The burden of digital technology (Robert Henderson)

Robert Henderson

Note: I take issue with Robert on this one. Computers have made me able to do things faster than I could when I was young. They have also allowed me to do things I could never otherwise have done. Every so often, I find something new that computers have enabled, and my delight is only limited by the reflection that I should have known about this when it first became available. I think of Google Books, which I discovered by accident, and which allows me to own books published in the 17th century, books that I might previously have been able to access only by going to the British Library or the Bodleian. Computers have transformed my life for the better, and I do not find them very hard to use.

As for the young, my own daughter has had no trouble with digital technology. She has a tablet, and is increasingly able to do things on it without my help. She can do Google searches for her homework, and she has a restricted e-mail account, and is able to correspond with her Slovak relatives.

Doubtless, many people have problems with computers. But software interfaces are increasingly easy to use. When I used Wordperfect 5.1, I had to remember dozens of formatting commands that are long since obsolete, now everything can be done via the menu or intuitive keystrokes.

Nor are computers being used effectively to enslave us. Until the present century, governments had an almost unlimited ability to lie to us because of their grip on the mass-media. That ability has fallen to the ground. The compensating ability they have acquired, to gather vast amounts of data, is not really any compensation, as the resulting flood of data cannot be processed.

I love computers. I love digital technology. We are living through a revolution with will make us rich. Before then, it will make us free. SIG

Technological change has been making increasingly severe demands on human beings for around 300 years. There was change before then of course, but it was slow and most people could live their lives without having to adapt to radically new ways of living.

Things began to speed up as the Industrial Revolution began and an argument can be made that the century 1815 and 1914 saw more radical technological qualitative change than any generation before or since. But that change was the difference between living in a still largely pre-industrial society (in 1815) and an industrial society in its early middle age (in 1914). Moreover, the change did not actually require the vast majority of the population to master complicated machines at their work, let alone in their own homes.

In 1914 the most complicated machine most people had to operate was probably the telephone and vast swathes of the population would not even have had to go that far into the world of technology. Not only that, because machines then were either mechanical or part mechanical, i.e., not electronic, just looking at the way a machine was made often allowed the intelligent observer to have a fair guess at how it worked and to see what had gone wrong if it malfunctioned. Even work-related machines which required skilled operators, such as machine lathes, were not fundamentally difficult to understand, although the dexterity required to operate them often took time to acquire.

Things remained essentially the same until the advent of personal computers and the widespread use of digital technology. Machines became more and more predominant in advanced societies but they were not, in most instances, complicated to use. This was particularly true of those machines used in private life. Telephones just required the user to dial; washing machines had a start button and nothing else; televisions and radios simply needed switching on; cars were simply designed to travel. Then came digital technology.

Computers are like no other machine ever invented. They have a unique combination of an unparalleled public and private use and a central importance to economic activity and public administration. The potential penalties for the failure of these machines are vastly greater than for any other piece of technology. Not only can an immediate application of a computer be ended, as can happen with all machines, but computer users also risk losing networking capacity and, if they have not useable backed up copies of their computer data, the loss of their entire records and conceivably the loss of the means to continue their business. Computer users are also vulnerable to outside sabotage though hacking and viruses. No other machine has ever exposed a society to such risks through its ubiquity and vulnerability to outside influences.

These machines are also vastly more demanding of time than any other machine ever used by the general public. To master computers to the degree where a person does not lie helplessly in the hands of experts is a demanding and continuing task. It is unlikely that many could or would manage it without making computers their profession. In fact, even supposed computer professionals are only knowledgeable in their specialist areas: a hardware specialist has no deep knowledge of software and vice versa, while programmers long ago lost any detailed understanding of an entire program. It is also true that many self described IT experts are anything but. They get by with a small amount of IT knowledge because of the general level of ignorance amongst the general public and the fact that most problems can be overcome by re-booting or by reinstalling programs.

The computer age is a stunningly recent phenomenon. Most people even in the West would not have used a computer before 1985. Probably a majority had not done so by 1990. By the end of the 1980s the nearest most would have got to a computer would probably have been bank ATM machines. The internet was esoteric and laborious, the web barely more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. Even in the world of employment computers were still used sparingly.

