Your Computer: Is it a Refrigerator or a Tablesaw?

I caught a few minutes of the Kojo Nnamdi Show yesterday, a local program on the D.C. NPR affiliate, WAMU (88.5FM). I was in the car getting some lunch, so I only a heard a few bits, but one comment really caught my attention.

Yesterday’s program was a standard feature that Kojo runs once a month with the “Computer Guys. The “PC Guy” is John Gilroy from Solutions Developers, and Tom Piwowar from Piwowar and Associates plays the role of the “Mac Guy.” I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Computer Guys before, but not enough that I know very much about the guests or the format. From what I can glean, usually the hour consists of the Guys talking about timely technology issues and fielding calls from listeners.

In any case, the bit I heard yesterday involved one listener who called in bemoaning the fact that she can’t seem to own a computer without experiencing major software or hardware failure. She speculated that maybe some people just “shouldn’t own computers.”

The response was what I loved. I’m not sure if it was Tom or John (I need to go back to the archive to listen) who pointed out that he thought current marketing for computers was totally wrong-headed. He argued that while most marketing and advertising talks about computers as “appliances,” (“It Just Works”) they should really be talking about computers as “tools.” When people expect their computers to act like appliances they approach their interaction with them the way they do with a refrigerator or microwave. The appliance does a limited number of specific tasks very well, and when it’s broken you generally need to call in an expert to fix it (Unless you are an expert).

But when we think about computers like tools, our expectations shift. We expect to have to learn how to use a tool, and we understand that what we’re able to produce with that tool will be directly related to our expertise. I could probably cut a piece of wood with tablesaw, but I’m sure I couldn’t build a fine piece of furniture.

That may be a stupid analogy, actually. Can you use a tablesaw to build furniture? I think you probably need other tools, too — like a hammer and, well, nails. 😉 But, hopefully, you get my point. . .

This comparison of appliance vs. tool makes me think of other things like Steve Greenlaw and Laura Blankenship‘s recent conversation about our expectations of how faculty interact with technology or Jeff’s reflections on student technology proficiency.

In both cases, I’m wondering how as instructional technologists we can frame our conversations with students and faculty so that we’re emphasizing the use of a computer as a tool rather than an appliance. . .

One thought on “Your Computer: Is it a Refrigerator or a Tablesaw?”

  1. Hmm…I like the analogy–I definitely think of my computer as more of a table-saw than refridgerator. I think that’s a common characteristic of Linux users.

    I think the basic analogy could even be extended through some details, and maybe a switch from tablesaw to power drill. There’s all kinds of drill bits for different kinds of tasks–the plugins that make the drill work correctly for the particular task at hand. Bob Villa would know what plugins are available and needed for whatever job he’s doing, just as we know what apps/plugins are available and needed for an instructional and pegagogical setting. That’s part of the experience needed to make the power tool work, too.

    As an interesting connection, the O’Reilly ‘Hacks’ series (“PDF Hacks”, “AJAX Hacks”, etc.) are branded by having a different tool on the cover (a hammer and a ratchet wrench for PDF and AJAX, respectively).

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