Computer Literacy and Ideology

by Douglas Noble - 1984

The need for some form of computer literacy has come to be accepted as an essential condition of everyday life, now that the computer has insinuated itself into our jobs, our schools, and our homes. As a result, computer-literacy education has become very big business, evidenced by the myriad of computer classes, workshops, and camps available to people of all ages. The purpose of all this training, we are told, is not to make engineers or programmers of everyone; rather, its focus is on a minimal level of instruction that will introduce the masses to the ubiquitous computer and enable them to feel “comfortable," to have “a sense of belonging in a computer-rich society."

The author wishes to thank Philip Wexler, Lynne Kliman, David Noble, Martha Herrick, and Molly Pierce for their ideas and assistance.

The need for some form of “computer literacy” has come to be accepted as an essential condition of everyday life, now that the computer has insinuated itself into our jobs, our schools, and our homes. As a result, computer-literacy education has become very big business, evidenced by the myriad of computer classes, workshops, and camps available to people of all ages. The purpose of all this training, we are told, is not to make engineers or programmers of everyone; rather, its focus is on a minimal level of instruction that will introduce the masses to the ubiquitous computer and enable them to feel “comfortable,” to have “a sense of belonging in a computer-rich society.“1

Although this goal seems reasonably straightforward, its promoters, while insisting on the critical importance of computer literacy, have had unusual difficulty arriving at a suitable definition. “No one can tell you exactly what it is,” writes one promoter, “but everyone is sure that it is good for us.“2 This unexamined conviction, more felt than understood, has somehow triggered a mass educational campaign whose urgent, uncritical endorsement is without precedent in the history of technological education.

This article is in two parts. The first part will show that computer literacy, however it may be defined, is unimportant, despite its plausibility and its fervent promotion. The second part will attempt to explain the enormous appeal of computer literacy despite its unimportance. It will be suggested that the computer-literacy phenomenon might best be viewed not as education, but rather as an ideological campaign, one that coincides with and reinforces a hegemonic vision of a computerized future.


Arguments that have been used to justify the importance of computer literacy can be reduced to four, each corresponding to a role of daily life in the “information age”:

1. Consumers must be computer literate in order to function in the computerized marketplace.

2. Students must be computer literate in order to cope with the computerized “learning revolution” in schools and colleges.

3. Workers must be computer literate in order to survive in the “high-technology” work force.

4. Citizens must be computer literate in order to vote and take an active part in the “information society.”


Turning first to the needs of the consumer, we find that while computers are indeed invading the marketplace and the home, there is nothing one has to know about computers in order to function successfully in a world of electronic ovens, “moneymatic” machines, and multifunction watches. “The future,” according to one manufacturer, “lies in designing and selling computers that people don’t realize are computers at all.“3 Although there may be as many home computers as television sets by the year 2000,4 this will happen only as they become as easily accessible. Even today the majority of home computers are used exclusively for packaged games;5 most other home uses, such as budgeting or filing recipes, require little more than inserting a cartridge or disk and following simple directions on a screen.

How then are we to understand the consumer’s supposed need to be computer literate? It is of course true that computer enthusiasts need to know how to program and how to find their way through a maze of computer products, but most consumers are not in this category. To purchase or to repair computer products one will be able to turn to knowledgeable friends, salesmen, or technicians, just as consumers today do with their cars and television sets. Although it might be nice to be able to do it all oneself, such dependence in the world of cars and television sets is hardly seen as dysfunctional today, and so it will be with computers tomorrow. In fact, as computers become more standardized, more self-diagnostic, more “user-friendly,” such dependence will be far less problematic than that of today’s typical car owner.

It is often said that “using computers is going to be just like driving a car,“6 but given the ease with which a typical teenager learns how to drive, it is difficult to understand why this analogy is offered as an argument for computer literacy. Furthermore, such a skill as driving is best acquired as the need for it arises; similarly, people can learn whatever they need or want to know about computers without having to be prepared or “literate” beforehand. The idea of computer literacy as preparation for later application, seen, for example, in comparisons between computer literacy and music appreciation, fits nicely within a “basic-skill” mentality that refuses to allow that fundamental knowledge is best acquired in the process of useful activity, not beforehand in useless introduction.


