Ask a Silly Question…

In which The Author resists the temptation to give a silly answer

In I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue I recounted some of my recent experiences at the hands of the Loteks. If you’re unfamiliar with the works of the great SF writer William Gibson, the Loteks are the people who live in a word of ‘Low Tech’ (geddit?) They’re perfectly happy to stay in the Paper Age. They’ll have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Twenty-first Century in order to get by.
My friends Janis and Grace have recently set up a community enterprise in adult education. I first met Janis when I was in the pub with the Netbook, and she came over to chat. We’ve been friends ever since, and now it looks as though a random pub chat might lead me in a new direction. The medium-term plan is for me to get on board with them, teaching literacy, numeracy, IT, and whatever other weird tangents our sessions may go off at. I just need to get the basic qualification under my belt and the plan can come together.
With the idea of a very basic IT course in mind, I spent an hour or potching with GIMP this week, and produced this useful checklist:

Checklist with tickboxes

It’s a very simple idea. Tick off the items you’ve used. It doesn’t need to be that exact model. They’re Platonic concepts, that’s all – if you’ve ever used a microwave oven, tick the box. And so forth… If you can tick more than three out of the dozen pictures, then don’t even think about telling me, ‘I can’t use a computer.’
The fact is that, if you’ve used any of these things, you’ve used microprocessor-based technology. (If you’ve never used any of them, don’t worry. I’ll ask the Doctor to drop you off in the TARDIS next time he’s passing through 1967, so that you can try your hand at using Britain’s first ever ATM.)
An old pal of mine asked me last week if I could look up the name of a musician for him. Armed with the information, he went to Aberdare Market and ordered a CD. He was blown away by the fact that it only took a week to arrive – all the way from the USA!
I said, ‘Mal, welcome to the Twenty-first Century. We’ve been expecting you.’
The fact that one can look at porn online seems to have lost its novelty appeal, mind you. When I’ve been using the Netbook in the pub, I’ve found myself dealing with even more stupid people than previously. We’ve downgraded from, ‘Ho, butt, are you watching porn on that?’ to, ‘What are you doing, butt?’
That’s a loaded question. Where do I even start?
I doubt whether launching into a detailed explanation of digital data transmission would cut any ice with them. A ‘transistor’ is a small pocket radio in their minds, and ‘chips’ are something you eat with salt and vinegar. NB. What we Brits call ‘chips’ are what Americans call ‘French fries.’ What Americans call ‘chips’, we call ‘crisps.’ (See, I told you in Logorrohea that I was fully bilingual, didn’t I?)
Discussing Shannon and Weaver’s landmark paper on Information Theory (1947) is a non-starter as well. Neither am I the best-placed person to elucidate Alan Turing’s applications of Kurt Gödel’s 1933 Incompleteness Theorem. Turing’s mathematical work laid the foundations of the modern computer, via the Bletchley Park cryptography programme. I probably could try explaining radio technology (or, as my late grandparents used to call it, ‘wireless’), but the basic principles go back to the second half of the Victorian Age. That might be too advanced for them.
So, should I go back to very first principles? The German natural philosopher Otto von Guericke (1602-1686) observed what we now know as electricity in 1663. Bizarrely enough, he totally missed the point. Until Alessandro Volta came along, nearly a century and a half later, electricity was little more than a cul-de-sac on the Evolutionary Superhighway.
Maybe I should just cut to the chase and ignore the Paper Age altogether. Possibly I should sit back, look my interrogators in the eyes, and say, ‘I’m thinking. It’s a dirty job, I know – but someone‘s got to do it.’
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