LinuxUser Column 10

When you stop to think about it, we’ve come a long way since clever chaps like Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush and co first began laying the foundations of modern computing. We’ve done exceedingly well since Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace first toyed with the cogs and gears of their difference engine. We could have done even better if we hadn’t gone and destroyed nearly every advance the Greeks and Romans had brought upon us. Sadly thanks to the Dark Ages it wasn’t until the 17th century that we Europeans really got into literacy and education again.

Anyway, the Romans give us material for good TV these days, so let’s forgive them their failings. Today we live in a world of widespread literacy, hyper-communication and fairly easy global travel. But as we transition from a world of the printed to some sort of e-future is teaching our children basic language and numerical literacy enough? No, argues the British Computer Society. Which is why they’re developing entry level courses such as the e-citizen programme and European Computer Driving License. These accessible courses are designed to create IT literacy in the world of non-IT professionals (yes Chuck, non-geeks do still exist).

A very worthy cause indeed, and I’m sure they’re excellent courses, certainly they can only act to help people with their work and in performing joyous tasks like filing tax returns or claiming benefits. The view is, and I don’t disagree, that by creating computer literacy we’re setting the scene for better use of e-democracy tools. I hope so, though I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

Firstly just a quick thought about these courses. Inevitably students will take these courses using a specific type of computer, I’d wager a Windows one, wouldn’t you? We’re not going to change the Windows market share overnight, but certainly life is only being made more difficult when people learn how to do basic tasks in the context of the Windows environment. Does the course have any transferable benefit on new versions of Windows which look different, let alone different flavours of Linux? Could these courses be creating an unintentional new barrier to reducing Windows usage? I hope not, but I fear it is psychologically conditioning novice users to stay in the ‘safe’ world of what they know.

Some of the course segments cover being safe and secure online, but I wonder how many of the tutors will cover anything more than the Windows security features and popup blockers? Does the security of Linux or MacOS X merit mention? No, I didn’t think so. Will anything more than Outlook Express and Hotmail be covered for email tasks?

Imagine if driving lessons only prepared you to drive one make of car? I’d be left to driving Vauxhalls all my life thanks to the choice of my instructor, I’d never be able to drive my Mazda which I love so. We would be sure that the big firms like GM and Daimler-Chrysler would be waging war over the driving instructors. Thankfully cars don’t work like this, but to an extent computers do, so we need to be fighting a war for the hearts and minds of the instructors so that we at least have a chance of boosting Linux usage.

As I mentioned earlier these courses are partly designed to boost the future use of e-democracy and e-government services. It’s easy to see the motivation for increasing e-government use, it lowers transaction costs and helps the government save money. They’re chasing the dream that one day they just might be able to turn off some of the other channels they’re currently running in parallel with the new e-enabled ones. We shall see if that ever becomes possible.

With e-democracy systems, unlike for e-government, the issues are less clear. The e-democracy facilities available are in their infancy and are often not popular with politicians because they usually result in more work for them. There’s only so much that can be driven from the ground up by demand. A considerable amount of leadership is required to change the culture within government and Parliament to create politicians and departments more open to e-citizens interacting in new and wonderful ways.

There’s a few MPs who are connecting with the potentials of e-democracy, but many are just as happy to avoid the implications for as along as possible. The Scottish Parliament has tried to catalyse change north of the border by mandating that all MSPs have email addresses in a standard format and make fantastic use of their parliamentary website packing it with tools like e-petitions and webcasts.

It’s early days for e-democracy as we’re still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, which types of people respond best to which modes of communication and how to motivate politicians to innovate in this area. Still, we should be grateful that we’ve got a democratic society to innovate from. We’ve got near unanimous agreement that in one form another, democracy is what we want. I guess we should be graceful enough to thank the Greeks and the Romans for that.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit