The digital revolution's lingering literacy problem

The digital revolution's lingering literacy problem

Summary: If so many of the 2.7 billion people already online still have trouble with basic computer concepts, how will the next 2.5 billion fare?


A new digital divide is opening up. Not the one we usually hear about, where the rich can afford the fancy new digital tools and toys and the poor cannot, but one between the digitally literate and the digitally illiterate. We'll see this divide in developing nations, sure, but we'll also see it right here in rich Western nations, too — and it'll hit hardest in the small and SOHO businesses that are so important to our economy.

The mobile-cloud-analytics revolution currently grabbing headlines in the tech media is as big a business revolution as connecting to the internet was in the 1990s, and as big as having personal computers at all in the 1980s. But while "the enterprise" is at full steam ahead, it seems to me that many small businesses, which typically don't have dedicated technical staff, are still struggling at least a revolution behind.

It's not that these businesses don't want to play in the shiny, shiny future. It's that they don't even know how to frame the questions they want to ask — or don't even know that there are questions to be asked at all — and nobody seems interested in helping them.

The technically literate people like us, those who build systems for others, often forget that normal people don't necessarily have the same built-in curiosity and problem-solving instincts that we do. They don't care how or why something works, they just want to get their job done — or just get on with their life — but, like all of us, they're embarrassed when they have to admit that they don't know something that others think "should" be "obvious".

I first started thinking about this some time last decade, when I was flushing out the last few Windows 2000 machines from a client's offices and replacing them with slick new boxes running Windows XP Service Pack 2. The general manager was eager to have everyone on efficient new technology — but even when every other staff member had been upgraded, he still resisted. Eventually, he was overruled by the owner's representative, and I logged him in to his brand new desktop.

"Oh, hang on," I said, "It hasn't set your home page in the browser. What were you using before?"

"No, it's OK," he replied, "I'll find my way around. You've got other things to do."

My reassurances that it'd only take a moment came to nothing. I left him to it. Only later did I realise why he'd been reluctant.

He didn't know what "home page" meant.

Or "browser".

As a middle-aged man in charge of the business, he wouldn't have wanted to admit that weakness. He'd learned what computer skills he did have by rote learning. A new operating system changed where things were and what they looked like, sometimes even what they were called, and he had no idea where to start. His random trial-and-error exploration took place behind closed doors.

I was reminded of this story the other day when discussing an end user's ransomware problem with Michael McKinnon, security advisor with AVG Technologies AU. Was there anything newsworthy in this story of encrypted files and a criminal's demand for money? Or was it the same-old same-old?

Well, it was nothing really new. "There are currently dozens of infections that people can get online that we assist with removing all the time," McKinnon told me in an email — but there was more.

"It has been a year since the Australian Federal Police variant ransomware infections started, and we are still dealing with them for users who still fail to understand the importance of what we consider to be really basic stuff — patch management, keeping software up to date, and in some cases running legit software in the first place," he wrote.

"It is these particular users and their similarities that I find intriguing, and it isn't always as clear-cut as 'old people' or 'poor people'. They are disadvantaged users that keep getting swept under the carpet because they are of no news value, and some of them remain disadvantaged because the rest of us keep moving on, at a rapid pace, with internet banking, with new gadgets, assuming that there aren't any people left in the world who don't know how to cut and paste."

Yet, as McKinnon reminded me, the reality is that over the next five years, another 2.5 billion people will come online for the very first time, and they'll all need to be shown at some point what cut and paste is — as well as what "backups" are when you're not manoeuvring a truck, what "cc" means, how to avoid phishing and ransomware, and everything else.

And it's a very long way from there to setting up a collaborative workflow between colleagues, or making their business more competitive by using data analytics. And while you might argue that any sensible business would call in a specialist at that point, how can you engage a specialist when you don't even know the meaning of the words describing their job?

