Street traffic light control panel by trolleway, on Flickr
⇈This is not mine. Click on the picture to go to the source.⇈
Because you end up with all sorts of problems if you don’t know what you’re doing. “You shouldn’t use technology that you don’t understand.” At first glance, this stance doesn’t sound unreasonable. In fact, it seems totally logical. How can you use something if you don’t understand it? However, when you start to think about what it is to “understand” something, you realise that it’s not that simple.
Some time last year, I was talking to someone about all the antics and traps some of the clients at the House were getting themselves into, and I was having to deal with on a daily basis. This stuff ranged from plugging things into the wrong ports (or even forcing them in) to misinterpreting error messages, from deleting all their emails as a way of sorting them to following the instructions of ads on websites. I must’ve said something along the lines of “It all stems from a simple lack of understanding; these people seem to have no concept of what they’re actually doing,” because the person I was talking to replied “You just shouldn’t use technology that you don’t understand.” And as soon as they said it, I thought “Yes, that is so true, and such a fantastic quote.” People shouldn’t go cavorting, trying to do things when they don’t know what they’re doing, or using things when they don’t know how they work.
Ready to adopt this as my new slogan, I thought I should test this rule on myself, before trying to apply it to everyone else in the world. And this is when the theory started to break down, on one level at least. Sure, I’m a clever guy and I know how to do various things, and how and why most of them work, but I don’t know everything. In fact, until early last year, I didn’t even know how to put a computer together, or how the OS (operating system) operated, even though this stuff is suppose to fall within my specialty area. Yet, I had been using computers for years, without too much difficulty. I thought about other devices I use, and found that for most of them, I really don’t know how they work. I’m still to this day totally puzzled by how a micro SD card, no bigger than my fingernail, can hold ~32GB of data. However, I know how to use these devices. I have a good knowledge of what to do with them, and how to do it. And this is what I meant about the idea breaking down on one level.
To really understand a piece of technology, there are two aspects that you need to grasp: how it works and how to use it. These two aspects cover practically everything there is to know about a technological item. The only aspect that is lacking is how it is made, however, information like that is usually redundant for using it. So what level of understanding should we expect a person to have before they use a technology? Well, it’s fairly pointless for someone to only understand how something works, but not how to use it. If their knowledge is extensive enough, they could probably work out how to use it, but if they’re having to guess, then they don’t really understand. What about if they only know how to use it? That would be fine, until they try and use it where or how it shouldn’t be used, or in a way they’re not familiar with. Cameras are a good example of this. Everyone knows how to use a point-and-shoot camera. It’s as simple as the name: point and shoot. But sometimes when someone tries to take a photo on their phone or even with a proper camera, it turns out badly and they don’t understand why. There are so many factors to consider when taking a photo: the exposure, the white balance, the focal point and many others; each of these things can make or break an image, and with no understanding of how they work or what they do, the person taking the photo is often left confused and annoyed. Having even a simple understanding of some of these elements would often help them out of this pickle.
So it seems that to understand a technology enough to use it, you need to know a bit about how it works, and all about how to use it. And this doesn’t just simply apply to technology as you’d usually think of it. It applies to practically everything. There are lots of things in your life that you perhaps know how to use, but not how they work. In some cases, maybe you don’t even know that much. This rule can be applied to everything around you from cars to planes, guns to soap, smart phones to torrents to TV remotes, from Wi-Fi to your own human body. Yes, even your body is a sort of technology that you should, not only know how to use, but how it works. Now, I’m not saying everyone should be a doctor (a medical one, at least), but you should be aware of what’s going on inside your body, so that you can better use it and not damage it.
All in all, it’s not just about understanding technology, but the world around us because, as humans, we endeavour to understand our world. So next time, before you do something new, or before you go back to doing something old, endeavour to wise up. Find out not just how to do it, but a bit on how it works too, because, I promise you, you’ll be better off for it. Down the road, one day, that extra knowledge will come in handy. And maybe for you, that won’t be a big deal, but for the person you didn’t have to bug because you made a silly mistake, it’s a moment of unknown relief.
So, what did you think of that? Do you agree with the argument made here, or do you think ignorance is adequate bliss? Do you think technology is to complicated to understand? As always, if you have something to say, or would like to suggest a blog topic, feel free to tell me in the comments below.
Keep calm and carry on,
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