What about the vision of a computer revolution in the schools? Although there is a host of new computer requirements, the schools offer a world of shortsighted goals, exaggerated promise, and premature pronouncements, typically in response to intense outside pressures. Despite anecdotes of success, recent observers find computers in education to be at “a stage no more advanced than Kitty Hawk,“7 with equipment still spread so thinly as to be “considerably less than a revolution.“8 Added to these limitations are the enormous problems of untrained teachers, inadequate courseware, insufficient funds, and the wide disparity of access between rich and poor school districts. Yet promoters of computer literacy still talk of a total transformation of education for which all students must be prepared.

Computers will be useful, they tell us, both as powerful instructional aids and as catalysts for creative thinking and problem solving. Neither of these uses, however, appears to warrant the urgent, immediate attention it is receiving. Computer-assisted instruction ranges from sophisticated simulations to drill and practice. Computer simulation courseware, although exciting in concept, is still largely experimental, limited, and untested. Drilland-practice programs, often poorly developed and thoughtlessly utilized, are most effective in catching the attention of just those disadvantaged students whose access to them is the most limited. Even where available, their long-term benefits are unexamined and doubtful, given the complexity of such students’ educational problems.

In addition to computer-assisted instruction, computers in schools are said to offer new opportunities for problem solving and intellectual development, and programming languages such as LOGO are touted as capable of bringing difficult ideas within the reach of young children.9 Despite considerable excitement, however, this work is still in its infancy and “there is little objective data confirming the contention that computer programming enhances intellectual functioning or problem-solving.“10 The truth is that “current research has only begun to scratch the surface in exploring whether what students learn by programming computers has any carryover into non-computer situations.“11 Intuitions aside, programming remains for now an end in itself, often fun and stimulating, just as often misapplied or purposeless. In any case it is hardly worth the fuss.

Given the present state of computers in education, a reasonable agenda for the schools might include funds for promising computer projects, student exposure to computers along with woodshop or cooking, a social studies focus on the idea of technological progress, and programming courses for interested students. Promoters of computer literacy, however, see things on a grander scale. Portraying themselves as pioneers on a new frontier, they translate deficiencies into challenges and call for massive support to intensify and broaden their efforts to use the computer to transform education. Meanwhile, “computer science” has suddenly become a “New Basic” in the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Excellence in Education,12 despite the fact that it will meet no fundamental need of students in the years to come.


Computer literacy might be unnecessary to students while they are in school, but it is widely believed that “computer training should be . . . basic in schools [in order to] achieve a level of literacy that workers will need to get good jobs in the years ahead.“13 Indeed, since computers are thought to be transforming the very nature of work in the information age, computer literacy is being urged as necessary for employment in general.

Recent studies using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, however, challenge these assumptions by showing that very few of tomorrow’s jobs will require any familiarity with computers.14 While millions of workers are being permanently replaced by computers and robotics, new job areas created by computer technology—those that are not exported—are typically capital-intensive, creating relatively few new jobs. Despite prevailing assumptions, only 7 percent of the new work force will involve high-tech positions for programmers, technicians, computer operators, and engineers, and any current shortages in these areas will soon be filled.15 Most job openings in the next decade will be for janitors, nurses’ aides, sales clerks, kitchen helpers, and truck drivers. None of these jobs requires any familiarity with computers, however much they might depend upon computers behind the scenes. In addition, the vast majority of workers who will need to know something about computers, such as travel agents, airline reservationists, or telephone operators, will be able to learn what they need to know about their particular machines in a few weeks or less. In fact, the computer industry itself has begun to question its own workers’ need for computer literacy, which, it says, can be developed on the job.16

Why then is computer literacy considered so important for employment? One answer is that computer literacy represents high tech and the assumption is made that jobs in any age of high technology will require high-technology skills. Historically, however, the “higher” the technology introduced into a job, the lower the skills required by that job become. In numerical control machining, checkout scanning, or word processing, for example, most of the competence is built directly into the machines themselves. Smarter machines require less-skilled workers.

A second answer involves the assumption that any job touched by the computer is thereby transformed into “mind work” or “knowledge work” typical of tomorrow’s jobs. According to this view, “future workers will need the conceptual basis for solving complex problems and handling large systems of information.“17 Once again, the opposite is closer to the truth: Those jobs affected by computers, even attractive jobs like programming,18 are being subjected to new, tighter forms of control and segmentation that transform them into what might be more appropriately called “mindless work.”

Computer literacy does not prepare people for potent, intellectual work, but even if it did, such work will be rare in tomorrow’s labor market. There is instead every indication that computers will be used to preserve existing relations of knowledge and power on the job rather than to disturb them, and that there will still be little room at the top.

