Why Computer Literacy

Christopher Rath


This essay was originally written and passed out to a few friends for discussion on the topic of computer literacy. A printed copy of the essay was scanned for posting here in February 2011. It appears as written; with the exception of the correction of a typo or two.

“Computers are merely a very useful tool.”

“…computer literacy…”

I question these two statements when used side by side. If the computer is merely a tool then why is there a requirement to become “literate”. Maybe the best way to express my thoughts is by discussing a definition of Computer Literacy.

I believe that ‘literacy’ is too strong a word to be used in this context. I say this in spite of the common use of the expression ‘computer literacy’.

In the wee olden days of Computers there was no possible way to use a computer except by becoming fluent in whatever machine code the computer used. Along with the machine code went a knowledge of how the hardware worked, and an understanding of the algorithms necessary to perform multiplication, handle text strings, etc. using register moves, addition, and bit shifts.

Then came the IBM 360 Mainframe revolution, and the use of computers moved from the few who had the time and drive to learn every facet of the machine to those who took courses in COBOL or some other programming language. The programming language took care of all the machine level operations, but still left the TRUE USER (distinguishing these from the managers who gave the orders) with the burden of string and file handling, and the ability to write systems of programs.

More recently the Micro Revolution has been running rampant. But the effect of this latest movement has been to place the use of computers into the hands of those who can follow instructions, and have the money to purchase hardware and software. The burden of knowledge is still there, but it is back in the User’s field. The User has no requisite for knowledge of computers; instead he only requires a knowledge of a “Familiar Skill”: Statistics, Typing, A Good Eye for layouts, or some other task. The computer has become a faster way of getting results: the same results that would have been produced without the computer; now in a much shorter time. (In fact, because of the time factor, users now generate results that they would not have been generated previously.)

Computer Literacy is the ability to take a “Familiar Task” and break it into a number of smaller “Familiar Tasks”. This is an iterative process and the number of iterations is dependent upon the size of the primary “Familiar Task”. So, why do we call this process ‘computer literacy’ when it does not fundamentally involve a computer? Because ‘computer literacy’ is simply a process of moulding the User’s thinking, the young generally become computer literate more quickly than those whose ways of thinking are SET. That is, the greater the number of times you have performed a large “familiar task”, the more one sees that task as an indivisible unit.

It is nice to have a computer to use as a teaching aid, when teaching the young to think… but it is not a necessity. I think it is significant that those in pure research were the first to really utilize the computer. They are the Users who have spent their lives striving to Think Better in order to produce results. The common labourer who spends his life using his body rather than his mind will probably be the very last person to use a computer at home. But this is more a reflection of his Literacy in other areas than a reflection of his ignorance of computers.

©Copyright 1986, 2011, Christopher & Jean Rath
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Address: 1371 Major Rd., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1E 1H3
Last updated: 2015/02/14 @ 21:33:56 ( )