Editorial: Understanding for the '80 percenters'

What should we do about the class of 'non-technical' people in a world that is increasingly digitised?

Those of us with a technical bent sometimes forget how the majority see their digital devices – as appliances like a washing machine or television that Should Just Work.

This was brought home to me recently when a friend was having a gripe about her PC’s less-than-satisfactory performance. I tried to engage her in a discussion of possible reasons and what diagnosis and tuning she might have to do.

“I just want it to work,” she said; “I don’t want to be concerned with what goes on inside it.” She assumed the machine, set up by a former housemate, had antivirus protection, but she had no idea how to check whether it was there, if it was working and that it should be regularly updated — thankfully it was.

“What frightens me,” I told a seasoned CIO and tech-entrepreneur, “is that she may represent 60 percent of the PC-using population.”

“More like 80 percent,” he replied.

Assuming he’s correct, then what should we do about this class of non-technical people in a world that is increasingly digitised? The “80-percenters”?

It was Cybersecurity Week recently and familiar messages were pumped out; ensure your operating system and applications are up-to-date, use antivirus measures, back up your files and make your wireless router secure.

But how many 80-percenters have the skills to do the last?

WPA can be awkward to set up, particularly with a changing population of users.

Security checking and efficiency improvement take too long for the silent majority; my 80-percenter friend started getting twitchy after a defrag had been running for five minutes and the progress meter was still in single figures. If she’d had to pay for my time, the sensitivity would have been acute and she’d have suspected I was deliberately prolonging the process.

“All I want to do,” she says, “is send and receive email, search the web, pay my bills and do a bit of buying and selling on TradeMe.”

Keeping a PC functioning and secure for someone like that ought not to be hard.

Perhaps as more personal files and applications are pushed into the cloud; we’ll evolve to a thinner home PC without so much to go wrong and when it needs maintenance take it into the shop for a week and lend the user a substitute which hooks painlessly into their cloud storage.

Maybe every computer should aspire to the usability of the iPad. But we tinkerers wouldn’t stand for that. We’d talk about lockdown, liberty and the virtue of openness.

There’s a question for the profession too — as the Computer Society becomes the Institute of IT Professionals — should we aspire to the respect accorded doctors, or will we increasingly be regarded as mere mechanics?

On the privacy tack in particular the 80-percent leave themselves open to accusations of tolerating privacy invasion; “letting the side down” and giving the arguments of those who care less force in the marketplace of ideas. Should we “educate” them to care more?

On the other hand, talking more to the majority of PC users might educate us; just as in the commercial space we’re told we should spend more time talking with “the business”.

Are the 80-percent of non-tech-

savvy (or tech-apathetic) users a problem – or the way society is going? Do they need “education” to prevent them harming themselves and others; and how do we tackle the issue without being dismissed as over-sensitive self-promoting geeks?

Or do we leave all that to the likes of Netsafe and retreat into our tech-bubble?

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