Of course, corporate managers, small businessmen, and professionals will probably need to know something about computers to perform their transformed tasks, but these people usually learn specific packages on particular machines as the need arises. General computer literacy is almost worthless in this context and will be even less useful as computer systems become more user-friendly (in fact rather than promise) in the wake of Apple’s Lisa, which is claimed to reduce instructional time from forty hours to forty minutes.19 The need for computer literacy is therefore questionable even for the few attractive jobs in tomorrow’s work force; for everyone else, it is unquestionably a waste of time.


What about the argument that computer literacy is necessary for citizenship? Will tomorrow’s citizen need to know something about computers in order to make informed decisions in the information age? One reads that “some understanding of computer programming is necessary for the exercise of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.“20 But this claim is difficult to understand, given the emphasis in computer-literacy education on trivial technical competence. Even if expertise in computers were necessary for informed policy decisions about their design or use, the level of technical knowledge offered in computer literacy classes is many orders of magnitude removed from the understanding of large systems that could conceivably contribute to public deliberation.

Technical understanding or expertise, however, is not necessary for participation in the social control of computer technology. Instead, one needs political understanding and a knowledge of who controls the direction of computer policy, for what purposes, for whose benefit, and for whose loss. There is nothing in computer-literacy education that offers such information or insight. Instead, discussions ‘of “social” questions are typically underplayed and oversimplified, serving as testimonials to such wonders as the automated office, the unmanned factory, and the Star Wars arsenal. The uncritical manner in which these topics are typically taught, especially in teacher-training workshops, reduces the dissemination of computer literacy to instances of the blind leading the blind on matters of social importance.

Still we are told that “to function effectively as citizens, we will need to know how the computer impinges on and enhances our everyday lives.“21 One must ask, however, how much citizen participation has been involved in the introduction of computers into our homes, our schools, and especially our jobs, up to this point. One must then ask to what extent technological decisions are likely to be subject to democratic processes, with or without a computer-literate electorate, in the future. Such decisions are now typically made in corporate or military boardrooms, far removed from public scrutiny, and there is nothing in computer literacy that will magically empower voters to alter the locus of this control. Despite talk of computers’ being used to decentralize control and to offer the public unlimited access to information, there is every indication that computers are being used to further concentrate political and economic control in the hands of a few, and that the information age will mean more information for those few and far less for the rest of us. In fact, information that is now readily available to the public at no cost will soon be coming with a price tag as libraries are transformed into information brokers and videotex becomes an exclusive information resource.

Most important of all, critical debate about the social impact of computers has diminished and discussions about their toll in human values and dignity have become unfashionable, just as computer literacy has become widespread. Truly informed citizens, it seems, will not need to be computer literate in order to participate in decisions about computer technology; they will need something else.


It is not especially difficult to show that computer literacy is unnecessary for consumer, student, worker, or citizen in the information age. What is difficult to explain is the prevailing assumption that computer literacy is essential, despite the evidence to the contrary. While most people have not stopped to examine the evidence, it is nevertheless unclear how they arrived at such an assumption in the first place. What has apparently convinced an entire population that something as vague and worthless as computer literacy is essential to their lives? Why are otherwise thoughtful and intelligent teachers, journalists, labor leaders, and politicians so innocently and unthinkingly endorsing, even helping to disseminate, such pedagogical chicanery?

Cynics point with some validity to the exaggerated promotions of the computer industry as the source of this assumption. But computer merchants and manufacturers have for the most part simply exploited and enlarged on a demand that was already there. Educators, too, have been accused of exaggerating the importance of computer literacy, but they are primarily responding to pressure from parents who are concerned that their children be prepared for what they see as tomorrow’s world. What amounts to a blind faith in computer literacy cannot be traced back entirely to merchants, educators, or parents, who are themselves caught up in the same assumption about the importance of computer literacy. Instead, there is something resembling ideology in all of this, an unwitting compliance, among promoters and initiates alike, with the ubiquitous imperatives of high technology: the promise of a part in a brighter economy and a grand new social order. Computer literacy seems so plausible precisely because it fits so nicely within this futuristic ideology. It might be instructive, therefore, to view the computer-literacy phenomenon not as education at all, but rather as a campaign to further envelop the population in this ideology.