There was also a reminder recently that literacy is a far bigger problem than we sometimes realise. Even in well-educated Australia, 47 percent of adults are functionally illiterate — meaning that they can't read well enough to follow a recipe or understand instructions on medication.

How do you think they'd go trying to understand the risks of sharing work documents via their smartphone? Do you reckon they've really given informed consent to your app's privacy policy?

Yet, "illiterate" doesn't mean "incompetent". The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Background Briefing revealed a businessman who'd faked his way through negotiations with oil princes, and an ambulance service volunteer who admitted, "I just write it down how I think and hope for the best."

How do you think they'd go when their verbal communication is replaced with a web page or a smartphone app?

Now the rise of pervasive mobile broadband will bring with it audio and video explainers, which may replace written documentation for many purposes. We might also see more audio and video interaction in the business setting.

But those of us who absorbed the digital revolution in real time over a decade or three can hardly expect others to catch up overnight.

The digital literacy problem will linger for at least a generation or two.

Topics: SMBs, Tech Industry, Australia


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Replacing...

    one unsupported OS with another unsupported OS is a "good" move? Surely you should have at least installed XP SP3, if they want to use the machine until next spring... :-S

    As to the learn by rote, that is a very common problem. I've just gone through a similar upgrade process in my family, many coming from Windows 9x to Vista or Windows 7 over the last couple of years - mainly forced to upgrade, because "things" like eBay don't work any longer under Windows 95.

    Another problem I encounter is the number of Americanisms which companies don't bother to translate into local languages. Your "cc" example, at least to an English speaker, you can explain the analogue to "carbon copy", but when "cc" translates to "Kohlendurchschlag", how are they supposed to remember what "cc" is, when it should at least be "Kd" or maybe "Kk" (Kohlenkopie)?

    It was even worse, when MS decided to do the localisation of Vista in Seattle and not use native speakers in the regional offices. The press had an absolute field day with some of the translation. Network Neighbourhood Properties got translated to something approximate to "Change the attitudes of your neighbours"!
    • Oops

      In Redmond, sorry...
    • Years ago

      The author doesn't say it ostensibly but he implies the story occurred back when Windows XP SP2 debuted.
      • Thanks

        it was too early in the morning for me! I missed that bit.
    • Speaking of literacy challenged?

      "I first started thinking about this some time last decade..."

      Clue: Re-read the article. Ten years ago SP2 was the latest. :)

      Otherwise good comments.
      • Oops. I see MajorlyCool beat me to it. Sorry.

        Wouldn't it be nice if we could remove these foot in mouth posts instead of just editing them? Lol
  • Very true article, and it explains a few tings.

    Don't know how much time I have spent being "tech support" for friends, family and (sometimes even) co-workers. Even if you work in the software business, don't assume knowledge of how to work all this. If you come in, turn on the box, do the same thing, and go home, that's okay. Until something unexpected happens.

    And scary, the "on the fly" support army is shrinking. The next generation is not dealing with the traditional desktop computer at all - no matter what platform. They are likely using a smartphone or tablet. There, it's simply "Is it iOS or Android" or "what app are you using" that are the important questions.

    And that also explains the advance of those devices. Truthfully, there a lot of people who need nothing more than that. And it is simpler to say "download xyz app from an app store and use that". Limited functions that do exactly what is needed, automation to handle the nasty stuff like updates and the like, and blissful ignorance of the rest. Now when the inevitable happens to those environments (see the rise in malware for Android and the occurrences of it even on iOS) then we're back to the problem again.

    And it shows Microsoft's problem. They are trying to put a computer in a tablet's clothing. Great idea. Then again, maybe not. The desktop illiteracy moves to the palm of your hand.
  • Even a toddler can handle an iPad

    15 years ago a PC was a real hassle. Pet peeve was keeping the PC in a working state for a longer period of time. Setting up was bad and updating the OS was even worse.
    Remember the days when even the order of installing drivers did matter. Sigh.