As with computers actually called computers, so with the other machines which cause much grief now. The mobile phone was a status symbol and the size of a brick, while landline phones were still phones boringly restricted to simply phoning rather than mini-computers with a tendency to bemuse. Microwaves had a simple choice of power. Refrigerators did not offer to remind you of what needed to be ordered. TVs tended to simply work when switched on.

In the past 25 years all this has dramatically changed. We are in a world in which computers are absolutely integral to business and public administration and they are now the norm rather than the exception in homes. For most people, it is literally impossible to escape them. Worse, they have become ever more complex to use and invade ever more of our lives as microprocessors are inserted into the most unlikely things such as clothes. Machines generally are more demanding. To use This has profound implications for people both in high IQ and low IQ societies.

Even to use computers at a low level of expertise, such as using a word processor to its full capacity and sending email efficiently , requires a degree of concentration and knowledge with which a substantial minority are uneasy. More demanding activities such as spreadsheet use or the construction of a database are inaccessible to the majority. Most people have only a minimal knowledge of the capacities of their operating system . This lack of expertise afflicts the young as well as the old, which suggests that this is going to be a permanent problem because the young have grown up with computers.

Of the commonly used programmes search engines are particularly interesting from the point of view of IQ. Everyone who uses a computer can use a search engine at some level, but the skill with which they use search engines varies massively. This is unsurprising because the search engine is the commonly used program which most calls upon IQ related abilities. It relies not simply on knowledge but also problem solving. To perform a function in a word processor requires the user to apply inert knowledge, go to this menu, use this function etc. To use a search engine efficiently for anything but a simple search for a certain website requires the ability to formulate questions in the most pertinent way. I never ceased to be amazed how at many people use search engines ineptly, often comically so. I should not be amazed of course because the ability to do so is IQ dependent.

The implications for those with a low IQ are these: the lower the IQ, the more the person will struggle in an advanced society because the use of computers is increasingly inescapable. In a high IQ society the low IQ individual will struggle but the society as a whole will manage. In a low IQ society there will simply not be the IQ firepower to sustain a society based on digital technology. In a high IQ society the low IQ part of the population will be left increasingly in a technological no man’s land, unable to competently use the technology but forced to use it simply to live.

The constant learning process

Personal computing began in the mid seventies. A person starting then would have had to learn the BASIC programming language. By the early eighties they would have been using DOS. By 1990s Windows expertise was necessary. Since 1990 successive editions of Windows have varied considerably from the previous version requiring further learning.

What goes for operating systems applies also to most other programs, which when they are upgraded often bear surprisingly little resemblance to the version prior to them. Certainly, if one moves from an old program to a version which has been uprated twice, the chances are that knowledge of the original program will be of little use in understanding the new one.

Apart from the effort needed to constantly learn new programs and to attend to such things as installations of software and hardware, the other great drawback of computers is the amount of time which can be spent on maintenance. It is all too easy to find a day or two slip by just sorting out a single relatively simple computer problem or learning how to use a new program.

The nature of what is to be learned

The burden of learning is especially heavy because of the nature of that which is to be learned. This is what might be termed dead information. There is no intrinsic interest in what is to be learned. It is merely a means to an end. To operate a program all that is needed is a knowledge of the menus and function keys. That is precisely the type of information which is least palatable to the normal human mind. Hence, it is the least easy to learn for most people. The computer is in effect forcing human beings to act like computers, something utterly alien to them.

Intelligence is of little use on its own. Computers are information driven machines. Put the most intelligent man in the world before a computer and he will be utterly helpless if he has no computer experience. Even if the man has some computer experience, he will be as incapable of using a completely unfamiliar type of program as the dullard.

The substitution of function for intellect

That computers are function rather than intelligence driven is objectively demonstrated by the fact that all of what might be called the administrative operations of a computer – file management, loading of programs etc – could be done by a computer program.

When I watch the young using computers, obvious or disguised in the shape of phones and the like, I get a feeling of deep unease. They so obediently pull down menus and select options that I wonder at the difference between them and a robot. The machine is driving the human being at least as much as the human being is driving the machine; brute machine functionality is replacing intellect.

There is only so much any human being can learn, both in terms of time and mental impetus. If increasing amounts of both are required by computers simply to operate them, where will that leave intellectual development? Worse, will the ability to operate machines become to be seem as the most important activity of human beings?

