Training and Development

Rant: Why Can't I Get Inside My Computer?

Once upon a time, Bill Gates allegedly compared the computer industry to the car industry, saying "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles per gallon."

General Motors is reported to have responded with a brief document entitled, "Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?" It contained such gems as "Every time they repainted the lines on the road you would have to buy a new car," "Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast, twice as easy to drive, but would only run on five percent of the roads," and "If you were involved in a crash, you would have no idea what happened."

The comparison is interesting because of what has changed in both markets since that little spat took place. Cars have gone from being unreliable and rust-prone to (mostly) reliable and solidly built. Computers have gone from being clunky and crash-prone to sleek and at least reasonably dependable, if you don't ask too much of them.

In fact, reliability has improved so much in recent years that differentiation is now based more on style and expense than function. They're shiny things, heavily marketed as lifestyle accessories to make your friends and colleagues jealous, disposable after just a few years and with built-in obsolescence that means you can't easily upgrade them even if you wanted to. And so are computers.

But something has been lost along the way: the ability to get inside. If the twin-overhead fernacker-pin on your 1990 Mundano suddenly went 'spoing!' then the average owner would have had some idea what had gone wrong, how to fix it, what tools were required and where to order the replacement part. With nothing else worth doing on a Sunday afternoon, the car would be back on the road by Monday morning.

Similarly, if a computer wouldn't boot but emitted a few forlorn beeps when turned on, the average owner would at least know someone who could open the case, re-seat the RAM, wiggle the expansion cards a bit and get it started. And probably flash the BIOS, defrag the hard drive and overclock the CPU while they were there. With nothing else worth doing on a Friday night, the computer would be back in use by Saturday morning.

Now open the bonnet or hood of a modern car and look at the engine. If you're lucky you might see a couple of clearly marked holes saying "Washer fluid here" and "Oil here," but it might as well say "Take me to your dealer." There's little you can do yourself these days. And how do you open a tablet computer to get inside? Even if you could, what would you do in there?

This is, of course, all wonderful. Manufacturers of cars and computers have realised that the single biggest cause of faults is the user, so they've found cunning ways to prevent the user doing anything dumb. By keeping curious fingers out, the machine can be left to do what it's supposed to do: work well for a fixed number of years before breaking down catastrophically and forcing the owner to buy a new one (he said, cynically).

But the unfortunate side-effect of this is we're losing practical knowledge about how things work. Anyone who grew up in the 70s or 80s would have quickly learned how car engines worked, because they had to keep helping their dad fix whatever had broken that week. No longer. And people who once knew their PCI from their VLB now look at a broken laptop and reach for the insurance company's phone number instead of the nearest screwdriver.

Does this matter? I don't know. If driverless, electric cars are the future then perhaps knowledge of the internal combustion engine is irrelevant. And if wearable, ubiquitous computing is the future then perhaps we don't need to understand the difference between a CPU and a GPU. But it irks me. It teaches us to be consumers and users, not creators and fixers.

Fantastic gadgets like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards are great for bucking the trend, but they are probably reaching the wrong audience: 40-somethings nostalgic for BBC Micro and Altair systems, rather than curious schoolkids. We need a shift if we want more people to learn how things work instead of just how to use them.

In a break with the Friday Rant tradition, I'm going to try to do something about this. I'm going to run an after-school class at my daughters' school, teaching children about computers and programming. I've been offered the use of the school's Apple machines but I think I'll go shopping for a few Raspberry Pi boards instead. That way the children can learn about the basics and get to tinker around with the guts of a system, rather than being locked out by a shiny interface and sealed casing.

I'll drive there and back in a 1990 Honda Civic, so the kids can learn about practical mechanics too, if only to ensure I get home again.

If you're a programmer or techie with some spare time on your hands, why not do something similar? Let's give the next generations the same access to practical computing knowledge that we had, so they can understand how these things work, rather than just consume the output of increasingly magical sealed boxes.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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