boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe

We're all geeks now

Not so long ago, getting rid of that blinking clock on your VCR was a serious challenge

As he eyes the latest motherboards at PCs for Everyone, a Cambridge computer shop, Matt Burstein is the very picture of a technology geek. With his bushy beard, shorts, and sandals, he might have stepped right off the nearby campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Only Burstein actually stepped out of a workshop in Somerville where he restores antique furniture. He's not an engineer or software developer; indeed, he has had no formal training in computers. But he knows them so well that for a time the 46-year-old Burstein considered closing down his antiques business and going into computer repair.

It all began in 1994, when Burstein's wife purchased a $4,000 PC to help with her work in graduate school. "I sat down at that thing and started playing around with it," Burstein recalled. "Within two

weeks I had crashed it and lost everything. . . . It was my responsibility to get it back up and running." And because he had to, he did. Burstein's story, or something like it, could be repeated by millions of people worldwide -- men and women with no particular knack for electronics or computer languages who have nevertheless developed their own deep, sophisticated knowledge of computers and other digital gadgets. People who flunked high-school algebra now casually discuss the relative merits of double-data-rate memory chips vs. Rambus, MP3 file compression vs. WMA, GSM cellphone systems vs. CDMA. Little by little, we're turning into a planet of techies.

Which should come as no surprise. It has happened before. Time and again, attractive new technologies have trickled out of the labs and into homes and offices, forcing ordinary users to develop skills that once would have seemed far too advanced for them. Early automobiles were so unreliable that drivers carried tool kits and learned

to fix the balky machines. Early radio sets were handbuilt by avid hobbyists. "This is all part of a fairly predictable pattern," said Harvard Business School professor Debora Spar, author of "Ruling the Waves," a history of the ways societies adapt to new technologies. "Folks have been doing that since the days of telegraphs and radios and televisions. There's a real love of technology, and people want to get inside and tinker with them."

But fascination with gadgets is only part of the story. The rise of self-taught geekdom is also driven by the sheer usefulness of the new technologies. People forced themselves to understand cars because of the profound value of owning a machine that could carry them 200 miles in a day. In the same way, computers, the Internet, cellphones, digital cameras, and other high-tech systems carry such great benefits that many people are willing to buckle down and master their basic principles.

Finally, the geekification of the masses is driven by sheer necessity. Many digital technologies are unreliable and difficult to use, even after computer firms have spent millions on efforts to make their products simpler. Desperate customers who turn to computer company tech support hotlines often come away frustrated.

A recent survey by Consumer Reports magazine estimated that about 8 million Americans call software support services every year, but only a third of these get the help they need. "People are already so frustrated with tech support, they're not even calling," Jeff Blyskal, senior editor for Consumer Reports, told CNN.

Instead, they're finding their own answers, relying on books, magazines, and the vast data storehouses of the Internet to teach themselves what they need to know. Some fall back on the most basic tech support method: trial and error.

That's Dan McCarthy's style. He likes to switch on the machine and start tinkering. "I won't read manuals," said McCarthy, a 42-year-old Burlington man who walked into PCs for Everyone last week to buy a flat-panel monitor. "I'd rather jump in."

McCarthy spent 14 years in banking before becoming a music DJ at clubs and restaurants. These days, the 42-year-old McCarthy is in charge of the recorded music played over the loudspeakers at the FleetCenter. That means mastering the computerized system that plays back MP3 music files and video clips. At first, McCarthy's computer knowledge was minimal. "Now I've gotten to the point where I can install a sound card," he said. But he admits: "I still can't do a hard drive."

Antiques-restorer Burstein seems to be a little further along. He was at PCs for Everyone to pick out components for a computer that will be custom-made for him at the store. Burstein said he'd gladly assemble it himself -- "I don't find the hardware difficult at all" -- but if he lets the store do it, the PC is covered by a warranty.

"I've done an enormous amount of reading," said Burstein. Apart from a lot of computer books, he subscribes to two computer magazines. Burstein's diligence is born of many frustrating experiences calling tech support phone lines. "I learned not to waste my time any more," he said. "I just do it myself."

That's good news for computer firms, as they strive to reduce the millions spent on customer technical support. One common strategy -- charging customers for the privilege of waiting on hold for technical help. Microsoft Corp., for instance, charges customers $35 per tech support phone call, after an initial free period. This helps cover the cost of providing the service, but it also encourages customers to hang up the phone and pick up the user manual.

It seems to be working. Denise Rundle, Microsoft's general manager of home and entertainment support, said that the company spends half a billion a year on customer support, but that the figure has remained the same for several years, even as computer usage continues to grow.

At the same time, Microsoft has encouraged users to seek out alternative free sources of advice. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these are a collection of bulletin boards or newsgroups found on the Internet's Usenet messaging system. Several thousand of these are dedicated to various Microsoft products, and regularly visited by "Microsoft MVPs," people with proven expertise in particular Microsoft products. The MVPs are all volunteers; their only reward is some free software and recognition from Microsoft.

In exchange, they offer free assistance to thousands of users worldwide every day. And since the Net search service Google keeps a permanent index of Usenet messages, confused users can run Google searches to look up years' worth of technical information posted by Microsoft MVPs.

Of course, there's an alternative to geekification. After all, people needed mechanical skill to operate early cars. But eventually, carmakers like Henry Ford made them so reliable and easy to run that anybody could drive. The simple "point-and-click" approach to computing pioneered by Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh line is the digital equivalent of those early Model Ts, and the Mac system has been imitated by Microsoft and practically every other maker of computer software.

If computers can be made simple enough, people will be able to master them without having to know anything about them. But such ultra-simple PCs are still nowhere in sight, even though companies like Apple and Microsoft may sometimes imply otherwise. "It's as though your toaster all of a sudden looked up at you and said, `If you really want toast, you're going to have to spend an additional 10 hours a week with me,' " said Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT.

Given the immense power and complexity of today's computers, Turkle thinks the quest to simplify can only be carried so far. She called on computer makers to admit to users that computers are still complex beasts that often require a fair amount of technical knowledge to master. "A little truth in advertising would go a long, long way," she said.

Then the computer makers should replace their skimpy user manuals with in-depth documentation for users who need to understand what's going on under the hood. The simplicity of point-and-click computing is all very well, said Turkle, but "it's good to know how the computer works."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months