The theme underlying this campaign can be extracted from the words of its most vocal advocates: Computer literacy, we are told, “leads to a favorable affective orientation “22 that enables people to “take reasonable positions on information-related issues,“23 “ help[s] them understand the concept of compromise with respect to policy issues such as informational privacy and security,“24 and “eliminate concerns . . . about automation in general.“25 Viewed as an ideological campaign, computer literacy seems designed to elicit public support for the present directions of computer technology. We shall see that such an interpretation contributes to a better understanding of the computer-literacy phenomenon.

Throughout the country, a small army of business leaders and educators is spreading the word about the dangers stemming from the scientific and technological illiteracy of the American people, warning that the public is not intellectually prepared to support this country in the transition to a high-technology society.26 These leaders express their concern over opinion polls showing the public to be skeptical of technological solutions to social problems. They argue that a scientifically literate population, one knowledgeable in science and technology, would be more supportive of their high-technology prerogatives, and they call for a renewed emphasis on science and mathematics education to generate this support.

Computer-literacy education might best be construed as part of this same campaign. While its advocates tell us that their goal is to help the public become “computer comfortable,” their sights seem instead to be on a population, comfortable or not, that will support the idea of an information society: “In the coming years we are going to retool our industry, and it should be made clear that we must, at the same time, retool ourselves.“27 Since, as we have seen, there is no great need for our technical retooling, this can only mean an ideological retooling, an adaptation to the imposed imperatives of high technology.

How does a computer-literacy campaign translate into support for high-technology policy? It does so in three ways. First, the form the campaign takes—its rhetoric, its intensity, its ubiquity—persuades the population that its description of the future is the correct one. Second, the content of the instruction itself—its technical emphasis, its oversimplification of issues—eases the public into “appropriate” ways of thinking about the new technology. The third, and perhaps the most effective, means of ensuring public cooperation is the rapid institutionalization of computer literacy through the premature installation of new requirements for schooling and jobs, which literally forces the population to accept a new set of dubious realities. As we look at the form, the content, and the institutionalization of computer-literacy ideology, the heretofore disjointed landscape of the computer-literacy phenomenon begins to make sense as a coherent whole.


Ironically, the urgency surrounding computer literacy has heightened the very apprehension about computers it is supposedly designed to relieve, for although there has been a strong positive public response to computer literacy, it seems to reflect above all a fear, a panic even, of being left behind by the “computer revolution.” Computer-literacy promoters have fed this anxiety with warnings that “ignorance of computers will render people as functionally illiterate as ignorance of reading, writing and arithmetic.“28 Individuals have in this way been driven to become computer comfortable by being made to feel acutely uncomfortable about their unfamiliarity with computers. This unfamiliarity, heretofore the benign consequence of intimidation, disinterest, or disdain, has become infected by the urgent necessity of computer literacy and has been transformed into a full-blown fear of computers. “Computer phobia,” by no coincidence, has taken on epidemic proportions just as its “antidote,” computer literacy, has become available. The consequence of all this diseased emotionality is that the majority line up to take the “cure” and those left behind are seen by themselves as well as by others to be regressive relics of a suddenly distant past, their competence, their skills, their years of experience suddenly irrelevant.

Alongside this psychological layering, arguments and justifications, invalid yet persuasive, exhort consumers, students, citizens, and workers to prepare themselves for inevitable changes soon to take place in their lives. The omnipresence of the computer is used to dramatize a sense that we are in the throes of a computer revolution that will ultimately improve our society, and the routine confusion of the future with the present serves to convince the population that the information age is already upon us and therefore beyond our control. Interestingly, the very fact that there is a campaign to help people become computer literate plays a part in the dramatization of this inevitability, quite apart from any justification; for if the information age were not on the horizon, there would be no apparent reason for all this talk about computer literacy. The inevitability of a computerized society, whether it be ultimately good or bad, is by far the most important message of the computer-literacy ideology, providing, when all else fails, its argument of last resort: “It’s too late to stop it.”

The least defensible, yet for many the most convincing, feature of the campaign for computer literacy is its nationalistic rhetoric: “A computer literate workforce is necessary to maintain our national defense and to improve our national productivity,“29 we are warned, and therefore “the shortage of computer specialists and knowledge workers has raised the problem of computer literacy to the level of a national crisis.“30 Rather than examine this presumed importance of computer literacy to the nation’s needs, we are encouraged instead to assume “an overarching national goal: to reverse the trend of decline of the U.S. relative to its main competition in productivity, prestige and leadership.“31

Apparently, the current economic recession, fostering daily comparisons between ourselves and the Japanese, is the perfect mixture for such patriotic stirrings, and there is little wonder that it stifles thoughtful debate about the legitimacy of computer literacy and other high-tech solutions.


