pointedview (pointedview) wrote,

This article about the relationship between the computer literate and the computer illiterate . . .

... says it better than I could. (Source: New York Times)

Geeks Put the Unsavvy on Alert: Learn or Log Off

Published: February 5, 2004

When Scott Granneman, a technology instructor, heard that one of his former students had clicked on a strange e-mail attachment and infected her computer with the MyDoom Internet virus last week, empathy did not figure anywhere in his immediate response.

"You actually got infected by the virus?" he wrote in an e-mail message to the former student, Robin Woltman, a university grant administrator. "You, Robin? For shame!"

As MyDoom, the fastest-spreading virus ever, continues to clog e-mail in-boxes and disrupt business, the computer-savvy are becoming openly hostile toward the not-so-savvy who unwittingly play into the hands of virus writers.

The tension over the MyDoom virus underscores a growing friction between technophiles and what they see as a breed of technophobes who want to enjoy the benefits of digital technology without making the effort to use it responsibly.

The virus spreads when Internet users ignore a basic rule of Internet life: never click on an unknown e-mail attachment. Once someone does, MyDoom begins to send itself to the names in that person's e-mail address book. If no one opened the attachment, the virus's destructive power would never be unleashed.

"It takes affirmative action on the part of the clueless user to become infected," wrote Scott Bowling, president of the World Wide Web Artists Consortium, expressing frustration on the group's discussion forum. "How to beat this into these people's heads?"

Many of the million or so people who have so far infected their computers with MyDoom say it is not their fault. The virus often comes in a message that appears to be from someone they know, with an innocuous subject line like "test" or "error." It is human nature, they say, to open the mail and attachments.

But computer sophisticates say it reflects a willful ignorance of basic computer skills that goes well beyond virus etiquette. At a time when more than two-thirds of American adults use the Internet, they say, such carelessness is no longer excusable, particularly when it messes things up for everyone else.

For years, many self-described computer geeks seemed eager to usher outsiders onto their electronic frontier. Everyone, it seemed, had a friend or family member in the geek elite who could be summoned — often frequently — in times of computer crisis.

But as those same friends and family members are called upon again and again to save the computer incompetents from themselves, the geeks' patience is growing thin. As it does, a new kind of digital divide is opening up between populations of computer users who must coexist in the same digital world.

"Viruses are just the tip of the iceberg," said Bill Melcher, who runs his own technical support business in San Francisco. "When it comes to computers, a lot of intelligent people and fast learners just decide that they don't know."

Many of the computationally confused say they suffer from genuine intimidation and even panic over how to handle the mysterious machines they have come to rely on for so much of daily life. Virus writers, spammers and scammers, they say, are the ones who should be held accountable for the chaos they cause.

But as the same people equip themselves with fancy computers and take advantage of the Internet for things like shopping and banking, critics say that their perpetual state of confusion has begun to get tiresome. And while the Internet's traditional villains remain elusive, those inadvertently helping them tend to be friends and neighbors.

Some in the technocamp imagine requiring a license to operate a computer, just like the one required to drive a car. Others are calling for a punishment that fits a careless crime. People who click on virus attachments, for instance, could be cut off by their Internet service providers until they proved that their machines had been disinfected.

And some, tired of being treated like free help lines, are beginning to rebel. They are telling friends, relatives and random acquaintances to figure it out on their own.

"Go out, get a book," suggests Zack Rubenstein, 28, who has for years provided free technical support for his extended social network. "You went to college and you got a degree, you obviously can learn something. Play around with it; it's not going to kill you."

Mr. Rubenstein, a member of the technical support staff at a New York City law school he thought it best not to identify, is not at liberty to dispense such advice at work. Instead, he answers endless calls about malfunctioning monitors that turn out not to be plugged in, and broken printers that start working again as soon as he removes the single piece of paper obviously jamming them.

"Especially dealing with academics," Mr. Rubenstein added, "you'd think they'd have some ability to deduce or think problems through for a minute."

Not so long ago, he took pleasure in showing people around the brave new digital world that he moved in with such ease. Now that everyone has a technical question, he says, being a tour guide has lost its charm.

But his girlfriend, Miriam Tauber, 24, makes no apologies for her lack of computer knowledge. To her, computers are like "moody people" who behave illogically. If people like Mr. Rubenstein expect her to understand them, she suggests, perhaps they should learn to speak in a language she can understand, rather than ridiculous acronyms and suffixes.

"There are these MP3's and PDF's and a million other things that you don't even know what they are," Ms. Tauber said. "I don't feel like I need to figure out computers, because my instinct is there's just no way."

Still, if there is any evidence that the antagonism of the technical elite is having an effect, it may be in the mounting degree of shame among those who make obvious mistakes, or ask obvious questions too often.

When Julie Dillon, 33, had trouble installing a wireless card in her Macintosh laptop last weekend, for instance, she stopped herself from calling a friend three blocks away who works for Apple Computer because she knows he is besieged.

"There's this whole complicated interchange — are you calling them as a friend or are you calling them as tech support — and I definitely feel a little bit guilty," said Ms. Dillon, a musician in San Francisco. "It's a fine line that has changed because I remember a few years ago it was no big deal."

Instead, Ms. Dillon called Mr. Melcher, who has built his technical support business in part on referrals from friends who no longer wanted to handle the demands of other friends.

Ms. Dillon, who considers her laptop "a blessing" that helps her promote her music, said she was happy to pay for the help. She has also frequently received technical support in exchange for dinner, and, once, for a song.

Even parents are being left to fend for themselves as their children tire of dispensing advice.

David Hale, 25, a lawyer in St. Louis, said he had rebuilt his parents' virus-ridden computer from scratch several times in recent months before he learned that his father, Dale, was replying to every piece of his spam e-mail, asking to be taken off the spammers' mailing lists. Dale Hale, 47, also frequently clicked on pop-up ads that appeared to be messages from Microsoft telling him to upgrade his computer.

"It would cause fights between my parents because they would argue about whether a particular one was legitimate and I'm like, `It is NEVER legitimate,' " said Mr. Hale, who explained as patiently as he could that answering spam and clicking on pop-ups only invite more of the same.

After that, Dale Hale said, his son would sometimes become frustrated by his and his wife's questions. They in turn would get frustrated with their son's instructions, especially over the phone. Eventually they bought antivirus software.

"We've learned by the lumps and bumps," the father said.

(People who had installed the major antivirus software programs from companies like McAfee were largely protected from the MyDoom virus after downloading updates available a few hours after the virus's appearance on Jan. 26.)

Perhaps the one thing that technophobes and technophiles can agree on is that software companies like Microsoft should make things easier and more secure for all kinds of computer users. But Microsoft, whose Web site has so far withstood a continuing attack by the MyDoom virus, had a reminder for users, too.

"Responsibility is shared," said Scott Charney, Microsoft's chief security strategist. "With some of these viruses that require user action, people have a responsibility to be careful and protect themselves."

Tags: culture/society, technology

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