What It Means to be Tech-Savvy

Mandi Farah's picture

The other day, my English teacher was having trouble with her projector. “You kids are all so good with technology, someone help me fix this,” she cried in desperation. I watched as not one, not two, but five other students in my class tried and failed to fix the connection between her laptop and the projector before I walked up to the machine’s remote control and hit the power button. A little red light blinked on, and after about 10 seconds, the projector cast an image of my teacher’s desktop onto the screen. I looked over to the small crowd huddled around my teacher’s computer and gave them a look that said, “Really?

We hear it all the time: “Kids these days are so good with technology,” “Computing just comes naturally to these kids; they’ve grown up with electronics,” and, my personal favorite, “Jonny should be an engineer, he sits in front of his computer all day at home.” But the reality is that not all teenagers are digital natives. In fact, despite the abundance of laptops, tablets, game consoles, and smart phones in our lives, most kids have trouble using computers - the same is applicable to many adults. Now, before I go on, let me explain what I mean when I say, “Most kids have trouble using computers.” Here are some examples:

  • My friend complains about her laptop, explaining that it is running very slowly and keeps shutting down. The laptop is literally screaming, the processor fan is running as fast as possible and the case is burning hot. I run Task Manager to see that the CPU is running at 100% despite the only application open being Microsoft Word. I look at what processes are running and there are a lot of them, hogging the CPU and RAM. I can’t terminate a single one. ‘What anti-virus are you using?’ I ask, only to be told that she doesn’t like using anti-virus because she had heard it would slow down her computer. I hand back the laptop and tell her that it’s infected. She asks what she should do about it, and I suggest she reinstalls Windows. She looks at me blankly. She can’t use a computer.
  • I’m sitting in the tech-ed room during my free period, doing homework while my advisor teaches a CAD class. A boy in the class raises his hand. ‘My computer won’t switch on,’ he says, with an air of desperation that implies he’s tried every conceivable way of making the thing work. My advisor walks over and and switches on the monitor, and the screen flickers to life, displaying the Windows login screen. He can’t use a computer.
  • During the same class, another student puts his hand up. He is worried because he thinks he has a virus on his computer. I take a glance at his screen. Displayed in his web-browser is what appears to be an XP dialogue box warning that his computer is infected and offering free malware scanning and removal tools. He’s on a Windows 7 machine. He can’t use a computer.

Just knowing how to use some software, particularly web-apps, doesn’t mean you are a computer expert. Many of my friends (myself included) know how to use Facebook and Twitter. We can use YouTube and Pinterest. We even know how to use Word and PowerPoint and Excel. Ask us to install a new operating system, and we’re lost. Ask us to upgrade our hard-drive or our RAM, and we break out in a cold sweat. Ask us what “https” means and why it is important, and we’ll look at you as if you’re speaking Klingon. Moreover, there many that know even less. They click “OK” in dialogue boxes without reading the message. They choose passwords like “qwerty1234.” They shut-down by holding in the power button until the monitor goes black. They’ll leave themselves logged in on a computer and walk out of the room. If a program is unresponsive, they’ll click the same button repeatedly until it crashes altogether.

There are a narrow range of people that I know whom I would actually call “technically savvy.” Those are the small group of kids in my school’s robotics club and a few TSA-ers that have picked up programming or web development and can strip a computer down to the bare bones, replace a motherboard, and reinstall an operating system.

But what’s the big deal anyway? OSX and Windows have become so easy to use that any technologically illiterate person can “compute” to their heart’s content on any machine they choose. The thing that eludes most of the population is just how much computers are a part of our lives. They give us access to clothes, food, entertainment, work, utilities, banks, and politics. They allow criminals to steal our data, money, and identities. As Cory Doctorow put it, “There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears.If we don’t understand computers, we don’t understand most of what we use. And we really don’t  want to be ignorant to that much of our own lives.

So let’s make an effort to be digitally literate. Let’s take tech-ed classes (real ones, not the ones where you learn how to build a toy car out of three different kinds of wood). Let’s learn how to program. Let’s use Linux. Let’s try to replace our processors. Let’s become tech-savvy.