net.wars: Chad's revenge

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 November 2004

"They make you feel like idiots," said Chad. He was sitting in the press room between matches at the Philadelphia tennis tournament, and he was talking about the salesman, in the nearby Staples, who he had hoped would sell him a wireless card so he could get online, like the rest of us.

Wendy M Grossman

(In my eagerness to simplify this tale, I have glossed over the fact that the wireless was intermittent. Whenever my machine did manage to use it, I'd get kicked off 10 minutes or half an hour later, and have to reboot to find the network again. The laptop works perfectly everywhere else with everyone else's wireless, but of course its failure to function in the press room meant there was something wrong with it. According to the technical support, anyway.)

On the first morning, the phones didn't work either, and that was why Chad decided it would be easier to supply copy to the newswire he was writing for if he moved up the technology chain a step or two. We primed him with instructions. "Get a 802.11b PCMCIA card. Or 802.11b and g. But not 802.11g only."

The problem is that instructions like this, when presented to an eager young, technically ept salesman, are like a red rag to a bull. Where Chad sees a specific request, the salesman sees options. "You might want this ... you probably can't use that ... I don't know if you want to try ... " Chad doesn't want to try; he wants a simple transaction:

"This is exactly the reason why I have not set foot in Radio Shack in over a year. Because in my experience they're the worst at it. You ask for something and they badger you with so many different options that you feel compelled to buy everything they suggest to you just to get them to shut up." Or, in his case, leave.

(In fact, one possible way out of this is for Chad to move to the UK, a nation of surly shopkeepers where no one helps you at all.) Anyone who thinks any of this is sour grapes because the card they sold him had to go back (it required Windows 98SE or above, and his old, cracked laptop had only Windows 98 and the driver wouldn't install) is being unkind.

So Chad's point is a plea - he says: "Remember that not everybody is as brilliant as you are. Remember that at one time you were like us."

I put it to him that this is a misunderstanding. Really brilliant geeks are not, in general, working in Radio Shack or Staples. They are writing software for major companies, or hatching an idea for a start-up, or filing for patents. The guys who are confusticating customers are wannabes. They may dazzle the unwary, but in the scale of things their brilliance is about equivalent to the sporting talent of a football shoe salesman trying to explain the difference between Nike air soles and Reebok gel soles. Real geeks sneer at them and buy online to get away from them.

Knowing this doesn't help Chad.

The problem, as he says, is one of necessity. If he were to display any of his areas of expertise, he, too, could make the salesman's head spin. Take, for example, the exquisite detail of the infield fly rule, a piece of baseball regulation so arcane that reading it, like the most secret documents underlying Scientology, can kill the insufficiently prepared. Our Chad can analyse this until the salesman's head explodes and all the little 802.11bs and 802.11gs fall out. Our salesman could certainly learn all this stuff. In my experience, people who are technically knowledgeable are rarely only knowledgeable about technology. Most of the geeks I know have many interests that they know about in detail. Probably at least one of them is an expert on baseball regulations. But they don't need to know about baseball. Chad, on the other hand, has to use technology. He even does it voluntarily, using a program known as Automated Scorebook on a laptop to keep track of game-in-progress statistics - he's a baseball play-by-play radio announcer for the Evansville Otters. In fact, he says all the other announcers still use pen and paper, so for his line of work he's high-tech. But even if he didn't, he's a young guy - 27 - and technology will always be part of his life.

And always has been: his family got their first computer when he was three. Chad is of the generation that was supposed to do away with technical ignorance. It hasn't happened that way. From an adolescence spent playing with computers, Chad moved to an adulthood where they are just tools: word processor, email, Web. In other words, it would be truer to say that once upon a time Chad was like them than that they were like him.

Until now, I think we've all assumed that we were heading into a world where everyone would be technically literate. In a sense it's true: people like Chad know all the things we wished everyone knew in the 1980s, maybe even the early 1990s. It's just that the bar of what you have to know keeps moving. Plus, of course, that no amount of usability improvements can fix a bad sale

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).