The sin of computer illiteracy

The sin of computer illiteracy

by Allen B. Downey

A while back I had dinner with two other professors, and we were complaining about the things people say when we tell them what we do.

One of the professors teaches Psychology. When he tells people what he does, with depressing predictability they ask, "Psychology? Are you analyzing me now?" He says it takes all the strength in his Superego to resist saying, "Yes. You're a jerk." or "No, I study neurons, not morons."

The other professor, who teaches Philosophy, said the comment he dreads the most is, "Philosophy? Well, I have a philosophy..." followed by an unending parody of the guy in The Graduate who never stops talking about plastics. This reaction is so common that he avoids telling people what he does at all. If they ask, he says, "I teach." And if they ask what, he says, "I teach college."

Finally the strain of listening to other people became too much and it was my turn to complain. And yes, I have a complaint.

Whenever I tell people I am a computer scientist, they seem compelled to tell me how little they know about computers. My favorite line: "Oh, Computers! I can't even turn one on!"

What is it about computers that makes people flaunt their ignorance? I never hear, "Oh, History! I don't even know who fought in the Spanish-American War!" or "Oh, English! I can't even complete a."

I have a theory. I think these people are seeking absolution. They have heard and read so many times that computers are the most important thing in the world. You can't get a job unless you know how to use one, or if you have a job, you'll lose it if you can't keep up with those computer-savvy wunderkinder.

According to this media-fueled panic, being computer-illiterate is not just career suicide. It is a moral failing.

You can hear the moral weight in the tone of the confessions. They say, "I know I should learn about computers" the same way they say, "I know I should floss" or "I know I shouldn't have fried foods for lunch."

Look. Computers are tools. If they are useful for you, for the things you do, then use one. If you are getting along just fine without one, or if all you do is play Solitaire and read email, that's ok, too. Really. It doesn't make you a bad person. I, High Priest of Computer Science, forgive you for the sin of not knowing about computer.

All I ask, in exchange for this blanket absolution, is that the next time you meet a Computer Scientist, you just say, "It's nice to meet you," and skip the flagellation.