The “It Should Just Work” Generation

I was watching a young person with an iPhone the other day. I witnessed, with some amusement, this persons reaction when the phone crashed. The string of expletives that ensued left me to conclude that he had either a. lost an unsaved document he had been writing for 8 months or b. was about to break the world record on Angry Birds. Of course it is unlikely it was either of these. It did however, get me to thinking. Was this an overreaction or was he right to be so upset?

I come from a generation of computer users who are used to things not working. The first computer I owned was a Commodore 64. I loved that little grey keyboard as if it were my child. It was temperamental, it was a bit of a pain at times, but by god it was beautiful. As anyone of that generation knows, you always had to have a jewellers Philips head screwdriver around to adjust the tape drives read head. If a game failed to load after a few attempts, it was time to realign. You didn’t complain, you just got on with it. Many a time I spent longer loading a game than I did playing it. By the end of its life, the tape drive was being powered by a 9 Volt battery that that I had jury rigged to it with blue tak – but I still loved it.

After that I had a Pentium 75 PC. This was the fastest home computer you could buy at the time and it was brilliant. Again, it was a bit temperamental. For instance, DOS games could be a bit difficult. Plug n Play was not all that widely available, so you would have to carefully choose your sound card type, your port, your DMA and IRQ settings. You had to alter batch files and config.sys files just to get your CD drive to work. Windows would forever run out of memory so you had to install memory managers, disk compression and daily defragging. You really needed to understand how every setting worked if you wanted to get the most from a PC, even then.

The more I think about it , the more my younger years were spent with technology that needed a little TLC and understanding to get the best out of them. Dusting off records, accepting that the tape in the VCR may snap one – the same for my BASF 90 tapes in my tape deck. I have fond memories of the TV repair man coming out once every few months to fix or re – solder something in the TV – yes, they came to us!

Nowadays that is not as often the case. Sure things still break, but they are more often than not pretty disposable or need to be sent away for fixing. You won’t find me opening up my laptop to try and reseat my graphics chip or check all the wires. However, for the most part we are used to things just working.

I switch on my PC and except for the occasional crash, it just works. I switch on my XBOX or my PS3 and it just works. My iPhone, just works. No messing with memory management or space compression. Switch it on and it works.

As technology has improved, so has our expectation that everything in our lives will just work without a hitch. This is great in many ways and it is understandable how failures can give rise to little outcry’s of frustration. On the flip side, I can see an issue. What happens when things do go wrong. We don’t need to understand how things work anymore. So when things break, we have no idea how to fix them – we just send them off to be sorted or we bin them.

At the end of last year, I was very happy to see that Michael Grove, the education secretary in the UK, has agreed to reform the way ICT is taught in the UK. The UKIE, Ian Livingstone and even Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google have all been pushing for this. Eric Schmidt was recently quoted as saying;

“Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage,”

In other words we are taught how to use Microsoft Word, but not how to make it in the first place.

This is a great example of “It Just Works” mentality in action. Someone else made it, it works, what else do I need to know?

So back to my initial observation. Whilst I found this young person’s outburst amusing, I do sympathise. They have grown up in a world where everything is expected to work first time and consistently. A reasonable view when you think how much the phone cost. However, we need to be realistic. These things are not working by magic, but if we keep each other ignorant of how they do work – they may as well be.

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