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My late fathMan who is frustrated with his computerer-in-law, “Mac,” was an educated man who spent much of his life in the financial and insurance industry.  He and his wife lived in a small town in central Pennsylvania with limited Internet connectivity. Several years ago, I helped him buy a computer and connect it to the Internet via a telephone modem. Mac used the computer primarily for playing solitaire, e-mailing his friends, and occasionally accessing online information about weather and politics.

Mac relied on me to be his IT consultant/repair person. This is ironic since our own IST IT staff knows me as a “theoretician” rather than a practitioner. I frequently make calls to our IT Help Desk for fairly trivial problems – just ask them! Nevertheless, Mac would occasionally call me to ask for help when a problem arose with his computer. Sometimes I needed him bring the computer up to State College so I could look at it, or better yet, get other help.

When we installed his computer, Mac became fixated on the term “modem.” He would refer to any part of his computer as a “modem.” Thus, when I’d call and ask him to bring me the computer, he’d say, “You want me to bring the modem?” and I’d reply, “Yes, the modem that’s sitting on the floor under your desk.”

The purpose of my remarks isn’t to make fun of my deceased father-in-law, but rather to point out the lack of consumer-centrism in the information technology (IT) industry. As consumers, we routinely put up with abuse, changes, and requirements to continuously learn new operating systems, programs, and interfaces by an industry that, in effect, demands that we, the consumers, adapt to any change they want to roll out. Think of the near-continuous roll-out of new operating systems, changes, and “improvements” to commonly used office software and to effective demands in the marketplace to buy a new computer every year or so, to ensure that it can run the new applications that we simply “must” have.

This is analogous to the automobile industry more than 50 years ago. In the early 1950s and 1960s, consumers routinely bought a new car every two years. These automobiles often had changes in the human-automobile interface (e.g., location and operation of controls). Men prided themselves on knowing “what’s under the hood” and teenage boys in particular were often called upon by their neighbors to help diagnose and repair their cars (in effect, the automobile “geek squad”). Today, there has been much standardization in automobiles and significant improvement in reliability and quality. Many people routinely operate their cars for 100,000 miles (or ten years, whichever comes first). In part, these changes in the industry came about not because of the largess of the industry and manufacturers, but rather because foreign competition helped educate consumers about the potential for very reliable “turn-key” automobiles.

I believe that in the relatively near future, a similar movement will occur in the IT industry. As consumers become more knowledgeable and demanding, there will be less “threshing” of versions of software, more user-friendly implementations, and a longer usable-life for computers. In retrospect, my father-in-law should not have had to know what a modem (or any other part of a computer) is, just as today we never open the hood of our automobiles. Part of our pedagogy in Information Sciences and Technology is aimed at creating graduates who know how to build good IT systems, know how to be demanding consumers, and who understand that computers and information technology should be for and about humans. Our IST graduates will help the IT industry transition from the 1950s equivalent of the automobile industry to a truly modern era.

I’ll provide more comments on this in future blog postings. However, I have to sign off and place a call to the IT Help Desk – I’ve spilled coffee on my modem and the keys are starting to stick.

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