The myth of youthful expertise

It is true that those who have grown up with computers are more comfortable with the machines than those who came to them in adult life – the latter still comprise, more than 50 per cent of the population. It is worth noting. However, the idea that the young generally have any substantial understanding of computers is dubious going on simply wrong. A recent survey by the global market-research company Synovate, reported:

“We found that people tended to fit into one of three categories: 27 per cent are what we call ‘cybernauts’ – people who like to be ahead of the game in terms of technology. However, the majority, 53 per cent, are ‘average Joes’. They don’t love technology per se, but view it as a facilitator – it helps them to communicate or entertain themselves. They tend to use it in quite a functional way, such as emailing, banking or shopping online. Then there are 20 per cent who we describe as ‘digital dissidents’, meaning they actively dislike using technology and avoid it wherever possible.” Daily Telegraph 30 6 2007 The myth of the MySpace generation.

The young know how to use the internet and web, can work a word processor and use programs which really interest them. But let their computer develop a fault which renders Windows unstable or unusable or a piece of hardware fails, and they are, in most cases, as helpless the generations which did not grow up with computers.

What the young do have which older people do not have is group knowledge. A schoolchild of today can call on the computer knowledge of their peer group and the assistance of teachers. Those a little older who are in work still have their peer group to help them if they get stuck. In addition, if they work for a large employer they can call on the expertise of the employer’s IT department or service contractors.

Computers have only been in schools since the mid eighties. Anyone over the age of forty (arguably, over the age of 35) will not have a peer group on whom they can call for assistance with computers (and other machines) because almost all of those they know well will be of their approximate age – few people have close friendships with those who are much younger than themselves – and the people who are their age will have little computer experience or knowledge. The best they can hope for is assistance from their children if they have any, and then it is pot luck as to how computer competent those children are and how willing they are to help the parent. If an older person has no compliant computer literate children and does not work for a large employer, he or she will be utterly isolated from the knowledge needed to deal with even basic computer developments.

The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke pointed out a good few years ago that there comes a point with technology when it became indistinguishable from magic for all but the initiates. The dangers of that are obvious: for that which is not generally understood gives the few who do understand a power over those who do not. That potentially gives private corporations and governments a great stick with which to beat their customers and citizens into submission, either for profit or political power.

Where the technology is as vital and central to a society as computers have become, there is the further and more fundamental risk of society reaching a state where the technology can no longer be either properly maintained or controlled.

More prosaically, in societies which have the capacity to embrace the ever growing potential digital technology, those without the means to gain Internet access or the ability to use computers generally will be left stranded as more and more of everyday life is dependent upon people having the ability and opportunity to use the Internet. Already there are few large organisations, private and public, which are not making strenuous efforts to force anyone who wishes to interact with them to do so through the Internet. This trend will continue if nothing is done. There are also developments which within ten to twenty years may have driven advanced societies to do away with cash and trap everyone into a world in which the means of living are dependent upon the reliability of digital systems and the honesty and goodwill of those who control them. Imagine a world in which payment could only be made through an electronic transfer using a card or smartphone and the bank servicing your electronic broke down? Or suppose you lost your card or had it stolen. How would you survive?

In a democratic society politicians should be addressing the very real dangers to everyone and the unreasonable burdens being placed on those who simply cannot come to terms with the technology, the old, the disabled, the simply not very bright. This is simply not happening. God help us if those with power and influence do not begin to address the problem soon.

9 thoughts on “The burden of digital technology (Robert Henderson)

  1. I think the long term trend is for computers to become ever easier for all to use. Does anyone find Windows more difficult to use than DOS?

    Knowledge is not political power and all on the division of labour have it to some extent anyway.

    Profit is not related to political power but rather to serving the public.

    What problems Robert Henderson sees democracy [which is intrinsically totalitarian anyway] can solve is not one iota clear. He writes as if he prefers crass politics to liberty.

