ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy

ipod sheep, the Ignorance Premium, and Technological Literacy

I’ve been reading a tiny bit recently about something called the ignorance premium, being the price you pay for not knowing better. When you slap down an extra 200 bucks for one product when a cheaper one would have worked just as well, but you didn’t know about it. The general idea here is that we’re prisoners to the people who have the cash to flood the world with slick marketing, because we don’t bother to learn about all our options before opening our wallets. While you can pay more to get somewhere faster by buying a car rather than using public transit, we can also pay more to stay ignorant.

This criticism has been pulled out in response to those of us who own ipods. Because ipods aren’t cheap, and there are cheaper mp3 players out there.

Now, no one has ever questioned my reasons for owning an ipod over any other mp3 player. Nor has anyone ever called me a sheep for buying one. As far as I’m concerned, there are two kinds of people in the world; people who want an mp3 player, and people who don’t. (I’m in the former category, and my sister is in the latter.) But among the people who want an mp3 player, there are gradations and variations. There are the runners, who have specific needs. There are the people who are completely satisfied with the idea of basically listening to one cd at a time, and only need 20 or 30 songs. And then there’s the people like me, who will really only be happy if they can have a complete mirror image of their computer’s mp3 archive in their pocket. And for those people, only a true ipod will do. When you’re looking at that much storage, you need an expensive machine. And if you’re like me, having something attractive, something you can just fall down and love, is value in and of itself. As I say, I’ve never been asked to justify my ipod, but I’m ready to do it. I know there are other players out there, but my decision is purposeful.

What the “ignorance premium” people tend to assume is that design is meaningless. Design is just pretty, not function. If something is ugly and clunky but is capable of the same thing as something pretty and sleek, they’re technically equal. But this simply isn’t true. All this shows is that there’s a segment of people in the world who don’t think that design, look & feel, has a place in the world. But those design elements are actually information bearing, like a form of scaffolding. Let’s presume that we have X amount of time in our lives to spend understanding a concept, or completing a task. With bad design, where we spend significant time learning how to do something, we are essentially wasting time with bad design. Good design, that is pretty, information bearing, and helps us to move on to more intellectual pursuits than figuring out how to play one stupid song, actually lets us reach greater heights.

That said, I have argued the ignorance premium thesis before. Mostly when it comes to non-computer people buying computers. What, you say all you’re going to do is send email and look at the internet from time to time? Well, heck, you’d better get the BEST computer possible, better get, for instance, a powerbook.* We all know that computing technology changes to fast, you’d better get the best one first, not something middling. Middling computers will be out of date and useless in a matter of weeks, right? I know people, good people, smart people, who buy (very very expensive!) powerbooks on this presumption. When what they really need is the powerful, flexible, and extremely wonderful ibook. Sure, it’s less expensive. But it’s so much more than you’ll ever need.

I often get frustrated by what happens to people who are afraid of computers. When they deal with computer people, they can get so screwed over, all because of that ignorance premium.

We’ve spent a good deal of time at work lately talking about “technological literacy” and what that means. If we’ve got a grip on “information literacy”, surely “technological literacy” would be easier to define. More and more I feel myself leaning toward defining technological literacy as breaking down those fear barriers that people have, and turning computers into just another tool we use, like pens and radios and walkmans. We’re not afraid of these things; we’re not afraid to look at the specs and talk about what we really need from them, and be able to distinguish between “what I think I need” and “what I happen to want”. Information literacy has broken away from its tool-based roots (how to use X database, how to use a library catalogue) and into the more broader, conceptual level (what makes a good source for this paper? who can I trust?), and technological literacy needs to make that leap too. Maybe a technologically literate person can distinguish between the design that is functional and design that provides information, knows how to get help within a program, understands the basic principles that underlie all software, and can get to work using a piece of software between 15 and 20 minutes after first opening it. It’s not about the software itself, it’s about getting to know how software tends to work. Right?

So that way, if we’re all technologically literate, we can just buy our ipods without people calling us sheep.

* I ‘m using Mac examples here because that’s what I know best. I know powerbooks are great computers, but they’re more high end than most people would ever even think about needing, is all I’m saying.

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