PC ignorance

Asides in my last column have generated a lot of e-mail. (“Viruses rely…” NWC, September 7, 2001, page 38)

“In New Zealand, we’re comfortable calling this decade the ‘noughties’ just as we had the eighties and the nineties before it.” – reader Geoff Pooch from – guess where? – New Zealand.

“And while we are on the subject, it really annoys me that everyone says ‘two thousand and one.’ Surely if we are consistent with the last century, it’s ‘twenty-oh-one.’ I will continue my personal crusade on this one.” – reader David Lowe who, curiously, is also from New Zealand.

This shows that it is all a question of interpretation. Whether you want to say the “aughties” or the “noughties” or “two thousand and one” instead of “twenty-oh-one,” the final say will be whatever becomes the accepted standard – the cultural norm – at least where the naming of things is concerned. And until we’re a little further into this decade, we won’t know what the norm will be…

The other, rather more meaty issue that arose out of the column was outlined by Saro Marcarian: “Your points regarding security are valid. Your points regarding poorly coded viruses are valid. You did, however, miss a great opportunity to alienate a bunch of people with the truth on why the current crop of poorly written viruses are so successful.”

Saro, you are so right – I did miss an opportunity to alienate, infuriate and offend a bunch of people. So here goes: The truth of why the current crop of poorly written viruses are so successful is simple – most users are working on autopilot. They use their computers as if they didn’t have to think about what they are doing so they open attachments and run programs without any thought of consequences. This is, of course, a big mistake.

Their blind faith in computers is a fine example of how the computer industry, aided and abetted by Hollywood and mainstream journalism, has let the myth of the “electronic brain” characterize the PC just as much as it characterized the mainframe.

The curious thing is that the average person knows full well that PCs can’t be trusted and won’t help them to do their work beyond some arbitrary and variable point that depends on what applications they have installed, what they have done with their computers in the last 24 hours and which way the wind is blowing. Even so, the old adage “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” applies.

The majority of people simply won’t learn about PCs and will be hugely offended when their PCs don’t behave as they expect. How often has your mother, father or spouse complained bitterly that yet again there is something wrong with their computer and how often have you, after hours of discussion and interrogation, discovered that they have the shift lock or scroll lock on (even though at the beginning of the conversation they vehemently denied it)?

The problem is that there’s no vocabulary that can efficiently and easily enable naive users to articulate their problems with computer hardware and software when they need to. While we might ascribe this lack of words to profound ignorance on the end user’s part (equivalent to trying to drive a car without understanding what role gasoline, turning indicators and air in the tires play), the real fault lies with PC operating systems that, at best, are focused on the user having a “good time” (in other words, lotsa chrome and features) but offer little help that goes beyond the absolute basics.

The fact is that the great unwashed – your users, colleagues, clients, co-workers, spouse and family (unless they are in the computer business) – are, in the main, totally untrainable when it comes to PCs. Until the industry produces a better mousetrap, or at least, a better user interface and more user-friendly services, PC ignorance can only grow deeper.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at nwcolumn@gibbs.com.