sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘Apple’ Category

(self-)sabotaged by my email program

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 19, 2010

file under: goddammit, everything’s ruined.

I discovered yesterday that my email program’s settings were misconfigured, leading to this result: A subset of the email messages I’ve been sending out were never received by the intended recipient. They were never received by anyone at all. Worse, the emails that I know I sent simply no longer exist anywhere in my email archives, even though I double-archive everything through multiple email accounts.

I don’t know how to even begin to deal with this mess.

Because god knows how these dropped emails have shaped my personal and professional relationships. How many people think I’ve ignored them completely, because they never received the email response to their single request? How many people think of me as basically dependable, except for the handful of times that they were waiting for something that never came? How many people think of me as the kind of friend who usually responds to email?

And this doesn’t even touch on how my misconfigured email program has undermined my work at crafting my email identity. Like most people, I make decisions regularly about when and how to send email based on how I hope to be perceived by others. This is an important aspect of building a professional identity these days, and if you don’t spend time thinking about how your email use colors your colleagues’ perceptions of you, you damn well better start thinking about it.

So that’s down the toilet for me too. I had to reconfigure my settings, which meant that every email I was holding in my inbox as part of my ongoing to-do list has also been sent to the archives. Which means that the hundreds of smaller things I’ve been saving to follow up on when the time’s right–those have disappeared on me as well.

I can hear you techno-skeptics now: That’s what happens when you rely too much on technology. That’s where blind faith leads you. That’s why nothing beats good old face to face communication.

Which would be fine, if digital communications tools hadn’t led to an explosion in sheer numbers of personal and professional relationships that need maintaining. There’s simply no way to keep up with those relationships without tools like email. I’ve had days characterized by dozens of email conversations maintained over hundreds of emails. Say what you will about the “richness” of in-person communications as compared to email conversations, but there are times when rich conversations are unnecessary. There are times when shit just needs to get done.

And email can be a fantastic tool for getting shit done, especially when the tool is working as we’ve come to expect it to work. When emails get dropped, though, the tool turns into the exact opposite of a shit-getting-done tool. It becomes a tool that complicates things exponentially.

For me, the lesson here is not that I need to rely less on digital communication tools, and it’s not that I need to approach these tools with a consistent attitude of skepticism. The lesson is that effective use of digital communication tools must be supported with a critical computational literacy approach to those tools.

Because I’m the one who misconfigured my email program in the first place. I trusted the program to autoformat itself instead of using the manual setup feature. Then, when it first became clear several weeks ago that some of my emails were not being received, I assumed the fault lay with others’ programs. I even wondered if someone was hacking into their email accounts, because I trusted my email program.

Even now, I think but am not positive that I’ve resolved the issue. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that I’ve never spent a lot of time learning about the language of these sorts of things. IMAP, POP, SMTP–none of those letter groupings mean very much to me (though they certainly mean more to me now than they did before I spent a day repairing my broken email program). But the email programs we use don’t really bother trying to explain those terms to us. They figure it’s information we don’t need to know, since we can trust the programs to know how to set themselves up.

Trusting auto-configuration is one of our biggest mistakes.  I can’t do much to repair the damage I did to myself by allowing auto-configure to misconfigure my email program, but I can commit to never again allowing auto-configure tools to override me. From here on out, I’m committing to always choosing the manual setup option for every new tool or program I use–not because I believe this will lead to smooth sailing from here on out (it won’t), but because I need to learn how to manage the tools I use in order to maintain control over how, when, where, and why I use these tools to interact with others.

Twenty-six years ago, Apple told us it would help us stand up against an Orwellian future. Somehow, in the intervening years, Apple stopped being the solution and started being part of the problem. In fact, if we’ve learned anything at all, it’s that no major technology-based corporation exists to help us think more critically about the tools we use. This is why it’s up to us to make smart decisions. It’s up to us to be the chainsaw–or, if you wish, the flying hammer–we wish to see in the world.

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Posted in Apple, computational literacy, conspiracy theories, obnoxious | 2 Comments »

SparkCBC takes on the issue of computational literacy

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 23, 2010

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I’m a fan of incorporating computational literacy education into the formal classroom–across curricula and content areas. So I was thrilled to see Spark Radio will be tackling the issue of computational literacy in an upcoming broadcast. Spark co-producer Dan Misener explains, using the user-friendly iPad as an example:

(T)he iPad (and its little brothers, the iPhone and iPod touch) abstract much of the computer away. Apple watcher and former Spark guest John Gruber says it’s a bit like the automatic transmission in a car:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

And from the standpoint of the vast majority of computer users, this abstraction can be a good thing. It makes computing simpler, easier, friendlier. Why should I need to understand what’s going on under the hood of my computer if all I want to do is send email to my friends?…

But I wonder, is the same attitude towards computers dangerous? Does oversimplifying technology –removing necessary complexity — have a downside? By making technology simple, easy, and convenient, do we risk a generation of people who can’t tell the difference between this blog post and the Facebook login page?

As I ponder this, I’m a bit torn. The technology populist in me wants to say, “Of course, make computers easy! What’s wrong with making computers as simple and friendly as possible?”

But another (geekier, snobbier) part of me wants to say, “Yes, computers are hard, and that can be a good thing. I don’t want to use technology designed for the lowest common denominator.”

The question this Spark show hopes to tackle is this:

If I don’t understand how to use my computer, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for not wanting to read manuals or spend time learning a new technology? Or is it the fault of the designers and engineers who build the technology we use?

You can weigh in on the discussion at the Spark blog, then listen in live or or download the podcast of the show; information on broadcast times and podcast download is available here.

Here’s my take on this issue, which I’ve also posted as a comment on the Spark blog:

This is a thorny issue, because easier interfaces help to drop the barriers to participation, but on the other hand this shift means we give up some degree of empowerment to make decisions about which sorts of interfaces, and by extension which sorts of technologies, work best for our specific needs. Indeed, the crafting and marketing of products like the iPad is deeply, deeply political, and the embedded politics that lead to the tools we use is not readily evident to those without a degree of computational literacy. And enormous swaths of the computer-using public are lacking in this area.

On the other hand, computational literacy is very much like other forms of literacy: reading, writing, mathematical literacy, and so on. We don’t blame the math-illiterate learner who has never been exposed to mathematics education, or whose math education was lacking in significant ways. This is the exact case with computational literacy education: It’s nearly nonexistent in formal classrooms, and has become the nearly exclusive domain of those with the luxury of access to computational technologies outside of school. In some ways, then, perhaps we get the technologies we deserve.

Posted in Apple, computational literacy, education, literacy, participatory culture, politics, reading, technologies, writing | 3 Comments »