A Different Technology Problem in 1984

Let us look back now to 1984. “ENTER” magazine published an editorial from Stephanie Kaufman, a 17 year old high school student with an interest in computers. She sets up her bona fides at the start:

Do you know how to program? I do. I know Applesoft BASIC, Integer BASIC, Fortran, UCSD Pascal, Mt + Pascal and Forth. I’ve taken five semesters of Computer Math and spent many hours working in my school’s computer lab.

So far, so good, right?

There’s one thing I don’t know, though: how to use computers in a practical way.

Kaufman went to a school in Denver, Colorado with a strong computer program. It taught her a lot of programming stuff. She took things called “computer math” courses.

At school, we’re always hearing about the importance of learning to use computers. The funny thing is, we never learn any of the practical applications. Instead we learn to program, a skill we may never need outside of class. […]

And then we get to her conclusion, which shows you the horrifying future she wanted had come true:

One way of teaching us how to use computers without focusing on programming is by using computers in our other classes. For instance, why not encourage students to use the word processing software for writing a term paper for English class? Or why not have students research a court case for a history class via The Source)?

Then she treads dangerously close to beating Steve Jobs to his trucks vs. cards analogy by twenty-five years:

Think of it this way: I know how to drive, but I have no idea how a car works. I know how to take care of a car, keep it safe and clean, and how to fill it with gasoline. But I don’t know what makes it run, nor do I need to. I do need to know how to drive one. Well, it’s the same with computers. We don’t need to become “computer mechanics,” but we do need to know how to “drive” computers.

Somebody tell the schools.

And here we are today, where we complain that computers are increasingly locked down without the ability to program them. We use them as fancy appliances (read: tablets) to research history papers on a service called Google. We know how to bring up Microsoft Word and write a paper on it, but we don’t know what a linked list is or how it’s the basis of a word processes from the code’s point of view. Increasingly, the manufacturers prevent us from tweaking the code we use or even getting access to it. The problem has reversed its polarity.

Funny world.

P.S. The Source was bought up by CompuServe in 1989 and subsequently shut down.