Midnight Pub

Passing Knowledge to Gen-Zers


I'm not old, let me start by insisting that. I won't specify my exact age beyond to say that I came into life in a period of time that delegates me to the realm of "older millennial." Definitely not old yet, but decidedly not very young anymore either.

Probably unknown to those who frequent here, my current profession is in the realm of "Digital Literacy" which means that I spend a lot of my time teaching other people about computers and technology and how they exist within the greater digital world. I feel like I have been pretty successful at this in general, though I often wish I could encourage more folks to decrease and simplify their personal digital footprints. But again, overall, I think I am pretty good at getting people to better understand computers and their place and uses in our modern world.

Pre-pandemic I was probably teaching groups of people two or three times a week, with several one-on-one tutoring like meeting scheduled too. Then the plague happened and everybody was encouraged to keep a fair bit of distance and so in-person classes and tutoring came to a dead stop. Eventually I started doing some stuff via virtual platforms like Zoom but even that has remained relatively slow. But now that the disease seems to be better controlled and people are getting vaccinated I get to start up doing in-person training again.

Snap to this morning, where I got to teach a group of interns at a local social services organization how to teach other people basic computer skills. True train-the-trainer type class. Interestingly, the whole attendee group (six of them in total) were all current college students (and one 16 year old high schooler), making me older than most by almost two decades (and also dawning to me that the lot of them had been born in the 2000s . . . a shocking revelation).

It was a good class. Again, at risk of coming across a bit proud or vain, I'm good at teaching this kind of stuff. But, it was also fascinating, because here I was teaching a group of young adults (I'm trying hard to give them a bit more agency than just referring to them as "kids") who have never not known a world with smartphones, or having a personal computer in the class room. I dated myself for them by explaining that I am in-fact old enough to remember being in grade school classrooms without any computers.

Of particular interest to me, from the digital literacy perspective, is the fact that while the assumption is often that a lack of computer and digital know how is relegated to older generations, particularly folks with four or more decades under their belts, this is not entirely true. While certainly millennials and the gen-z gang have grown up in a world with more broad exposure, that has not always, or even predomiantly, translated to strong digital literacy. The gaps though are different. Using a mouse, or texting, or looking up information on a browser, might be second nature to many twenty-somethings, but there are other bits of knowledge, the ins-and -outs of how digital systems work, of which they are often surprisingly ignorant. Personally I believe there will always be some degree of digital divides, because of the pace of technological progress paired with a lack of equitable access (education, finance, free time, etc. are all huge factors impacting digital skills). In the meantime, I enjoy having an opportunity to pass on a little bit of my knowhow to a younger generations. At risk of sounding a bit patronizing, the kids really are alright.


Technology has become so complex it has taken on a "car"-like role. Every zoomer knows how to use it, but it takes special attention, care, and learning to know how it works and how to fix it.



I understand you completely, being a sysadmin I am in charge of training and orientation of new hires at my company. Many of them are much younger than me and often do not have a firm understanding of the digital realm.



Hello ~fungmungus, you have my full respect and some admiration on top!

Once a year I teach a class of say 8 or so adults, who want to switch their computing needs to Linux systems. This is quite a challenge. I try to motivate them to look one step below the GUI. I show them a lot of things in GUI and on the shell. The shell most often provides more details. Some pick this up, some don't. I try to make them explore their needs and habits. One thing I always demonstrate to the surprised eyes: you can actually type (or paste) the website you want to visit into the address field --- you don't have to use Google. It's eye opening.

Along other lines: years back I decided to teach others how to use emacs. Because I cannot blame the youngsters for not using something if I do not teach them how to use it. This was a very positive experience.

Well, good to know, there are others, trying to spread the word --- and maybe point out a few fnords along the way.





I think I know what you mean. I was surprised having to explain to people in their 20's how the Web search engine is different from the Web browser. Or the difference between an email client and an email server (I think Gmail is the culprit for making it confusing for people).

This is the kind of thing that should be learned in school, considering how important it is right now.



What do you call "Digital Literacy"? Like learning how to use mouse and where to click-click or the history, people, and reasons why things are like they are? If this is the latter, kudos. We badly need people like you doing this, because I think all these SaaS BS and race to stupi.. simplicity is really killing what made computers great: the pleasure of tinkering.



Don’t all these SaaS enable to you to focus on actual tinkering with the thing you are making rather than tinkering with your tools? I like iPhone, cause it just works. I like Fedora with Gnome, cause it just works. I like GitHub actions, cause it just works! I don’t need to do package management, tuning the CI/CD or maintaining the database, as it’s done by AWS. I just build things. These stupi… simple SaaS let you do creative job, not the chores



I don't think so, on the contrary. They push a unified way to do things that is dumbed down. Anytime you want to do something a bit off the road, there's mostly nothing you can do. Not talking about people building a specific cloud targeted knowledge, centralization of the internet (how do you like your internet when some parts of AWS are down?), lock-in. It also forces you to deal with your cloud provider issues in addition to your own. I can see the value of spawning a VM to quickly prototype something. But everything else is just bloat on someone else's computer. I work in the cloud business, and I grew to hate it :)



A little off-topic, but can anyone recommend a book that explains how computers work? I know some circuit analysis, digital logic and low level programming but I can't grasp how so many elements get combined and form a computer.



"Code" is very nice, I learned a lot reading it. It explains binary code, electricity, and from there goes through all the steps to make a real computer. It is an easy read, especially once the few first chapters are past, because it is rigorous, but it is explained very well. The first few chapters alone are worth the book.



there are other bits of knowledge, the ins-and -outs of how digital systems work, of which they are often surprisingly ignorant

I agree, but I don't think it's really that surprising. With the increase in prevalence of smartphones over personal computers and Software-as-a-Service-Substitute, that surely won't improve. As always, those who are interested in the in and outs of a system will learn them, resources for that abound (although systems are getting more complex and harder to understand, for a good example compare sysvinit and systemd). But sadly I don't think the general population of the coming generations will have on average more computer literacy than their predecessors, and it's likely that they will actually have less.

I'm not hopeful at all, but people like you who work to improve that are doing a very important work, IMHO. So thank you for it!



I tend to agree with you. As more things move towards automation and applied system defaults a lot of folks, regardless of age, are less likely to know how the insides work. I feel like it is following a very similar trend that we see with a lot of non-digital technology. Take something like automotive repair, which in and of itself requires IT skills for modern vehicles. The major risk I see in any of this comes predominantly from built in obsolesce and business that create terribly end-user-agreements that take-away right to repair. I think education and awareness are the key, which is why I've been in my particular occupation for the past decade.