Beware of black-and-white solutions to multi-hued problems.

When "RTFM" becomes "Oh, Just Forget It!"

Date/Time Permalink: 08/15/07 11:25:30 am
Category: General

A little hiatus is passing in all of my projects this week, while I have a lot of relatives on summer vacation stopping by and going to visit each other. I will get back to my portfolio in a few days, and I've been slacking off work and blogging.

But the fusion of a couple of events motivated me to point out: There are many ways to answer the questions of a technology newbie. Sometimes it is appropriate to respond in detail, sometimes it is appropriate to tell them that they would be better served by Reading That Fabled Manual or making friends with Google... and sometimes there are people who are beyond any help, at all, at all.

One event was the posting of "The 10 Commandments for New Linux Users", which really deserves to be carved in stone and delivered from a mountain. And you can tell from the comments: flamers, trollers, and 1337 N00Bz, oh my! You can always tell when a great truth has been spoken on the Internet, because 1000 dung-flinging howler monkeys immediately show up to scream it down.

I kind of regard ignorance as a form of demonic possession: it fights to hold on to the victim. Sometimes you need holy water and some particularly blistering scripture to drive it out. And beyond that, it is simply too late.

Another event is those relatives visiting: There are two who are Beyond All Help. They are gambling addicts: casinos are their crack cocaine. They're well into their retirement years. They "run AOL"... that, to them, is the only software on their computer. They do not even understand that they run Windows; they run AOL. They correct me when I say they are going on the Internet: they are going on AOL.

And no matter what, from just these two after all these years, any computer-related question is now met by me with a flat refusal to answer.

My way of thinking is, if learning anything was so important to them, they would have devoted some time during their long, long lives to taking a single day off from the bingo parlor, dog track, amusement park, shopping mall, and television set and read... not even a manual, but... ANYTHING. For that matter, they could have listened to me ten years ago when I was freely discussing this stuff with them and they were going "uhhh" without taking their eyes off of the football game on TV.

That's the thing, is that you can't always tell these things online. There are grasshoppers and there are ants. We ants are in a position to help in the first place because we helped ourselves. And we don't mind helping others if it's going to do some good.

You can help the disadvantaged, the confused, the people who want to learn. As I've pointed out, no-one can blame the average person for not knowing about technology, when the deck has been stacked against them from the start. These are the unwillingly ignorant - they want to learn, and teaching them will help them.

But you cannot help the willfully, deliberately ignorant. It just won't do any good. You can spend the next 35 years catching them up on computer science, and it will bounce off of them like a brick wall. They will come to you the day after you finish, with the same problem. If you fix something for them, they will break it on purpose as soon as your back is turned. When they complain about how Linux is too hard to learn, you have to remember that they never learned Windows in the first place. Or AOL. Or what half of the keys on their keyboard do. Their computer problems are actually the same problems they have with their phones and cars and houses and jobs and marriages.

In short, we cannot be held responsible for not solving the problems of people who have deliberately set out to make unsolvable problems of themselves. There's no reason to hate them or pity them; but there's no reason to feel guilty about them, either.

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