    • DOS was indeed more demanding but then the things which computers could do then were pretty limited. The number of commands absolutely necessary to master was small, copy, delete, merge etc. Moreover, there were DOS managers like XTREE which made all the DOS functions simple to use.
      Today the catalogue of work which computers will undertake is huge and having to learn ever more complicated programmes becomes and ever greater burden especially as one gets older. I am not far short of 70 and frankly I have had enough of having to constantly learn new programs and the world is being increasingly structured so I or anyone else has no choice about using computers because government services, the privatised utilities and any other large private corporation or not-for-profit entity are increasingly only accessible through the Internet. It is this enforced use of IT that any libertarian should reject.

  2. Rich and free. Both of them could be argued illusory desires. Once one becomes rich it’s only a matter of time before the desire to become richer takes over. There are no limits to the amount of wealth most human beings crave for once started. Only the poor think that they would not be like that. Could not possibly be so selfish and grasping. It’s probably true for many people but I’m yet to meet a rich man, or woman, that fits the description.


    Professor Jack (Enoch) Powell laughed at the very idea of believing freedom could ever be achieved. The only true freedom he ever enjoyed was within the limitations set down when serving in the armed forces. I understood perfectly well what he was saying. Throw off all decision making, all responsibility for what one does and, to some extent; all that one thinks; where one goes; what clothes to wear; what food to eat and so forth. He enjoyed knowing precisely where the limits where set and what time to get up and go back to bed. That was what he thought being free meant. Being cocooned from the reality of both life and mind meant real freedom to him and, I suspect, to millions more.

    I think that happiness should be strived for. It can be more easily achieved.

    Since being a boy I’ve collected photographs – mainly Victorian albumen prints. One is a 1877 photograph taken in Lincs of a farmer described in writing being ‘the happiest man that ever lived’. Judging by his general demeanour, I wouldn’t argue against it. His smile alone conveying a thousand words. Life was extremely arduous in his day yet happiness could still be found in humble surroundings, living among those who owned little ambition – other than of course to enjoy the limited time they’d be allowed to spend on Earth.

    I too enjoy using my PC – especially the access to music via uTubes. But it doesn’t make me feel any more or any less free. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any richer. And more often than not, I feel sadder when listening to music alone. Music needs to be listened to in groups I imagine. A social activity well away from electrical gadgets. Gadgets may also be helping to speed up the Earth’s total destruction. What price then freedom and wealth Sean?

  3. Robert makes a good point about software systems being complex in a distinct way and not just continuous with previous innovations.

    A mechanical gearbox or electronic amplifier circuit may be relatively convoluted and subtle in design, but the number of distinct states the system can be in is usually very modest, by computing standards. If a widget can only ‘on’ or ‘off’, it can be tested fairly easily. Does it perform it’s function when turned ‘on’ ? Does it stop when turned ‘off’. There are only two states that require testing. Adding extra controls or even a small amount of memory to a system multiplies the number of states it can be in, a situation that rapidly gets out of hand.

    As I understand it, the ideal software component is one that matches the simplicity of a mechanical or electrical ‘widget’. It has a clear purpose, which it fulfills efficiently. When connected to other components it continues to behave without side effects. When stressed or broken, it makes an alarming noise. If the manufacturer has bothered to label all the controls and document it’s internal construction, that is a bonus.

  4. I am so grateful to have been allowed to live and grow to adulthood in what is probably the Dawn Of Computing. My verdict would go probably along Sean’s lines in his pre-amble.

    Yes, I agree, to do things using computers in the late-70s (ugh!) and the early 80s was hard (ish.) The manuals weighed as much as a condensed encylopaedia. The tech-staff on the other end of the phone would say things like … “er, haven’t you read the relevant chapter of the manual about the “edlin” command, then?” Evincing some slightly irritated surprise at being called-up at all.

    The more transparent and magic the experience of little computers gets, the happier a man I shall be when i die.

    I remember a line written in “Byte” in the early 90s, by Jerry Pournelle. …
    “I just love little computers…don’t you?”

  5. I’ve spent 45 years working in the computer and software industry, and while obviously I personally haven’t had too much difficulty learning new ways of doing things, I do agree with several of Robert’s concerns.

    For example, Microsoft Word 2003 was the easiest (in my opinion) word processor I’ve used. 2007 is harder to use, and 2010 harder still, because features I used to know well have moved, or work differently, or both. With browsers it’s even worse than that; there seems to be a kind of planned obsolescence built in to them, which I find very annoying. The Internet Explorer which came with my machine only 7 years ago now doesn’t work with many websites. And Google will soon stop supporting the Chrome with which I replaced it, because they will no longer support updates to Windows Vista systems.

