Ignorance and the Shortchanging of Joe Public

I read a post today by Penguin Pete asking whether or not there are any passionate Windows users. In terms of absolute numbers, I think there are a huge amount of them. But in terms of OS demographics I’m sure Mac and Linux have a much larger proportion of passionate users in their camps. In fact, I’d bet that Linux has the highest percentage of passionate users – likely by a wide margin. (And of course along with that chest thumping comes the smallest absolute number of users.)

Perhaps even more interesting is how Pete then goes on to discuss the relative ignorance of the typical computer user. He poses the idea that for a great many users it is not a case of wanting to use Windows, it is a case of people thinking they have to. Does the typical user even know there are completely valid alternatives? He cites a few silly sounding examples: “Some Windows users even think their operating system is AOL or Explorer”, which, while slightly insulting are likely accurate in more cases than you’d think. (Don’t forget, the most powerful leader in the world sometimes uses “The Google”.)

It’s easy to chalk up that whole discussion to Linux snobbery, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I think we sometimes forget that there are an absolutely huge number of computer users out there that have little clue about the Internet nevermind operating systems. We are huddled in our igloo made of websites, newsgroups, and blogs, (nevermind podcasts and videoblogs) and we sometimes severely overestimate the computer-saavyness of the general population. Pete also proposes a wonderful meme idea at the end of his post where you would post results from a survey questionnaire given to Joe Public. The compiled results would indeed be quite interesting.

Now just in case I haven’t insulted quite enough people, I’d like to steer this ship slightly off-course to a topic that usually makes the rounds at my place of work every year or two. It involves the relative ignorance of the general public when it comes to my line of work (something that usually get’s barely a mention on this weblog). You see, I design buildings – multistorey offices, commercial and industrial buildings, the odd condo or two, that sort of thing. I also teach some basic courses on residential structural design and construction methods to architectural technology students at a local college part time.

A few things that never cease to amaze me about the ‘average person’:

– If I walk into any office building at all and ask the person sitting there “what do you think is above those ceiling tiles and lights?”, 9 times out of 10 the person won’t have a clue.

– Even more troublesome to me is the realization that they DON’T WANT to know. They don’t care. They are spending half their lives sitting under what might be millions of pounds of concrete and steel, and yet there is not even a inkling of a desire to find out, ask the question or look it up in a book.

– There are a huge number of people who are perfectly happy going through life learning nothing new. And when I say perfectly happy, I don’t mean it sarcastically. They would be satisfied reaching the age of 90 knowing nothing more than they do now. I’m not sure what percentage of the population holds this view but I think it’s higher than you or I would likely estimate. I would think these are generally not the people flying about on the Net – not for the most part, you and I.

A side effect of this ignorance is something that has bothered me to no end since entering the profession of structural engineering: Why is it that your average realtor can lay claim to a 5% commission on a home sale, while an structural engineer attempting to charge a fee based on 2% of the construction costs of a building is laughed out of the room? I’ve done a few residential side-jobs during the past 10 years and it’s rare that I’ve ever been able to charge anything close to 2% of construction costs, never mind 5%!

I will never forget one of my first days in this profession (all wide-eyed and bushytailed) and walking to lunch with a former colleague. He told me that after 10 years he was getting out of the profession and explained why (see the previous paragraph). He said that “people will pay exhorbitant fees when it involves their money or their health”. So if you’re a doctor, accountant, or even better a lawyer, you’re likely all set.

Even if I am held personally responsible for the design of that million odd pounds of steel hanging 30 ft. over your head every day (which I am), the ignorance of the general public to that fact changes the whole profession.

My apologies on the rollercoaster ride of a post – many thanks if you hung on all this way. But there you have it. I think that on the whole, the general public is ignorant about a lot of things. Be it computer operating systems, professional engineering or politics among other things. Is that insulting? Maybe to some. I wish it (the general public) would prove me wrong in this regard, but it hasn’t.

What do you think? Am I severely shortchanging Joe Public?

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