As you read this blog post, you probably have a hierarchy of contexts in the back of your mind. It comes so naturally to you that you don’t consciously think of it.
If you’re reading this in a web browser, you probably know what browser you’re using. If not, you’re at least aware that you are using a browser, even if you forget momentarily which one you have open. And you probably know what operating system is hosting your browser. You understand that you are reading a page on my site, that this page is not your browser, but content hosted by your browser. If you’ve subscribed via RSS or email, you know what email or RSS client you’re using and understand how this post is organized with respect to your other content.
Some people do not have this kind of context. Anything on their computer is simply “The Computer.” They don’t really understand what an operating system, web browser, or email client are. And they don’t need to know, most of the time. They can get their work done, but then occasionally they have inexplicable problems.
I’m not saying this to criticize or make fun of the people who don’t have the kind of technological context I’m talking about. It’s a remarkable achievement that software has gotten so easy to use that people can get along without knowing much technological context. But if this sort of thing is second nature to you, you might have a hard time understanding how a large number of people work.
You probably take it for granted that you can access the same web site from different computers. Some people do not. Their desktop at work is one computer, and their iPhone is a different computer. They don’t really understand what a web site is.
I know what a web browser is because I have been using computers since before there was a web. Old timers know what various technological components are because they’ve seen them develop. And “digital natives” know to get things done because they’ve grown up with computers, though their gaps in context show occasionally. Seems like the people in the middle would have the hardest time, not having grown up with the technology but not having watched it develop either.
I’m writing this because I’m becoming increasingly aware of how difficult life can be for people who don’t have adequate mental models for technology. I imagine most of my readers are tech savvy, and may have a hard time seeing some of the same things that I’ve had a hard time seeing, that a lot of people don’t understand things we take for granted.
It used to be that anybody who used a computer had to know some basic things. If you were a Unix user a generation ago, you might not know anything about the internals of Unix, but you at least knew that you were a Unix user. There were wizards and mere mortals, but the two groups shared more context than the most tech savvy and least tech savvy share today.
It’s good that people don’t need to know as much context, but occasionally it produces bewildering situations, both for the user and the person trying to help them.