    Then there was the Windows 8 fiasco, where whole ranges of machines – even desktops – had a user interface which was really only appropriate for mobile phones.

    I confess that, just when many companies and, particularly, government departments want to force us to use e-commerce (for example, by refusing to accept cheque payments), I myself am moving away from it. The biggest problem for me is having to enter a password for everything. All the password validation rules are different, so all the passwords have to be different. This means that anything I use less often than once a month always requires me to request a password reset. I’ve given up using my PayPal account for just that reason. And, having bought 100% of my travel online for a decade and more, I’m now going back, at least some of the time, to the travel agent.

    I’m also surprised by the reaction I get when I tell people I don’t carry a mobile phone. It’s usually along the lines of, “what a great idea, I wish I could do the same!” My No.1 reason for this is that I don’t like to be interrupted; and my No. 2 reason is that, having unusually large and clumsy finger pads, I have to use a special tool (a bit like the rubber on the blunt end of a pencil) in order to operate a phone at all.

    Overall, I have to agree with Sean and David that the computer has been a huge benefit to me personally and to humanity in general. But as I said, Robert makes several good points. I’m comfortable with change, if there’s a benefit to me from it; but even I am not comfortable with change for the sake of change, which is where Microsoft and others appear too often to be trying to take us.

    • I moved up to Word 2010 a couple of years ago, when something wouldn’t stay formatted in the 2003 version. It took a little getting used to, but now suits me very well.

      In general, I find it useful to upgrade to every other version of Windows. I stuck with DOS till 3.1 came out. I stuck with that till 98 came out. I then moved to XP, 7 and now 10, with great pleasure.

      Microsoft has made me more productive than I could otherwise have been. I took my daughter into a charity shop the other day, to show her a typewriter that was on sale. I put in a sheet of paper and began bashing away, pointing out as I went how the keys were attached by wires to the type heads. It took me back a very long time, to when I was young, and had to produce all my manuscripts on a 1950s desktop machine I had liberated from a condemned building. But the nostalgia was purely for youth, not for the awful technology I had no alternative to using.

      The digital revolution has been a blessing I’m delighted to enjoy. And Microsoft has led much of that revolution. I look forward to more of the same.

  6. Good essay, but I wonder if the critique should be of technology per se or of the way the digital world is economically structured. The solution to a lot of the above critique could be for people to independently develop their own technology, free of the profit motive, either as artisans within the existing economy, or on some co-operative basis. It seems obvious that within the context of a profit-based system, there is going to be an incentive for individuals and corporations to own capital and knowledge and sell it to the market. I’m uncomfortable with using things that I don’t know how to dismantle and reassemble or troubleshoot in a sophisticated way, as it does put you in the hands of ‘experts’, and as someone else mentioned above, I suspect most of this technology has in-built obsolescence. But there is a solution to that, which is to understand the social basis of production and come up with an alternative. Why not build your own computer? Why not build your own satellite?

    I’m in two minds about computer technology itself. I share some of the existential insecurities of contributors above. I like the convenience of technology, but I dislike the aesthetics and the controlling nature of it. If I’m writing a story or a poem or something like that, I prefer to bash it out on an old-fashioned typewriter in a certain room of the house, or write in a notebook. But for business purposes, or reading blogs and websites like this, I use a computer. I think the worldwide web and the internet are also amazing inventions and we haven’t yet realised anything like their true potential, but it’s also a trap into which people can devote their lives and not really achieve anything. I also refuse to use mobile phones – I hate them, and only own one reluctantly, which stays on my desk as I don’t carry it around.

  7. Many interesting points but none of you has addressed the problem of those who cannot come to terms with IT. What of the millions of people too old to have had any experience of computers in their youth and who find computers terrifying? What of those who are disabled in ways which make using computers impossible, for example, many blind people? What about those who are simply lacking in the intellect required to operate them? What about technophobes? What about those who are too poor to have the Internet? How are all these people to survive in a world which increasing expects and indeed demands that services and goods may only be obtained online?

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