Northern Colorado Business Report
“Living with Specialization in Userland”
By Kai Staats
7 October 2011

I crossed the U.S. / Canada border on I-5 listening to NPR’s Car Talk, Ray and Tom invoking laughter in the most stoic of listeners, as they always do. A woman called in to ask advice before she traded her beloved 1985 Volkswagon Vanagon for a Subaru Forester. She was understandably reluctant to give up the many years of stories, adventures, and dreams their family had shared driving across the land.

The woman asked about the engine and whether or not her husband could tinker with a new Subaru, doing most of the maintenance himself. Ray and Tom agreed that modern cars do not lend themselves to home mechanics as they have for all the prior years. The stuff under the hood is unfamiliar now, designed to be maintained by trained, industry specialists.

Two hours later I drove into Squamish, British Columbia, the rain washing my windshield clean of more than one thousand five hundred miles since I left home. I walked into the Adventure Center on Canadian HW99 at the edge of town. The young man behind the counter and his manager were discussing the power outage which has disabled all but one VOIP phone and computer terminal.

Neither of them was willing to experiment, fearing they might make it worse. They were waiting for the next day, Monday, when they could call support and talk to an expert.

Last week I stayed with a family friend, a professional photographer, writer, and naturalist with more than thirty years in the field. His life moves through his laptop and cell phone as he is seldom home for more than a few days at a time, and yet, the full capacity for electronic organization and collaboration unrealized.
I assisted him and his wife with switching from Yahoo! to Gmail, synchronizing Google Calendars to their Android phones, configuring email for their Internet domain, expanding their home wireless network with two Apple Airport Extreme adapters, establishing a central repository for sharing files, and connecting their home stereo system to streaming Internet radio.

I transferred user data from an old laptop to one brand new, doubled the capacity of the old laptop, reinstalled Mac OSX, and transferred user data again. They were thrilled, one of their daughters commenting over the phone, “Welcome to the twenty-first century!”

To be honest, I just followed the directions presented to me on-screen, doing little more than what I was told each step of the way. For as much of the effort as they had time, I engaged them in the process. But from their point of view, I am a specialist with many years expertise. Yet compared to code developers and engineers, I am just a layperson, an advanced user in user land. The many levels run deep.

It is not the doing that was the true barrier, for they can point and click as easily as anyone. The challenge is knowing where to start. Apple has not shipped with a printed manual for many years, believing their operating system is so simple anyone can just figure it out. I watched too many people struggle to know this is far from true. Searching Apple’s website is nearly useless and Google yields overwhelming results. You must know what you are looking for before you even begin the search.

Just a few days ago I stayed with a friend a few blocks from the Puget Sound. Their wi-fi went down some time ago. A friend had attempted to swap routers but to no avail for they had lost the passwords and did not know how to reset them. I explained that on the back or bottom of every router is a small button which when pressed with the tip of a ballpoint pen will reset the unit when you plug it in. The factory password will likely be “guest” or “admin” depending upon the brand.

Certainly, there are individuals in each generation willing to explore, to push their boundaries and dive into the depths of what an operating system or applications can do. But how many people have this comfort? I spent three full days upgrading my friends’ digital life, but how many working professionals have this kind of time? What’s more, If you do not know what you are missing, why would you ask for more?

We live in a world of special knowledge applied to special things. Specialization is job security at one level, and yet part of the reason we have so many unemployed.

Personally, I do not see technology as making things easier, for we are only introducing more complexity to our lives, always trying to do more. Placing a record on a turntable requires physical care, but not expertise. Connecting a digital audio archive to a wireless network and home theater requires a specialist. What’s more, the ability for one generation to teach the next is lost, for anything learned is useless in just a few years.
We have no choice but to pick and choose what we will maintain as our expertise, and to have the courage to ask for assistance for everything else. Maybe this brings us together again, or maybe it keeps us apart. What are your thoughts?