Digital literacy

Tony Hirst and I were talking over lunch yesterday about the differences between geek communities and ‘normal’ social groups. I give a lot of talks to non-technical audiences, and I’ve developed a standard routine for assessing how conversant they are with ICT. How many people read blogs? Anyone here who maintains a blog? Who uses BitTorrent? Anyone here who has not illicitly downloaded a music file at some point in their lives? Who uses Skype? And so on.

Tony has a simpler approach. He simply asks how many people do right-clicking? That is, how many people know that clicking the right-hand button generally opens a whole raft of useful options?

It’s a good question and it set me thinking about Umberto Eco’s wonderful essay arguing that the Mac was a Catholic machine while the PC was a Protestant one. Here’s the relevant passage:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

What has all this to do with right-clicking? Well, you may remember that the Mac originally came only with a single-button mouse. There was a lot of argument within the geek community about this — surely a two-button mouse would be more useful? But Steve Jobs was adamant — the whole GUI philosophy of the Macintosh would be undermined by having two buttons. One button was the route to salvation. As a child of a devoutly Catholic household, I was all too familiar with that kind of argument. Just check your brain in at the church door, do as we say and Salvation shall be yours. Yea, verily.

Eco was right. And of course Jobs was wrong about the single button. Just as the Holy Roman Church has been wrong about most things over the centuries.