's entirely possible to imagine a computer without a filesystem (and many have). Would principles like ownership, right to copy, etc. not apply there? Of course they'd apply; they'd just have to be implemented in ways that make sense in that environment. But the important thing is the principle of ownership, not the way it was implemented.

@jalefkowit @Gargron

For an alternative perspective:

when it comes to the relationship between humans and the other powerful and dangerous machines in our lives - automobiles - the expectiation is VERY DEFINITELY that humans MUST learn "road literacy" at a very young age, must learn the complex and non-intuitive language of signals and crosswalks, and if they run across the road and are struck by a car, well, it's bad, but they brought that upon themselves and the driver is not at fault.

@jalefkowit @Gargron

Not saying necessarily that the human-automobile relationship is necessarily correct, but, that there's a strong precedent for this kind of "let the user beware" situation, and computers didn't fall out of nowhere into an agrarian civilization that knew nothing about machines.

I'd go further and say that this isn't even a machine thing: in hunter-gather civilization, there's an even *stronger* expectation that humans just have to respect the jungle, because it's there.

It must be both, computer literacy for everyone and ethics/UX/... for programmers. Computers are an infrastructure you should be able to use. This is obviously not going as well as it should and it seems logical to tackle this from more than one side.


This was basically the mantra of Apple for a generation, and the end result is the iPhone corporate control and tracking device that robs the user of all agency without extraordinary measures to "jailbreak" it (which might be some kind of "crime" in some places where the corporation can make it so?).

So... I've come to a deep distrust of this design philosophy.

I mean, I understand the urge. But there's a difference between simplifying and hiding complexity, I guess.


@TerryHancock @gargron See, this is a place where I think you have to look past the marketing language to see what's really going on.

You are correct that Apple's marketing language has always been about empowerment. But the Apple that produced the iPhone is the Apple of Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs was, let's not mince words here, an elitist. The iPhone is perhaps the most perfect expression of his philosophy, which was that computers could reach perfection if we could just keep filthy humans from touching them.

But that doesn't mean that simplicity necessarily implies elitism. There are other approaches. The original Palm devices, for instance, struck a much more user-friendly balance, while retaining a simplicity of use that nothing today can really match.

That is what I want people to think about -- how can we make things simple, without abandoning the principles we care about?

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