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In my experience, as a general observer of the world around me, and as someone who teaches some really simple basics in python to non-IT students, it does seem to me that general computer literacy (of those that use/have to use computers*) declined, compared to back in the day™.

When we had fight with flimsy Windows98 (or geek it out in unwelcoming linux, but that never was a mainstream thing) even for normal tasks, you had to have some basic understanding of what you're doing (or you got punished with crashes and viruses) and computers were seen as practical, but complicated machines.

Nowadays, way more people use computers everyday (and I'd theoretically put smartphones into that category), but everything is easy and appified and marketing makes you believe those things work with unicorn farts and magic. Everything even remotely technical gets hidden from users, there's dozens of mechanisms protecting you from all kinds of stuff and phones generally are a black box that you're supposed to just consume on.

So from my experience, most people are overwhelmed by even the most simple things, like working in a folder structure or the realization that you can use a keyboard to make the computer do things or that error messages can contain more than just "Oops, something happened" and that you should please read them before shouting for the teacher that "It just doesn't work!"

Now am I just having nostalgia or is my observation valid?

I would suppose there should be some literature on this subject, but this is totally out of my field, and google scholar doesn't bring up anything useful when looking for "computer literacy" smartphones. So I guess I'm mostly looking for objective literature on this subject.

And don't get me wrong, I don't want to go back to the time where computers where only mastered by the most 1337 wizards and win98 would surprise you everyday with a new fuckup. I love it that I have the power of all my trashed computers in my pocket and that I can simplify things that once used to be hard. And I'm aware that this simplification opened up a whole new world for a lot of people, but I feel like there's also some negatives associated with it, and I'd like to see what I can do to counter those.

*There is probably a whole different discussion to be had on the issue that many, many more people now are using computers (in the traditional PC/Laptop Form, but mostly, smartphones), so that the general "amount" of computer literacy in the population probably went up, see the answer by @Kevin Workman, but for this, I'm focused on the literacy of the users, not of users and non-users combined.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Computer Science Educators. A very interesting question, and an observation I've more or less reached as well. Research and statistics would be interesting to see. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Oct 10 '19 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ Yes it all started with the decline of Unix and the uptake of the cheaper dos, and then MS Windows. $\endgroup$ – ctrl-alt-delor Oct 11 '19 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ As for Linux, did you mean Gnu/Linux (all of the top 500 super computers, around 80% of the web, most of the internet, fastest growing OS). And Linux is just a kernel (not an operating system, Gnu/Linux is the OS), and Linux is in over half (75%) of those pesky phones. $\endgroup$ – ctrl-alt-delor Oct 11 '19 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ Your edit makes the question sound a bit like a hunt for why modern technology is bad instead of a genuine attempt to figure out what is going on. If KevinWorkman is right, then there has been no decrease in computer literacy, and comparing all computer users across the different times is comparing apples to oranges, as the populations are simply different. $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Oct 17 '19 at 10:19
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If somebody has some statistics, that would make a great answer, but in the meantime I'll offer some thoughts.

First off, I think it depends on what you mean by "general computer literacy". I can think of a few interpretations:

  • If you pick a random person, how computer-literate are they?
  • If you pick a random person who owns a computer, how computer-literate are they?
  • If you assign a score to "computer literacy" and then calculate that score for every person and then take the average, what would that number be?
  • If you assign a score to "computer literacy" and then calculate that score for every person who owns a computer and then take the average, what would that number be?

Are we asking about everybody, or are we only asking about the people who own a computer?

According to the US census, ~60% of American households had a computer in 2003, compared to ~80% in 2015. So if we're asking about everybody, then I would guess that general computer literacy has gone up, because more people have access to computers.

In other words: if you don't have access to a computer, you have a computer literacy "score" of 0. If you have access to a computer, even if you aren't an expert in computer science, your "score" is above zero. So if we're asking about everybody, then the literacy increases as more people own computers.

If we're only asking about people who own a computer, then I think it's fairly obvious that "computer literacy" has gone down, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Until recently, you had to know what you were doing in order to work with a computer, like you've outlined in your question. Since then, hardware and software companies have done a great job of making their products more accessible, i.e. easier to use even if you aren't an expert. The previously-required expertise has not been necessary, so "computer literacy" has gone down.

However, I don't think all of this hinges on smartphone usage. People have been complaining about the new generation of non-tech-savvy users since the internet began. Eternal September happened in 1993.

Anecdotally, I started college in 2004, before smartphones were popular (the iPhone was released during my junior year). Plenty of my classmates chose the Computer Science department because they were "good at computers". Many of these students struggled when they found out that being "good at computers" meant more than playing video games.

This phenomenon is more general than computer science. I don't have any numbers to back this up, but I've often observed that anytime something becomes more accessible to the general public, many of the previous "experts" see the craft as becoming "watered down" rather than celebrating the fact that more people are participating.

To come up with a specific example: thanks to the internet, now anybody can record themselves playing music, and put that out in the world. Compare that to how music was shared in 1980, and it's easy to see that more people are sharing their music now. But because it's so easy, many of these people are not professional musicians. Many of them are not good at music (yet). So because more people are playing music, does that mean music literacy has increased? Or because more novices are playing music, does that mean music literacy has decreased?

