Books aren’t a good way to teach computers

The front cover of The Unix-Haters Handbook.
The front cover of The Unix-Haters Handbook.

Lately I’ve been reading an interesting book titled The Unix-Hater Handbook, co-authored by Simson Garfinkel, Daniel Weise and Steven Strassman and published in 1994. For my fellow computer geeks, this is quite an interesting read: its humorous approach to the many shortcomings in Unix is a refreshing change from my usual, more serious science-fiction reads. The authors’ addition of an “Anti-Preface” by Dennis Ritchie, one of the original creators of Unix, is a really clever move: His bitter resentment against the book’s authors is a delightful contrapunct to the light-hearted tone of the rest of the essay. And it’s free to download too, but its subject matter being fairly technical, I wouldn’t suggest a casual reader to pick it up. There is a high chance that the uneducated reader will find this book utterly incomprehensible, with its constant reference of complicated concepts that the average computer user isn’t necessarily familiar with. Moreover, most of the information therein is much dated and Unix as an operating system isn’t exactly around anymore, having been pretty much supplanted in the server world by Linux which, despite being Unix-like, does not hold the rights to use the Unix name, that at this point is just a trademark and a set of guidelines in operating system design.

My sister is currently in her first year at University and one of the subjects she’s supposed to take an exam for is computer science, because of an obscure Italian law that made its teaching mandatory in all undergraduate courses. Of course, she isn’t into computers (or electronic devices) at all and, as such, she isn’t particularly fond of it. But she won’t read this website, the piece of shit. >:| She borrowed me the handbook for that course and I’m currently reading some of it. I will not mention its title, author, or publisher because it’s in Italian and this article will not pick on this particular work, but what is in this article applies to really every book that aims to teach computers.

Like all branches of human knowledge, computer science is by no means static. Our knowledge of the ancient Mayan language is more advanced today than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The medical science discovers new treatments every year that make us live longer and gives better chances at surviving diseases that only a couple decades ago leaved those afflicted to a hopeless death. Similarly, computer science and engineering has given us more advanced microprocessors, components, and software that makes our approach to technology better in so many ways. Contrarily to other fields, however, computer science is a relatively new field that is rapidly evolving and what is cutting-edge today may be completely obsolete in just a decade’s time.

Which is why the content of The Unix-Haters Handbook is so much obsolete today. And my sister’s book content is rapidly becoming so. And why one of the books I had to study for my first English exam suggested email users to keep lines short and insert hard line breaks manually to make your emails easier to read on a wide range of email clients, even though this hasn’t been necessary for at least a decade. Or because so many mailing lists suggest you not to use accented characters, umlauts or other language-specific symbols, even though pretty much every email provider supports Unicode by now.

The truth is that books aren’t the best way to educate the public about computers. They are pretty much static repositories of knowledge, the epitome of what can be labeled as monomediality. This isn’t a bad thing per se: Many people, myself included, have a great time reading an exciting novel that keeps you on your toes, unable to stop reading until you’ve reached the last page, look at your watch and discover that you’re supposed to go to class or to work in a hour’s time. But when you want  or need to deepen your knowledge about computers, it is vital that the information you receive is up-to-date and actually useful, two concepts that go hand in hand in this particular field. No one will find it useful to know a little-known feature of Word 2000 in the year 2016, regardless of how useful it was when that program was new. And the author has no way to revise the contents once they get published: the only way to do that is by publishing an addendum either in print form or through another medium. The obvious drawback to this is that there is no guarantee that the reader will ever read the addendum or even know it exists in the first place. But this is an expensive process, both in terms of effort and, in the case of distributing it in printed form, money.

Thus, it becomes apparent that it’s simply not worth updating educational computer books and their information will grow outdated with time and no one will ever go through the hassle of getting new information added to them. But there is a way to keep a text always up to date with minimal costs involved: the hypertext, a non-linear text in electronic form. You surely have already heard of hypertexts: This very website is one. Wikipedia is one. Every single website on the Internet is one.
When you’re reading an hypertext, you have no defined entry or exit point: you may choose any page to start reading from, then move on to a related subject after you’re done (or even before), and go on like this for as long as you want. It’s practical and updatable until the end of time (or of computers anyway).

I can see how this approach would never take off: It will force authors to commit to their work for a long period of time without a noticeable economic return. And yet, I strongly believe that such an experimental hypertextual handbook ought to exist. After all, hypertexts have been used for entertainment purposes since the late ’70s, when interactive fiction and textual adventure video games started appearing. And the world wide web offered us a great way to browse hypertexts and enjoy the “information speedway” from the comfort of our homes, smartphones and tablets. It is inconceivable that educational books about computers are still in paper form, when readers would get much benefit from having an hypertext that would prove better to experience and easier to keep up-to-date.

About Andrea Luciano Damico 109 Articles
Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy. He runs Let's and