I BEG YOUR PARDON? - The case against computer literacy.

Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 07/82 - scanned

David Tebbutt explains why he doesn't believe in computer literacy.

For the last 6000 or so days I have been kidding myself that I believe in computer literacy. Worse, I have diligently preached and even practised what I've been preaching. As a programmer I was always ready to explain bits, bytes, Boolean algebra and flowcharts to anyone who'd care to listen. Later on, as a system designer, I'd spend hours trying to convince reluctant users that their lives would be greatly enriched if only they would adapt their way of working so that it was more in tune with the requirements of my latest system. As a systems analyst, I had a wonderful opportunity to examine and criticise some of the far-out manual methods of my clients. All the time I was convinced that the elegance of computer-enforced logic couldn't fail to make a convert out of the most stubborn user, if only he'd give it a try.

As a data processing manager, I virtually had the power to dictate the way in which users worked. In the early days much input was through punched cards, so it was simply a case of forcing the necessary input information into the 80-column limitation of this medium. Since alphabetic information was hard to unscramble, it also meant that a lot of codes had to be used. Still, if the users wanted the benefits, the argument ran, they simply had to adapt to the requirements of the computer. Then along came visual display units. Together with the ability to allow the users to work in a more natural way, they also brought a chance for them to learn to type and ruin their eyesight.

Not satisfied with this, I then embarked on 1000 or so days of teaching others how they, too, could bring the benefits of `computer literacy' to their unsuspecting users. My dream then, as I remember, was a terminal on everyone's desk with instant access to all relevant company information. Computer staff from all over the world were attending the courses and then rushing back to implement systems which would bring the greatest benefits to their users. During this time I also learnt an awful lot of new tricks, so I eagerly returned to the coal-face where I spent another 800 or so days implementing a number of elegant systems which matched the companies' informational needs but possibly totally alienated some users who, up `til then, had probably managed brilliantly with an assortment of wall charts, felt-tipped pens, forms and biros.

Somewhere along the way I discovered micros. A quick look at my company's five-year plan told me that micros didn't even get a look in so I decided to move to pastures new. My dream of a computer on every desk was about to become a reality. For a year or so I devoured every piece of information I could on these microcomputers. To a man, my colleagues thought I had gone off my trolley and when I announced that I was to launch a new microcomputer magazine they tried to convince me that no one would ever read such a thing. Just after I resigned, PCW came up for sale so the launch of a new magazine became the relaunch of PCW.

I used to lie awake at nights thinking about the number of new `computer literati' being made. We watched PCW's sales rise from 25,000 to 50,000 then to 75,000. The magazine thickened, and the tide of information flowed through the editorial department, causing great stresses and strains but creating an enormous sense of satisfaction too. On my first visit to the American West Coast, I met Bob Albrecht and Ramon Zamora who had recently started a project there called ComputerTown, USA! This involved taking computers into the local library and introducing them, free of charge, to all interested members of the public. ComputerTown's stated aim was to `Bring Computer Literacy to the Entire Community' - in this case Menlo Park, California, a town of 27,000 souls.

This project really caught my imagination, so, about six months later ComputerTown UK! was launched in PCW. Now there are 30 or so ComputerTowns up and down the country, all manned by volunteers and all prepared to welcome any member of the public who expresses an interest in computing. ComputerTown acts as the first step for many towards the removal of the computer fear which seems to afflict so many people, probably as a direct result of the awful systems that have been implemented in the past.

After 800 happy days with PCW, I left to become a software publisher. I still carried on writing articles and coordinating ComputerTown in my ever diminishing spare time but my main energies became focused on Caxton and its software authors. Now, I thought, I can spread computer literacy throughout the world. I'll publish programs which people will want to use, which they'll enjoy and which will actually achieve something worthwhile for them. I'll make documentation so thorough that the user will be totally unaware of his transition from computer illiterate to computer literate.

After 100 days or so into Caxton, I received a letter from one Alan Waring, inviting me to give a talk on `The Importance of Computer Literacy'. Two things bothered me about this. One was I didn't have a clue what to say and the other was that the title sounded awfully pompous. This made me feel uneasy so I rang Alan and he promised to change the title to something more suitable.

Another 100 days went by and I got a reminder from Alan that I would be giving a talk on `My Views on Computer Literacy' - 20 days hence. Ah! That's better, I thought, I can now say anything I like. Then I sat down to list my views on computer literacy and, do you know what? After a lot of thinking and a lot of writing, I realised that I don't believe in computer literacy. I don't think I ever have. We were all being swept along so fast by the so-called `microrevolution' that I don't think we had too much time to stop and question what we were doing. `Computer Literacy' was a good-sounding label so we preached it here, there and everywhere - but I think very few of us paused to examine exactly what we meant by it. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the term meant something different to each person using it.

Well now that I've `seen the light', it's time for a bit of clarification. No more shall I talk of Joe Public becoming computer literate. That's strictly for programmers, engineers, designers and documentation writers - all those, in fact, who really need to know something about computers. Hobbyists, too, clearly fall into this category. From now on I shall be preaching a new doctrine - that of making computer systems `People Literate'. That, in my view, is what many of us have believed in all this time. We were seduced by a label and no-one stopped to question it until we were almost too deep in its embrace.

`People Literate' computer systems will have a number of hallmarks. They will be very easy to use, presenting no more barriers to the user than, say, the average washing machine. The user will be prompted and guided by instructions on the screen or, at worst available on the display at the touch of a button. Wherever possible the key that the user has to press will remind him or her of the function about to be performed. Clear complete documentation should be provided to help the user get to know the system and to learn about things like security measures and recovery procedures if something goes wrong. Ideally, the user should rarely need to look at manuals when actually using the system. I'm sure that you will have all sorts of ideas on what constitutes a `people literate' computer system. Why not share your views with other readers through the `Communications' section in this magazine?.

Forget computer literacy if you want to change the world. Let's make computers 'People Literate' instead.