The more I teach my pupils about the internet, computers, cyber security and related topics, the more concerned I get. Granted, when it comes to computers, I am a comparative late starter. When I was the age my older pupils are in (i.e. 30 years ago) there was a sizable number of pupils in my class who had computers (mostly the famed C64 and the Amiga 500). I was not one of them. But most of the boys and some of the girls at least had some interest in computers. Some even taught themselves BASIC or PASCAL. And I lived in a rural area, we were not high-tech.
The smartphone generation
These days, all my kids have at least one smartphone (with a magnitude more RAM each than we had hard disk space combined), a tablet and most also have a console but very few have a laptop or a PC. And while virtually all of them are on the web constantly, few, if any, have any idea about the how and the why.
I know I am coming across like a grumpy old man now, I am sorry, it is not my intention and believe me, I am not. I am not about to say the youth of today is useless, just bear with me.
So, while we in our youth had a distinct interest in the workings of computers and some of us wanted to program, I see little of that in today’s youth. They all know how to operate a smart device of some sort, but they are lost once there is no app, or the app is not available in the app store of their operating system of choice. Some of them are not even aware that the iPhone uses a different OS than a Samsung or Huawei phone.
What’s worse: They are terribly oblivious to the threats that lurk on the web and that could infect their phone or tablet. They are also rather confused if something does not have a one-app, one-click, or one-tab solution.
Case in point: Our school wi-fi requires you to log in using a username, which the pupils get assigned, and a password, which they also get assigned (each user name and password is unique, of course, and reasonably secure, after all, I am the sysadmin…). Since wi-fi access is not automatic and does not require you to simply accept the terms of service, like for example the Starbucks wi-fi, most of my pupils were lost and could not figure out how to log-in. I had to connect my iPad to the projector and guide them through the process and then explain the same thing step-by-step on the blackboard for the android users.
So my kids are basically at the same level of understanding than my older colleagues are. They have, on average, less knowledge about computers, then I had when I was their age, although they grew up with computers. They know less about the web, having grown up with and partially on the web, then I had in 1996 after using the web for three years (and having used its precursor together with a friend since 1991).
The knowledge to troubleshoot, to modify, to improvise and to find solutions outside regularly available software is vanishing. Kids and adults alike are used to excessively user-friendly devices where everything works with one click or tab, and here lies the danger:
People only learn how to use things. They do not know why it works and what is going on. They do not understand the technology they are using and will be lost when it malfunctions or breaks down. What’s worse, there does not seem to be a noticeable number of people who want to find out.
It seems like my generation +/- ten to fifteen years are the only ones with a significant interest in computer technology outside the ones who do it professionally.
We are the ones sandwiched between the ones who know little because they never faced the tech and the ones who know little because they grew up with more refined tech. The tech our children, and in some cases grandchildren, grew up and are growing up with, has such simple user interfaces, every child can understand and will understand in a matter of minutes. Since they will never have to understand what is going on underneath the touchscreen, they don’t have an incentive to find out. We, who grew up with relatively clunky computers had to find out, because a lot of things would not work the way we wanted, and, it was a fascinating new thing. Computers are not new anymore they are just things you use and discard when they are broken. Replacements are easily available online or at the local department store/mall/whatever.
A hopefully not coming dark age
So I fear that, should at one point the shit hit the fan, the web be over-infected, or some other calamity befall a huge number of computers, there are (or will be) too few specialists and skilled amateurs to get things back on track quickly, because the ease of use has diminished curiosity. Also, since computers now are more complex then they were 30 years ago (I know, Captain Obvious strikes again), the hurdles are higher for being able to modify stuff.
Tech jobs are also less en vogue than they were in the first decade of the new millennium. Now my kids want to be YouTube stars, influencers and professional fortnight players. They want to use tech, not work with it.
The German education system is also not helping. IT courses are not part of the core curriculum in some federal states while in others “IT” simply means learning how to use the Microsoft office suite. I actually learned basic programming skills in my last three years in school.
If you extrapolate this trend, there might be (in a generation or two) a tech-elite, who has the knowledge and therefore the power to wield technology, while the masses just know how to push buttons or touch touchscreens without any knowledge what they are doing. I sincerely hope this scenario does not come to pass, but you never know. I think a tech-utopia where everybody has relevant skills is preferable to a technocracy ruled by the knowledge elite.
But let’s see where the future will take us, we will get there anyway.