It is a sad fact of life that as a technology matures, enthusiasm for it diminishes. People stop being interested in understanding the technology and become simply "users" of it. In my opinion, this began happening with computer technology almost three decades ago. If I were forced to assign a specific point in time for its beginning, I might pick the year 1990, when Microsoft Windows 3.0 became the first widely successful version of Windows. That was approximately when Bill Gates managed to pry DOS out of most of our hands. That was the year before Microsoft released Visual BASIC, which in my opinion initiated the process of driving out of business nearly every competing producer of programming language compilers and development environments.
It may sound like I'm laying this phenomenon at the doorstep of Microsoft. I'm not; it was inevitable. As computers have become more sophisticated, the knowledge required to use them has been reduced. That know-how first passed from us into our personal computers themselves. Now. it is being further removed from us as it passes into "the cloud".
In 2015, twenty-five years after the release of Windows 3.0, 79% of households had some kind of computer. Seventy-three percent owned a desktop or laptop. But nearly all of them had been relegated to the status of mere users of computers. Although there are no statistics on how many people can write a computer program, in 2016 only about 294,900 jobs, or 0.2% of jobs in the United States were for computer programmers. That does not include engineers who regularly write code but are not classified as computer programmers. A study conducted from 2011 to 2015 by the International Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development group concluded that only about 5% of the US population is at the "highest level" of computer literacy.
Associated with a lower level of computer competence is an inability to live up to the hopes of past generations of technophiles like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, who said in 2018 "... the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas." He also said, "What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms." The Daily Squib amplified his words by boldly proclaiming, "The internet today has been hijacked, broken and smeared with the excreta of totalitarianism, internet users, shamefully robbed and used like data cattle within digital prison farms."
The trend away from desktop and laptop usage in favor of tablet computers, smart phones, and finally, "cloud" usage has continued the dumming down trend of computer users. In 2006, David Brin, an astrophysicist and well-known science fiction writer, wrote a now-famous article entitled, "Why Johnny can't code". In it, he described his three-year-long hunt for usable software to teach his son how to code in the BASIC computer language. He felt that glitzy apps had produced an environment in which, "...quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast." Brin was forced to buy a Commodore 64 computer, circa 1982, in order to fill this void in his son's education. He said that the educators of 2006 considered coding to be obsolete and that the big companies and education reformers, "... seem bent on providing information consumption devices, not tools that teach creative thinking and technological mastery."
It may be that at least some educators now understand the problem to which Brin was pointing. Nine years later, the BBC wrote an article about a study by Australia's National Assessment Programme, which said there had been a significant decline in digital literacy scores among Australian children between 2011 and 2014. The study speculated that extensive use of tablets and smart phones meant that the children were, "practicing fewer of the skills that have been associated with [IT] literacy." In the same article, Eben Upton, who came up with the idea of the Raspberry Pi computer, was quoted as saying, "It's always been my belief that 'appliance-like' hardware platforms don't encourage real computer literacy because there are missing rungs on the ladder between being a consumer and being a producer." He went on to say, "...we need to get away from the idea that knowing how to pinch-zoom makes your toddler the next Bill Gates."
Unfortunately, it seems that in the United States, maintaining a standard of excellence for our children's technological education is just no longer a priority. A major reason for this may be that employment in the scientific and engineering professions in this country has not been growing much, and in some cases has even declined.
From the 1970's until very recently, at the insistence of big business, politicians have been working tirelessly to remove trade barriers. The reason for this is that businesses have lobbied heavily for the unfettered right to use cheaper labor in other parts of the world in order to improve their profit margins. For decades politicians assured us that high-paying, knowledge-based jobs were not leaving. In 1980, I looked around my home and saw that every piece of electronics in it had been manufactured in Japan. This is when I first realized that we were being lied to.
From 2002 to 2013, the number of electrical engineers working in the US declined from 385,000 to 295,000. Despite corporate America's long insistence that we do not have enough engineers in the US to fill the demand, a 2014 article in The Atlantic told the truth: "Far from offering expanding attractive career opportunities, it seems that many, but not all, science and engineering careers are headed in the opposite direction: unstable careers, slow-growing wages, and high risk of jobs moving offshore or being filled by temporary workers from abroad."
Now, we are in a position where nearly all of our electronics is being manufactured in a communist country. This includes nearly all of the electronic components in our weapons systems, thanks to a big push by our government going all they way back to the early 1990's to reduce their costs through commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) parts. Few United States citizens are aware that we are now incapable of going to war with China, should it became necessary, because we would quickly run out of weapons to fight with.
As the United States becomes more dependent on the rest of the world for its technology, applications of this technology, namely the internet, are increasingly being regulated around the world, even in so-called democracies. In some countries, politicians have or are working on means of controling access to or even shutting off the internet entirely.
The same thing has been happening in the United States for decades, although arguably on a lesser scale. Just as we had certain rights taken from us beginning in the year 2001 in the name of fighting terrorism, we are now coming close to losing more of our rights in the name of fighting "hate speech", violence, pornography, and publicity for terrorists, as has already happened in other countries.
In the past, and to a lesser extent presently, individuals who wanted to speak of or see things on line that governments do not approve of had some recourse. Hackers have always had ways of accessing much non-public knowledge, and the rest of us could use various browsers, operating systems like TAILS, VPN's, and other means of privately accessing the content we wanted. However, as point-and-click users, many of us have allowed ourselves to be corralled into corporate-controlled software ecosystems and websites were we have limited choices about what software we can run, what we can see, and what we can say via our point-and-click devices. We have a "choice" of one or two browsers and do not have the capability of running another operating system. Some of us do not even know what an operating system is.
My guess is that very few of us have an inkling of what we have given up as we have allowed ourselves to be dumbed down to mere point-and-click users. I doubt that more than one percent of us are aware that it was once possible to access any page on the internet by email, or that we can still download any accessible webpage or file with the Linux "wget" command. Few of us know that an email can be sent directly from our computer without the aid of any email provider using the Linux "sendmail" package. I seriously doubt that more than two percent of the US population has any idea of how to set up a webserver at home, where one can say whatever one likes without fear of censorship by any social media or web hosting company. How many have used an alternative social media platform, like Diaspora?
What would politicians do if we all had the knowledge required to use these and other sophisticated methods of communicating with each other? I'm sure that after they finished soiling themselves, they would begin looking for ways of passing laws against this. But they would have a much tougher time than they do now, due to our willingness, even eagerness, to be, "used like data cattle within digital prison farms," as The Daily Squib put it.
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