What it does Vs How it Works

Ages and ages and  ages ago I remember watching some interviews* about modern technology, probably at least ten years ago. In my head they are on youtube but most likely they were on a science or technology programme on the T.V.  I have a feeling they were in a large city in the U.S.A as they used the term 'cell phone' rather than 'mobile phone' maybe Chicago or New-York not sure, its all a bit hazy.

Anyway the point of these interviews was that the interviewer asked a person how a particular piece of very common technology worked. I think it was several different items such as V.C.R , (Video Cassette recorder for  you young'uns ,ask your parents) C.D player, Microwave oven and mobile phone.  The mobile phone is the one I remember the clearest so that's the example i'm going to use. the interview went something like this.

Interviewer "Can you explain to me how a cell phone works?"

Interviewee "Of course, simply  open the cover, dial the number, press the green call button. When the person answers talk into the microphone and listen to their voice from the speaker."

Interviewer "  No, thats how you use it, how does it work?"

Interviewee "Err don't know."

The interviewers asked several people and the conversations were all roughly the same. People were asked to explain how something works and they responded explaining how to use it  not how it works.

Today there are babies who can use iPads, (look a video so it must be true ) but I would be surprised if those interviews  were repeated now  people's understanding of how modern technology works is any better than it was when those interviews were recorded.

But why does it matter? Well it matters more than ever. We use and depend on  technology for so much more now. Not just the devices in our pocket and our home but the vast hidden infrastructure of computers known as the cloud.  Without  knowing and understanding how this technology works it is impossible to make  informed decisions that affect our security and privacy. The recent well publicised heartbleed bug being a good example of what can go wrong.

Admittedly it will become harder to find out how these things work as services move into the cloud and the technology behind that nice little fitness tracker or thermostat becomes more and more obfuscated. If we  remember that the cloud isn't really some magic fairytale  land somewhere but are real computers running real software then there is still chance to understand the principles and practises behind those apps and devices even if it is not possible to find out the detailed specifics.

So the next time you are using a connected device have a think, do i understand how this works?, what is happening to my data?, where does it go?,is it secure? or do i just know how to press the buttons.


*If anyone has any idea what the interviews were or has any links or information on them I would be interested to find out more.  leave a comment or tweet me to @m_fkill I'm pretty sure i didn't imagine them.




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