More total people are using computers, but of the people using computers, more of them are novices. Does that mean computer literacy has increased or decreased?

You can ask the same question about anything that has been made more accessible or shareable. Has art literacy decreased because more people are posting their doodles online? There are more novices participating, but does that mean "general literacy" is increasing or decreasing?

Another thing to consider is that "computer literacy" is very broad. If I'm an expert in ethics in AI, but I've never touched a command line, am I computer-illiterate? If I'm an expert in Linux but I don't know how to use a web browser, am I computer-literate? I would argue that we're trading some kinds of expertise (like navigating the file system) for other kinds of expertise (like navigating social media). One isn't inherently better or "more computer-y" than the other.

I also think it's easy to forget how it feels to be a novice. Being new to a subject is really hard, and as experts we tend to forget that feeling. So when we work with a novice, we can be dismissive or frustrated- "it's just a for loop, what don't you understand?" But we're forgetting that it took us a year to figure for loops out. A little empathy goes a long way.

I'll end this with a conversation I had a few years ago that stuck with me. I had a coworker, who went to college back when they used punch cards, where they had to walk to the only mainframe on campus (uphill, both ways) at midnight to run their code. I asked him: do you get frustrated by this new generation of coders who don't know how anything works under the hood?

He responded: "No way! The new generation can do things I never dreamed of doing!"

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  • $\begingroup$ Things are not always getting better (they are mainly just getting cheaper). Unix (including Gnu/Linux) is easier than Microsoft's Windows. You don't have to use the command line, but it makes it easier for experienced users. See also the future of programming by Bret Victor -- youtube.com/watch?v=8pTEmbeENF4 $\endgroup$ – ctrl-alt-delor Oct 11 '19 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor I think "easier" is subjective. I personally do not find Unix easier than Windows. Probably depends on what you're accustomed to more than anything else. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Workman Oct 11 '19 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ what is your background? $\endgroup$ – ctrl-alt-delor Oct 12 '19 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor I'm not sure I understand the question. I have a BS and MS in Computer Science and I've been a software engineer for 10 years, if that's what you're asking? $\endgroup$ – Kevin Workman Oct 14 '19 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor In which sense do you mean "easier"? The OS formerly known as MacOS claims to be the easiest OS to use, still for me it seems more like the hardest because the UI works completely differently than the UIs I'm used to are working. $\endgroup$ – csabinho Oct 15 '19 at 8:03
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Cool question and I'd be really interested to see some statistics on it and hopefully some discussion.

I've noticed the same thing. Students come into class that are "good at computers." They're on computers all the time and can do pretty much whatever they need to do for school and fun, but don't have any understanding of how it works.

If I had to guess I don't think it's that smartphones or making computers easier to use is decreasing computer literacy. I think it's just that those are more consumers of the device would have been less likely to use a computer before they were so easy to use. They would have just not used a computer. A student of today that knows how to use Google Docs and little else would be a student that would have handwritten a paper 30 years ago instead of using a word processor.

Of course, this is just a guess. I've got nothing to back it up :)

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  • $\begingroup$ This goes into the same direction as @Kevin Workmans answer, and I think you're onto something, but it seems like there's not much work on this issue. $\endgroup$ – JC_CL Oct 16 '19 at 6:26
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Yes other have noticed this. For example the Raspberry Pi foundation. They are trying to combat it by producing a cheap computer £35 (like in the old days of home computing). That runs Gnu/Linux (a modern Unix clone).

I would start by finding out what they have to say on it.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you post some links that describe Raspberry Pi's goals of improving computer literacy? Have they said that smart phones have decreased literacy? $\endgroup$ – Kevin Workman Oct 11 '19 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinWorkman At least the part that they are trying to improve computer literacy is proven by quotes on their web site. See: "We provide low-cost, high-performance computers that people use to learn, solve problems and have fun. We provide outreach and education to help more people access computing and digital making. We develop free resources to help people learn about computing and how to make things with computers, and train educators who can guide other people to learn." $\endgroup$ – csabinho Oct 11 '19 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ @csabinho To me, that sounds like they're trying to make it easier for novices to start learning about computer science. Does having more novices in the industry mean that general computer literacy is increasing, or does it mean that it's decreasing? (My point is that this question doesn't really have an answer, but it's a fun mental exercise.) $\endgroup$ – Kevin Workman Oct 11 '19 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinWorkman In my opinion they are definitely aiming to increase average computer literacy. If you just go by the average of all users it's absolutely logical that the computer literacy was at an unbeatable level back in the days when only some nerds had access to computers but in a world that gets more and more digital people should have a minimum level of digital literacy also on an abstract level, or in other words: they should understand concepts of the digital world. And of course such questions have no real and definitive answers, just as most questions on this page don't have them! $\endgroup$ – csabinho Oct 11 '19 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ Another project that has this aim is micro:bit by BBC which is also used at schools in the UK! $\endgroup$ – csabinho Oct 11 '19 at 22:52
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In my opinion the self-perception of digital knowledge has gone up, while the digital knowledge, or at least the percentage of digitally literate people, based on the amount of users of digital devices, itself might have stayed the same. I usually call people who feel like "digital natives", but are just well trained monkeys(who are maybe paid with peanuts ;-) ), "digital naives". I really have to stress that my views are just based on my personal experiences, which have of course no scientific relevance at all!

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