Using technology, parrot fashion

Parrot fashion was how I (somehow) scraped a C in my French GCSE. I was never literate in the language, but the ability to string together a series of sounds in the correct order appeared to do the trick. Parrots have been doing this to get crackers for years, and I’m pretty good at ordering lunch or buying a metro ticket in Paris. On the other hand, entering into a discussion on masterpieces in the Louvre in any language other than English is impossible for me.

The moral of the story? A parrot fashion approach to literacy may allow you a level of survival, but life enrichment is probably out of the question.

Parrot fashion literacy extends to all forms of literacies, and IT literacy is arguably the most common second language in the world. Do you speak Mac? Do you speak PC? Do your conversations with your computers resemble a fat sunburnt English tourist trying to order a pint of lager in Spain when their only knowledge of Spanish is to speak English at twice the volume with a slight accent?

We all know the parrot fashion IT literates, they populate our workplaces and they are our relatives. The most easily recognisable are the ones who have to write down step by step guides to performing the most basic functions of technology, or continually refer to the manual in the same way that I would use a Japanese-English phrasebook when visiting Tokyo . In doing this they bypass entirely the structure of the vocabulary, and render any meaningful ‘dialogue’ impossible.

I must not sound arrogant, because they are at the same level of IT as I am with French, but then I’m not expected to speak French on a day-to-day basis. I don’t need to know the number of the French language helpdesk when at work. I’ve no fear of various private companies and ‘French Champions‘ forcing me to read all of my books and study materials in French.

My latest eBook pioneers are encountering this hurdle. I’d never rate myself as French Literate, but I’m encountering many young people who consider using technology parrot fashion to be ‘IT Literate’. Little things like automatically logging out of the accounts that I set up for them and logging in as themselves on Amazon and on the iPods is a major headache as I then have to track the pupils down and log them back in or else the either don’t buy books, or wind up unexpectedly buying from their own bank accounts. I warned them at the start ‘Don’t log out’, but hey, the Gremlins still got fed after midnight.

I honestly don’t blame them because we’re always told to log out of accounts. However their blind adherence to the rules and the list of what to do tells me that they don’t really understand :

  • The reasons why they log out
  • What happens to the software/ hardware access when they log out
  • The (sensible) reasons why I told them not to log out
  • The correlation between my log in details and the scheme’s finance setup

There has always been a one size fits all setup within IT – uniform blocking of access to software, admin rights and websites for example. From a security point of view this is fine and dandy, but from a literacy point of view it is the equivalent of banning regional accents, slang, poetry and creative writing. It also makes users dependant on the support network of IT technicians and helpdesks because if they stray from the rules they are unable to enter into the dialogue with their technology to work out what they need to do next.

To break out from this dependency people need to follow the advice of anyone who has mastered a language – immerse yourself in it. With IT this means forcing yourself to do your own troubleshooting, reading around the subject if necessary, and understanding that buttons marked ‘self-destruct’ only exist in military institutions and James Bond’s car.

If French was to be my national language then I’d make sure I could converse in it fluently. IT is becoming the language of the workplace, of education and research, of our leisure time, and increasingly of the public sector as face-to-face or telephone contact is stripped back. It’s no longer enough to just speak ‘tourist IT’, we need wit and conversation.

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