People should have a basic understanding of the prevalent technologies.

Tim O'Reilly, recently gave a keynote that touches on a point that I've been thinking about for a while - there are a lot of software startups, and a lot of social software, but not too much focus (or perhaps I just haven't seen much of a focus) on people using or creating software (or technical skills in general) to really try to improve the lives of people around them.

Maybe I'm just not looking in the right spots.

There's a couple large points here, and it might get kinda rambly so bear with me (or just slap a TL:DR on it and ignore.)

Computers are arguably the most important things in most peoples lives, regardless of whether or not they realize it. We rely on computers, and more specifically networks, to drive a lot of our business - chances are, if you get a paycheck, there's a computer somewhere in that process. I'd guess that it's probably the case that your paycheck is reliant on a computer or set of computers.

However, most people do not have even a basic understanding of how computers work. It can be argued that most people don't have a need to, but I would disagree. Most people that I've met know how a car works, on a high level of abstraction - they know how to operate one, they know that there is an engine that works by burning fuel, and they probably know that the ignition of the fuel pushes a piston down. They probably know basically how the brakes work, etc. On the other hand, most people do not know basic things about how computers work. They do not know that there is basically a whole bunch of abstraction / translation layers that take streams of 1 and 0s and turn them into applications. They don't know how computers communicate over a network, even at a very high level of abstraction. They don't understand that the programming languages that people use to make applications are basically descriptions of methodology. They don't understand how the applications and services they use the most work.

Take google for instance. Google is the de facto search engine at this point in time, and it's what a lot of people (myself included much of the time) turn to first when trying to find something. If you have a very basic understanding of how google finds pages, it makes it a lot easier to search for things. If you know that what you want to search for tends to be words that you would expect to appear in the page you're looking for, and not necessarily the actual topic or specific thing that you're looking for, it's a lot easier to get good search results. Granted, google is very good at returning relevant results to people regardless of their understanding of how their search works - but the point still stands.

People need to understand this stuff, at least on a basic level, for a plethora of reasons.

Another example: I have had to explain to multiple people that you do not need to purchase a wireless internet package to get wireless internet. You can purchase whatever kind of internet service you like, and have it be a wireless connection, all it requires is that you have a wireless router. People are getting ripped off by ISPs selling wireless packages, it's silly.

Right now, we are in a wierd situation, at least in the US. The economy is bad and getting worse, and we have an (unfortunately) rather poorly educated populous (in my opinion). The education system is largely pretty horrible, and we have a culture that encourages people to not apply critical thought.

On the bright side, we have this internet technology that enables us to share knowledge faster and better than ever before. Almost anything that you want to learn about, you can learn about with the power of the internet. I know this, and probably so does anyone reading this, but the sheer vastness of the information available to people is largely unknown to the average person.

I'd guess that if people knew how much information was available to them (and on a larger scale, just how rewarding learning is), that the worlds - and specifically the U.S.s - situation would change for what I would consider to be "the better" fairly quickly. There is, at this point in time, practically infinite ways for people to collaborate with each other to do anything from learning something to providing for their basic living needs.

To attempt to get people interested in teaching themselves, and hopefully get people to start being more interested in what they can do to make their lives (and the lives of those around them) easier, I intend to start something of a "zine" - a self-published magazine. I'm going to collect some of the info freely available online, and do some writing myself, print it out, and go put in on people's doorsteps.

I figure the "first issue" will have some basic information on how computers work, how computers communicate over a network, some information about open source software and why it's a good thing, some information about Ubuntu linux, perhaps some info on how to tell if your ISP is throttling your data or modifying your pages. I encourage people to do the same if they think it's a good idea (or perhaps we could collaborate on content?). I'll have an email address set up that people can send an email to if they'd be interested (or entirely disinterested) in recieving further issues, and also include a request for articles on how to do something (really anything DIY) from anyone who's technically inclined.

I'm not sure if this will be effective at all, but it's better than doing nothing and it can't hurt.


  1. It's an interesting idea. I'm not sure that the problem is that people are unaware of the information available online. I suspect the problem is motivation, a much more difficult problem than awareness. To learn online, people must be autodidacts to some degree. Autodidacticism is a wonderful quality; how can this be encouraged? Some people think that schools crush everyone's natural desire to learn. On one level, I hope that's true, because that means the problem can be solved. But maybe autodidacticism is innate or fixed in some other way.

    Regardless of these results, I wish you the best of luck with this project. It is of course better to do something. Like a startup, the initial plan might not be the plan you end up with, but it might lead you to something effective.

  2. @michael - I'm not really sure if the problem is so much that people are unaware of the information available online as opposed to motivation either, but I am pretty sure that a lot of people are largely unaware of how easy it is to find such information.

    People not wanting to learn for themselves is something that has a whole lot of causes. I don't think autodidaticism is strictly innate, although I could be wrong - I think that the environment one is in when they are young goes a long way towards influencing one's tendency towards autodidaticism.

    With this particular project (which, as it turns out, is really hard to find the time for right now), I hope that putting stuff in print form will make some people more likely to read it. Also, I might meet some people who live near me who think the same way, which would be awesome. I'd also like to try to get the people on my block sharing a few internet connections, as everyone around here is rather poor.

    With regards to the school system crushing everyone's desire to learn, it depends on the school - however, I would say that the school system in the states, as a whole, does indeed crush peoples desire to learn. People end up equating learning with rote memorization, which is no good.

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