Musings on Computer Literacy

I view myself as having average knowledge of my computer and software, but I see services offered by business and electronics stores that I don’t need. Maybe I have more skill with software than I give myself credit for, or maybe most people have less. Stores are offering maintenance, including installing software, and running virus and spyware scans on your PC. I find it hard to believe that the average PC owner needs that. That would mean that the average person has no protection beyond what came with the PC.

Is it really that hard to install your own software, to run daily virus and spyware scans? If you have a Windows PC, you can buy a program on CD-ROM, put it in your CD drive, and follow the setup prompts. Is that beyond most people? Most Linux distros have a very easy menu options for picking a large selection of software from a list, and choosing which to install. Is that any different from selecting dinner from a menu? If you download a setup program for some application, save it to a temp directory or the desktop, and run it – delete the setup program after.

Finding software on the web isn’t that difficult. If you can use a search engine, you have a good start. When you find a good website for free software (and there’s plenty of good, free software out there), you can find lots of useful programs.

A search engine (Google, Yahoo) is also necessary for homework/research. You don’t walk into a car dealership and buy the first car you see, do you? (Or perhaps you do) You check price, safety records, gas mileage, etc. Search for reviews and comparisons of similar software, for features and reliability. You take the same care buying a fridge or oven. The only differences with software are that you may not even get a physical package, if you buy it online, just an email with a registration key, and you may not even pay for it at all, if you download a free for personal use version, or freeware or open source.

What you need to use your computer effectively is a basic set of skills.

One, basic literacy (I mean human language), including the ability to read and follow on-screen instructions for installing software.

Two, a certain amount of healthy paranoia – bad people are after your credit card number, or simply your PC as a host for spamming. Keep your operating system (Windows, OS/X or Linux up to date), install and USE a firewall and virus scanner (You might also want to consider spyware and rootkit scanners as well). Equally important, is your behavior – how you respond to unsolicited email – whether it be ‘funny’ or ‘heartwarming’ stories, bogus news or virus alerts, or nude photos or videos of the starlet du jour. All these should go in your trash and deleted from there, if your spam filter hasn’t caught it already. I also avoid clicking on ads for free playstations, xboxes, etc. If it’s too good to be true, etc. Finally, there is no such thing as a trusted site – scan everything you download.

Three, don’t be afraid – explore, experiment (within reasonable limits), learn. The personal computer is much more than a DVD player, TV, or stereo, and those are complicated enough. This leads to the next two points:

Four, know your hardware. How much memory does your machine have; what’s your hard drive capacity; do you have a CD/DVD writer? If your latest game needs 1 gigabyte of disk space and you have less than that available, you have a problem – your machine may also need temporary files cleaned.

Five, know your software. This means knowing what’s installed on your computer (this can be a problem with Windows PCs with demo software installed when you buy it), and how to use what you have. Modern office software, I.e. word processors and spreadsheets, are hideously complicated, but you should still know some of the more useful features, formatting, spell checking, how to use the help function.

I have run across some extreme examples even within the past year, of people who don’t or won’t think in connection with computers, or perhaps (to be charitable), simply haven’t had the training they should have – people in offices and banks who don’t know how to copy and paste, one of the most basic computer skills around, office workers who know very little about using their spreadsheet software, people who ‘think’ they have a virus scanner.

Perhaps I am more computer-literate than I give myself credit for, I have installed Windows (2000), and Linux (Debian, Ubuntu, and Mepis). I install all my software myself, have kept my OS, security software and browser (Firefox) up to date. I have run Linux emulation under Windows (Cygwin), as well as live Linux distros, from the CD. I occasionally remove the panels from my computer to clean out the dust bunnies, and am not afraid to try out new software.

I know I can’t expect most people to care about programming computers, but they should still learn basic skills and safety. This will protect them and other people, and spare them a great deal of aggravation. Is this too much to ask?

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