I read an article (several, actually) some time back which indicated that, in effect, some people can learn to program and others really can’t.  That article has since been retracted, with indications by the original author that the research was flawed; but the odd thing is, it did mirror my personal experiences in the field.

For the record, the original article is a PDF entitled “The Camel has Two Humps” and you can find a copy here.  There is an article covering the retraction here.

I worked for a while in a programming shop with two other competent programmers and one who had somehow fooled both the school where he got his degree and the boss who hired him.  He just did not really understand how a computer program worked… I tried, I really did, to get through to him, but without much in the way of luck.  I wonder now if the things the test described in the original article is testing for (understanding program flow, for instance) are things I should have been trying to teach him… things that seemed so obvious to me that I doubt I ever talked about them.

But that’s not what I’m discussing today.  I want to talk a little bit about a different level of understanding.  I’ve been selling and servicing computers (with a little programming tossed in) since 1993, and I’ve noticed something.

If I hand a customer a flash drive and tell them the name of a folder on the drive which contains a file, many (something more than half, but I don’t have a more accurate count than that) will just look at me blankly.  These people, many of whom are otherwise quite smart (doctors, for instance, and lawyers, and other professionals) just do not understand file systems.  I’m a member of a camera club, and at our meetings we all bring pictures on flash drive to share; new members often say, “I’d love to bring in pictures, but I don’t know how to get them off of my memory cards” (or sometimes, “I’ve got pictures on my computer but I can’t get them onto a flash drive to bring”).

I frequently have to write down detailed instructions, a recipe of sorts, for how to move files around or to locate files or whatever when dealing with this population of users.  Often, my instructions, written at what I consider the most basic level, are still over their heads; I will find myself explaining steps that, in my mind, are very basic operations.  It’s like telling someone to open a door, only to find that they don’t know they have to turn the doorknob… and then discovering that the next time they encounter a door, they don’t remember how to do it.

Again, these are smart people, for the most part.  People you would never think would have a problem, until you try to help them do things with a computer.

Then there’s the other population, to whom I can give that flash drive and have them smile and say “No problem.”

Here’s the thing… I’ve never, and I mean ever, seen any of the people in the first group master file systems.  They write down their recipes and tape them to their monitors, or stick them in their center desk drawers, or under their keyboards, and that’s how they get by.  They just never really understand.  But the people in the second group, when I tell them what I’ve observed, frown and say, “What’s so hard about it?”  Those who understand file systems seem to have never had a problem with it.

So you have a group that never masters it, and a second group that never had a problem with it, and to be honest I’ve never met a person who straddled that line in any way.  Oh, the “got it” group members don’t necessarily know everything, but when I find a “got it” I know I can teach that person the bits he or she does not know (for instance, navigating network drives).  When I find a “don’t got it” I often despair of helping them at all.

Now take a trip with me, back in time a few thousand years.  Some smart cookie has invented writing, probably to keep track of business transactions if the modern world is any indication.  The first scribes learn to read and write, and to them it’s the best thing ever; but few have the need and opportunity to learn this new skill.

If you had dyslexia, but were not destined to be a scribe, how would you know?  Answer: you wouldn’t.  Dyslexia as a disorder could not exist without writing… it took the invention of writing for the disorder to “appear.”  When most people don’t read or write, dyslexia isn’t a thing.  But time and civilization moves on, and a few hundred years ago things began to change.  More people needed to read and write (and do mathematics, but without writing the business effects of math are somewhat limited), and with more need for literacy, those with a problem learning the skill would suddenly stand out.  It took us a few years to give a name to the problem, but it’s been with us for a long time I’m sure.

Now we have a new field of endeavor, a new technology which is important (some might say critical) to business and to our modern civilization.  This “disorder” of not being able (for whatever reason) to understand file systems could not have existed without computers.  I titled this post “dystechia,” constructing the word in a similar fashion to dyslexia, but I have to say I don’t care for the word.  Does not roll nicely off of the tongue.  But whatever it’s called, I believe this is the next such “disorder” to be identified.

It appears to me that it’s a issue with abstraction.  The “don’t got it’s” seem unable to form a mental model of how the file system works.  They can’t see a file in their mind as a thing, nor imagine folders within folders containing those objects.  But this is speculation… don’t take this as fact.  All I can say for sure is what I’ve seen… people, smart, educated people, struggling to comprehend something that was obvious to me the very first time I read it.  People I depend on in some cases (my own family doctor, now retired, was in this group).

Dystechia:  It’s the disorder of a new generation.