One of the most interesting components of my time here in Kenya has been watching as people simply interact with technology. Kenya is a very different place to grow up than the US, particularly when it comes to regular, daily interaction with electronic devices. Few schools have computers, and even fewer that are functioning; households are not awash with washing machines or microwaves or other appliances though most people do have daily access to mobile phones. The result of all this has been a significantly decreased level of reinforced learning on how to interact with said electronic devices.
When someone sits down in front of a computer, do they even know where to being? Not really. At least not for my students. Is this wrong or incorrect behavior? Of course not. If you have never utilized an electronic device in any capacity at all, why should you be expected to know how to use one all of a sudden. Should I expect everyone I meet to speak French if I speak it to them, effectively placing French in front of them? Is that fair?
This is a big topic of conversation in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and is of particular interest to the One Laptop per Child people who used to make claims that their laptop is more intuitive than other conventional computer solutions. I would disagree based on my (admittedly limited) first hand experience of people using these devices vs. other devices. No matter how much the HCI guys might argue otherwise, I want to state that there is nothing natural about pushing buttons, using trackpads or mice, or even looking at a screen that constantly changes colors and shapes based on your interacting with it. Almost every interaction with a computer is a learned behavior, and unlike in the US and other western nations where it is a constantly reinforced learned behavior, from childhood on up, here in Kenya it’s not. Heck, most of the time we don’t even know if the electricity has gone out until we try to turn a computer on and it doesn’t turn on.
Nothing I have said is new or groundbreaking in any capacity (is it ever anyways?), but it’s just a point reiterated in my life daily as my students struggle to remember to turn on and off the Un-interruptible Power Supply (UPS) devices. These devices are critical for maintaining a clean current to the computer and protecting them when the electricity starts to go haywire. When there is an issue, these devices make a high-pitched screeching noise and repeat it until they die (in about 20 minutes) or until you turn off the UPS. UPS are not common in the States due to our relatively stable electricity, with one exception: computers with critical services or information are often protected by a UPS. The high pitched noise is designed to get the attention and priority of a system admin, who then rushes to the computer and ensures a proper shutdown without damaging the services or information stored within.
Here, UPS are far more common, but at least in my situation, the high pitched noise has no effect on my students. Either that or they are really, really good at ignoring things. My fellow teachers also ignore it. When it occurs, nobody, teacher or student, asks me a question about why there is a horrible high pitched noise emanating from a small black plastic box (though there is also the point of: would they ask me anyways, the precedented answer for which is, “no.”). Is this a failing on any of their parts: maybe not so much. Maybe this high pitched noise is a learned sign of danger, a learned cause of annoyance, a learned way to get attention. Is there something natural that triggers high pitched noises heard by a completely new and unexposed brain to cause distress or alarm? Or is this a habit we have picked up after living for years surrounded by beeping and booping and all manner of electronic notification. It’s just another thing we have to think about as we start to bring this world of electronic devices to other places on the planet.
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