The Archives of the International Informatics Institute


> Article Index









To get IN3 updates, enter your email:

Technopeasants and the Info Aristocracy

By Jack Powers

Published: February 15, 1996

It's no good being a peasant. Ignorant and superstitious, you toil away on your little plot of land serving at the pleasure of the lords of the manor, cravening before assorted priests and gentry and never quite sure why you're here or when you'll be put out or told to fling yourself in front of a cavalry charge.

In the 15th Century, peasants were born into a rigid caste system, tied by birth and tradition to the land and their masters. At the end of the 20th Century, being a peasant means being ignorant of technology and the information revolution sweeping the world.

"I don't know anything about computers," says today's technopeasant proudly. "I have one on my desk but I just barely know how to turn it on." That used to be cute, a curmudgeonly Andy Rooney-ish reaction to a difficult new invention. Nowadays it's a little embarrassing, like admitting that you still smoke Camels or that you've never learned to read.

The technopeasant is at the mercy of a growing Info Aristocracy of computer experts, media consultants, equipment vendors, software developers and ten-year-old kids who know how to surf the net. They are be-fogged by clichés, terrified by the future and easily stampeded into bonehead technologies by sharpies and charlatans. Worse, many technopeasants are older managerial types with power and influence over younger people who really do know what's going on.

Willful ignorance is no virtue. Imagine living in 1795 and never reading the penny press, or in 1895 and never taking a train or sending a telegram; imagine not owning a radio in 1935 or a television in 1965. Unless you're a monk or a swami and have a theological excuse for not being a part of the world around you, living through this particular fin de siècle means booting up, logging on and mousing around.

In the publishing business, it's almost impossible to explain interactive media to people who don't know how to search a database, edit a picture file or post to a bulletin board. I've met directors of "new media development" who've never quite understood how a network operates and vice-presidents of "interactive advertising" who've never heard of Unix. There is no shortage of information: there are thousands of books, magazines, audiotapes, videotapes, college courses, private seminars and training centers to choose from.

It's the responsibility of everybody in the publishing and printing business today to learn as much as they can about the elemental forces shaping our industry, and the responsibility of every boss to make sure that every employee gets the education needed to stay up-to-date Of course that's a tall order; of course things are changing all the time and it's a constant battle to keep up-to-date; of course it's possible to know too much about the trees and not see the forest. But in our business (and in everybody's business) that's today's basic job description: keep learning new things every few months for the rest of your life.

Manufacturing Technopeasants

For many people, ignorance is bliss and the intellectual challenge of joining the Information Age is too scary. They will find their way to the shrinking number of jobs that require no high tech: arranging flowers, playing the bassoon, making furniture and so on. They are peasants by choice, and God bless 'em.

But as a society, we're responsible for manufacturing a growing number of technopeasants who are doomed to their peasantry not by choice but by schooling. These are the kids graduating from rotten school systems where they're not even taught to read and write properly, let alone type fast or use a computer. They are the victims of posturing politicos and ass-covering administrators who talk a good line but subcommittee every new idea to death. Too often they are taught by technopeasants, people who would be perfectly at home in an 1895 classroom diagramming sentences and drilling multiplication tables.

Pessimists say that we're moving ever faster toward a two-tiered society, with the Info Aristocracy of people who can read, write and afford computers and cable TV on top and the Rest of Society narcotized by Oprah and Roseanne and living off government checks drained from a smaller and smaller group of productive info workers on the bottom. Nobody believes that the average high school graduate in 1995 will be able to read nearly as well as one from 1965, and big employers who hire entry-level kids right out of school have expensive programs for teaching, reading, writing and arithmetic to recent graduates.

Evangelical technologists have been pitching gizmos, most recently the multimedia computer, as the answer to society's educational quagmire for years. Throw some TV satellites or computer-aided instruction software at the problem, they say, and all the kids will be able to learn automatically and the teachers will be able to spend quality time with each student. They've always been a bit vague about how to pay for all the gizmos, and they're often sidetracked into thousand page curriculum documents that somehow make high tech as boring and irrelevant as the rest of the lesson plan. All too often the computers are locked up in a special lab available for an hour or two per week, and sometimes only the science teacher knows how to turn them on.

Luckily, information technology is subversive. Watch a roomful of students use computers and you'll soon realize that the carefully laid lesson plans of the credentialed teacher won't contain their curiosity. Once the organizational, educational and financial barriers to entry are breached, kids can go as far as their imaginations or inclinations takes them. Like textual literacy, computer literacy lays open a whole world of education and understanding for the student and offers a high degree of mobility to the technologically empowered.

That's our only hope for the future: that technologically capable graduates will be suited to the continuous learning process of the Information Age. They won't learn everything there is to know in school, but they'll learn how to learn, and even better, they'll learn how to navigate the information environment to find what they need. We don't need fancy labs or complicated curriculums, just get them as many computers as we can afford, show them how to use them and then turn them loose. Kids who understand computers can figure out the Internet, puzzle through the next software glitch and wrestle the latest program into productive use. They may have been born Technopeasants, but once they've logged on there's no stopping them from joining the Info Aristocracy.\\



© 1995-2002 International Informatics Institute, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.