    Today however, even traditional PCs are much less demanding and once set up work flawlessly forever if some basic rules are observed.

    This applies to a much higher degree to tablets which deprive users of the term "device driver" at all. Using a modern tablet is mainly a question of charged batteries.

    According to my observation operating a tablet takes as much tech-savvy as it takes for driving a car. Guess only a few among us could explain what the ignition timing relates to.
  • Job Security

    With SMB's going after a larger share of the pie, I thought my skillset would go by the wayside and the SMB's would do it all. I now see that my capabilities are more and more in demand as the enterprise grows beyond just a couple of networked pc's. Thanks MS for a fruitful career!
  • Literacy

    A number of well-made points, to repeated repeatedly...

    Assuming everyone understands "browser" is like expecting a non-English speaker to understand an unfamiliar word in English...
  • perplexing to most of john q

    a coupla years ago I built a sys for a relative... a win7 box. now this was a big upgrade as the MB was 32 bit with max RAM support of 4GB. well lately they've been complaining about slow..ww..w (well what does one expect after a coupla years (from a windows OS))?

    anyhow took a look at it and they weren't kidding! now I'm not gonna build a win7 box with
  • "Functional" illiteracy not the same as "computer" illiteracy

    Obviously, if one is "functionally" illiterate, it will show up in the inability to operate a PC correctly, but not the other way around. What I see in this article is a comparison of "apples" to "oranges" in a sense. Plenty of "literate" people are "technologically" illiterate As such, "functional" illiteracy has to be dealt with by parents & educators, not us "tech gurus".

    Today's youth, & to some extent, corporate leaders, are completely PC illiterate. While the people at the top, especially in this day & age, should be able to operate a PC with little problem, & deal with basic software issues, the youth of today can work with technology, yet don't know how technology works. This is going to become a big problem in business, indeed in everyday life, if it isn't already.

    There are 2 ways to solve this problem. In my home-based IT business (I've been in IT for over 20 years), I offer an inexpensive program that teaches people the basics of computer usage. I explain that if they don't learn proper basic usage, they will shell out lots of money every time something goes wrong that they can't deal with themselves, & I provide them the skills they need to get through some basic, common PC issues. It has helped my clients out quite a bit, & while I lose some income, I've also provided a useful service for which most of my clients are thankful. They don't have to come to me immediately when something "doesn't work", & most now have basic troubleshooting down. It's a win-win for everyone.

    The second thing I do has to do with children learning how a computer works. This is a skill that has to be taught at a young age in order for the most good to come out of it. Anytime I do something physical with our home computers, I show them what I am doing & why. The inside of a machine doesn't "scare" them, & they are eager to help out, & have learned some basic concepts, even at the tender ages of 5 & 7. I also show them what to do when something doesn't work on the screen. They are excited & involved, so my hope is that, by showing my kids at an early age how a computer works, they will retain enough interest & learn skills as they grow that will enable them to be knowledgeable as they grow. Anything short of this type of teaching AT HOME will produce PC illiterate youth - which we, as a society, cannot afford.
  • Functional Illiteracy

    Wikipedia defines "Functional Illiteracy" as" "is reading and writing skills that are inadequate "to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level."[1] Functional illiteracy is contrasted with illiteracy in the strict sense, meaning the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language."

    I presume "basic level" depends on what country you're from and where they set the bar. However, common sense will tell you that if you can't read well you're not going to be computer literate either. How much of computer work is dependent on reading? Yes, you might be able to get by clicking on icons with a graphic you memorized but to do anything inside the program is going to require reading and some form of input.

    IMHO computer literacy must be secondary to reading/writing literacy. You can't be computer literate without a foundation.
  • In a couple of generations maybe computers will be usable.

    OK, I am among the geekerati, but I have more than a little sympathy for people who do not know how to search and understand online forums and knowledge base articles for the answers to "simple" questions about computers. And I am not so impressed by the bright young things who live on FaceBook, but still have no clue about the technical world that supports the internet. Hopefully in a couple of generations, the computer will actually be an appliance and not a puzzle box that requires the equivalent of a degree in "computer science" to run and maintain.

