CA’s can teach technology empowerment

When I tell fellow geeks that I work in tech support, they tend to groan in ritual sympathy. Most of them have never actually done such work themselves, but they still know that’s the correct response. No, I tell them: working as a Yale student computing assistant is the best job I’ve ever had. They tend to believe me eventually, but it takes some convincing.

You see, everyone has heard stories about people looking for the “any” key or thinking their CD drives were cupholders. People who identify as geeks have heard hundreds more like that at Linux Users Group meetings or on the webcomic “User Friendly.” The nation’s millions of Dilbert readers are getting a glimpse into a pop version of that culture.

Behind the thriving market for such stories lies a sort of middle-class digital divide. That term usually has to do with class-based access to information technology, but the “lusers” who populate these stories are usually white-collar types, often managers. Think of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, as powerful as he is technologically clueless. On one side of this divide are his kind, white-collar types who depend on technology but do not understand it. On the other side, naturally, are the geeks, priestlike mediators between the human realm and the incomprehensible.

In almost two years as a CA, I’ve had literally hundreds of students tell me they don’t know anything about computers. The problem is, they’re wrong. Yalies know and love their e-mail, their iPods, their social networking sites. But they’ve internalized the geek discourse about themselves to a point that they can’t realize their own competence. I may spend more time thinking about computers than most Yalies, but I’m no smarter or better at problem-solving than they are. Like Dr. Spock, I want to say: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

For me, the CA job is not only an opportunity to help people with their computer problems, it’s a chance to empower them. I love sitting in people’s rooms telling them what I’m doing to fix their computers and why. It gives me a sense that I’m teaching people the skills they’ll need to have confidence in their own computing. Fixing computers, I’ve grown convinced, is as much about confidence as competence. Even if I don’t walk into a situation knowing exactly how to solve it, I’m confident that I can figure something out by looking at the options available and using my common sense.

Fixing computers is my job as a CA, but instilling confidence is my calling as a CA. Being competent is easy. Somewhere online, there’s a step-by-step walkthrough for fixing almost any problem. But until people have that magic sense that says “I can do this,” they won’t so much as open up Google and start looking. I’d rather make people confident, so they can find their own answers for the easier questions. That, in turn, will free up CAs to respond more effectively to more serious problems.

It’s not that I mind fixing people’s computers for them; on the contrary, there’s nothing more satisfying than meeting people’s needs. But even in the act of starting up someone’s Windows laptop in Safe Mode to run a more effective antivirus scan, I can feel an arrogance creeping in my soul. “I can do this, and this poor fellow can’t,” I find myself thinking. “Am I not nifty? Am I not powerful?” And thus is sustained both my arrogance and my client’s false sense of inferiority. My friends, this must not be. I don’t want that power. My fellow CAs don’t want that power. We don’t mind making a living this way, but if everyone at Yale could keep her own computer free of spyware, we’d all be thrilled.

Moreover, in an age when any bored teenager can write a virus and infect millions worldwide, elites alone just can’t keep up. Yale’s system of undergraduate computing support is the best in the country: it has the most personnel per student anywhere, and nearly every CA has an average response time of under 24 hours. But as we learn with every virus outbreak or mass-e-mail fiasco, even the best support system there is cannot protect students from all the goons out there on the Internet.

G. K. Chesterton said democracy was based on the intuition that governing yourself is like raising your own children or writing your own love letters, something too important to leave to the experts. So it is with maintaining our common computer security. It will take all of us working together to beat the spam kingpins and spyware pushers.

And the great thing is, we’re smart and competent. We, the Yale student body, can break down the middle-class digital divide and keep ourselves secure online. We have the power.

If you feel like you don’t understand your computer or something it’s doing, please, call a CA. You’re a great bunch of people to help. And if you’re already confident in your computer skills, please consider applying to be a CA at the CA Web site. We need more people who want to help in this work. You don’t need to know everything about computers; I certainly don’t. All you need is a willingness to learn. But whether you’re interested in the CA job or not, you can still exercise your right to safer computing.



Christopher Ashley is a junior in Silliman College.

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