The call for all citizens to become computer literate is an old one. Politicians, career counselors, infomercial ringmasters: everyone everywhere wants everyone to be able to use a computer. The forces of the labor market have conspired to create a massive drive for digital literacy, and, in America at least, the steady drumbeat of progress has succeeded in forcing most behind a keyboard and onto the Internet. Only a few elderly holdouts remain, destined to succumb eventually to the nagging of their children, the scorn of their peers, or Death’s gentle embrace. This is all well and good, but it may seem a little irrelevant to Columbia students. After all, everyone here is familiar with at least one operating system, web browser, and word processor. We are all in an age of the Internet. We all know computers better than our parents. So we are all computer savvy, right?
The media and some in academia like to refer to the cohort currently enrolled in college as “digital natives.” People our age, particularly those with the privileged backgrounds most Columbia students possess, are perhaps the first generation to grow up with and on the Internet. This fact is used to support the notion that youth have a special relationship with the digital world. Supposedly, we learned how to use computers so early that we can barely remember—nursing at the teat of Mother Internet and using our pliable young brains to become intimate with her in a way no one over the age of 30 could ever comprehend. I once subscribed to this narrative. Over the past few years, however, Columbia students have worked hard to disabuse me of any faith I once had in my generation’s exceptional computer skills. Here, among some of the best and brightest, an incredible ignorance is festering; there is an ignorance that I have seen result in the wasting of vast amounts of money, the vilest abuse of innocent laptops, the wanton massacre of precious seconds, and countless atrocities against the most basic principles of good digital citizenship. We may be better at this than our parents are, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
If there’s one thing every Columbian should know, it’s how to make a website. It does not really matter what you intend to do, being able to make a website will help you do it. Want to start a business? You’ll need a website. Want to be a self-employed artist of any type? Ditto. Want to market a product, a service, or yourself? A full online presence is (or will soon be) not optional. This skill should be taught in high schools and probably will be in a decade or two. But even today, the Columbia student, entrepreneurial and independent, should not be spending money to hire web designers. As someone who was and is involved in freelance web design, I can tell you two things with absolute certainty. One: In 2012, building even moderately complex websites from scratch is an incredibly simple process that can be self-taught and accomplished in less than a day. Two: Any web designer worth her salt will exploit your ignorance of point number one to amass an unhealthily high hourly wage. To use the Internet without knowing how to make a website is to read without knowing how to write. Yet a surprisingly high number of Columbians do not know and, worse, are not interested in learning.
The problem goes deeper. Watching a Columbia student use a computer can be a painful experience and makes one question whether simply growing up on a computer is sufficient to instruct a person in its use. I recoiled in horror freshman year when I learned that one of my classmates did not know even the most basic keyboard shortcuts (ctrl/cmd+a, f, w, z, x, c, v). I then found myself in a position that required me to regularly observe my fellow Columbians using computers and realized that this sort of ignorance was widespread. I have seen students clicking and dragging scroll bars when a perfectly good scroll wheel was but a centimeter from their right index finger. I have seen students browsing the Internet without antivirus software. I have seen students using AOL Mail or, worse, CubMail. And in one particularly awkward example, I had a fellow student’s computer suggest unspeakable websites to me when I typed the letters “sl” in the address bar (private browsing, my friends—if the pants are off, you had best be using it!). These are the sorts of things a “digital native” could reasonably be expected to know but which some Columbians do not.
The sad fact is that today, almost two decades into the Eternal September, some Columbia students have failed to learn even basic computer skills. We must be more curious and more vigilant. Surpassing our parents is simply not enough. Sit, Columbia. Sit behind a keyboard and learn something new.
Alex Collazo is a Columbia College junior majoring in creative writing and economics-philosophy. He is the treasurer of CIRCA and a former Spectator head copy editor. I’m Just Saying runs alternate Tuesdays.