    It is one thing to expect literacy, and another altogether to expect that everyone will be able to translate from Greek or Latin. Why should a user need to know anything about virus protection, let alone arcane settings within the operating system? We did not expect typewriter users to be able to design and fabricate the things, although the skillset to do that was probably easier to acquire than to keep a "modern" computer running.
  • But doesn't this discussion mean we've failed?

    If "the masses" need computer literacy to use computers, then aren't we really admitting that we technologists have failed?

    There's a strong argument that you shouldn't *need* to be literate to use a computer. Shouldn't we be aiming to make the technology invisible to the users?

    Perhaps we should talk about "computing" rather than "computers", to try to emphasise the way the technology will be everywhere, in almost everything we touch and interact with. Surely it can't be many years before we don't have "computers" as such in the corner of the room. Rather, computing resources will be behind many of the things we interact with on a day-to-day basis.

    Nobody talks about being "microwave literate" or "television literate" because these technologies have been refined to the point where they are rapidly approaching "obvious". (Not quite, but fast approaching.) No normal user thinks of their microwave as a computer, but of course it is - they all have processors of some kind inside. Rather, to them it's a gadget that cooks things. Good ones are so easy to use they are self-evident.

    Surely our aim is to *reduce* the need for computer literacy by making the technology disappear and just providing people with gadgets or services that do what they want and are self-evident to use.
  • Architectural Stabilization

    What nobody remembers is that computers in our society are a new thing. My former boss referred to the problem as one of "Architectural Stabilization". For example, eventually all cars came to have round steering wheels and control pedals in standard places. It wasn't always like that when some cars had tillers, some had levers, etc. We are slowly getting there, and you can see it as Windows and Apple OS and Android and Linux all start blurring together.

    In the end, it's not important that the business man knows how to maintain his computer any more than it's important for a computer professional to know how to run a business. But, for now, we're in a transitional phase where the business man knows he wants and needs a computer, but isn't sure how to make it do what he wants. It will take a while, but they will become mundane tools after a while, but it could take a long while since the technology evolves much more rapidly than people are used to.
  • Immature Industry is the Problem

    In 2nd grade I was taught to immediately write my name in the upper right hand corner of the page, with the date immediately under it. Suppose "innovative" companies decide the name should go on the lower left and the date on the lower right. And then I should use a barcode instead of my name. And then...

    It is pretty easy to change your own oil. The auto parts store helps you find the right filter. How do you repair that cracked screen yourself?

    When the software (and now device) industry gets a clue about usability engineering and the importance of continuity, technological literacy will cease to be an issue.
  • Digital revolution's lingering literacy problem-Opportunity / Job Security

    It is a divergence of expectations. Techies want to feel loved and keepig things mysterious, thus driving up demand for their personal attention gives them the warm fuzzy that they crave. Appliance operators aren't impressed by the magic behind 'The great and powerfuls Oz's" curtain and just want the toaster to make toast. Why should they feed the beast that they don't really love or respect? They vote with their money and those votes drive the market to cater to simplicity. No big divide except in expectations...
    • Digital revolution's lingering literacy problem-Opportunity / Job Security

      and thus the popularity of tablets ;-)
    • Make me redundant!

      I'm in that said techie field ,and yes I do feel warm and fuzzy when my knowledge is appreciated and helps people. However, by no means do I go out of my way to make things `mysterious` so as to get more work. I'd like to think some day I would have to find another career as my assistance is no longer required. What I do see, however, is many parallels and dichotomies. There are some that have trouble grasping tech concepts through learning difficulties. There are some who need a different type of instruction set to others. Additionally, there are some who just refuse to learn as `it Is not my job to know how to use that`. I believe once all of these are taken into consideration we get quite a different view.