Focusing on the technical content of computer-literacy curricula encourages the twin mythology that high-tech jobs require high-tech skills and that high-tech politics requires high-tech expertise. The technical focus shifts attention away from social questions and portrays computers as something to learn rather than something to think about. The computer is portrayed as friendly and accessible (“Your computer likes you”) and the user is encouraged to think that all computers, even those in large systems, are friendly and accessible. In this manner, computers are further mystified in the very act of demystification. Most important of all, such technical training “is a concrete basis for understanding the value of computers. . . and leads to greater acceptance of other societal applications as well.“32

The focus on the technical also leads the user to a false sense of empowerment, “a pseudocontrol. ” “When you program a computer, you feel a great deal of control and mastery” because “to program a computer is to enjoy power.“33 This sense of power attracts many people to the computer, but it also deludes them into thinking that they are somehow participating in the forward momentum of computer technology when in reality they are only comforming their intellect to the configurations and constraints of computer instruction, which constitutes a new variation of “following orders:” The result is a nation of citizen “computer-masters” who cannot see the forest for the trees, a perfect support system for computer technology.

The content of the social component of computer-literacy curricula serves to depoliticize debate by defining the parameters of acceptable discussion. The establishment of a carefully delineated, “safe” arena for discussions of social impact—always understood as a “break” from the real, that is, technical, focus—renders any attempt at genuine, sustained criticism illegitimate, even irrational. Above all, the public is encouraged to assume that all the important social questions have been sufficiently investigated when in fact they have been barely entertained.


As the form and the content of the campaign for computer literacy encourage support for the computer age while discouraging dissent, the population is steadily being “retooled” to fit the ideological needs of a retooled economy. Using the terminology of the technologists themselves, we might say that computer literacy is the human-factor component in the design of the information society, used to “manufacture” a computer-friendly population that is prepared to meet new user-friendly machinery halfway. Of course, most educators, businessmen, and technologists promoting computer literacy are merely unwitting participants in such ideological designs; they simply see computer literacy as a reasonable introduction to the use of an exciting new tool. There are others, however, on the national level, whose motives seem more consciously ideological.34

The fact that the diverse pedagogical intentions of the former fit so nicely within the ideological designs of the latter suggests that computer literacy ideology is more hegemonic than conscious. This is confirmed by the observation that excitement over the use of the new tool is almost always accompanied by fantastical predictions of social transformation. But the best illustration of this hegemony in operation is the rapid, almost reflexive, installation of computer requirements for schooling and employment. “

The real measure of a revolution,” we are assured, “is not its casualty count, but its effects on the survivors.“35 Nevertheless, computers are being used in ways that are creating a growing underclass of displaced and marginal workers. The institutionalization of computer requirements can be seen as a means—perhaps still unconscious and hegemonic—to justify those lost lives by a process of mass disqualification, which throws the blame for disenfranchisement in education and employment back on the victims themselves.

The campaign for computer literacy includes more than rhetoric and simplistic instruction; it also consists in the accelerating installation of barriers to schooling and jobs by way of credentials and hiring practices. Throughout the country, states and local districts are falling in line by establishing and standardizing high school graduation requirements in computers,36 and colleges and universities are following the lead of Carnegie Mellon in requiring students to own their own microcomputers.37 We are told that “teachers should be required to be computer literate before graduation [and that] knowledge of computers [should be] a criterion for employment as we11.“38 Help-wanted ads for service jobs have begun to affix the recommendation “computer knowledge helpful,” and magazine cover images of hard hatted steelworkers hunched over computer keyboards serve notice that the way to a job is through computers and that he who avoids this route will have only himself to blame.

This newly manufactured need for computer literacy in order to obtain a job or get through school defies the truth that there is in fact no genuine reason to know about computers in school or in most jobs. The “need” for computer literacy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, based not on reality but on appearance. This explains why students in poor school districts with little access to computers are in danger of becoming disenfranchised. It is not because knowledge of computers is important; rather, it is because computer credentials are now seen as important, and have become a needless barrier, a biased obstacle, to opportunity. Thus, a useless parcel of information about computers might determine who gets the high-tech job at the video display terminal tomorrow, just as spelling on an application determines the right candidate for a janitor’s job today. Those who are already seen as marginal to the economy, often because of functional illiteracy resulting from second-rate schooling, seem destined to become doubly disqualified by being computer illiterate as well (despite the negligible difference between computer illiteracy and its opposite).

Since the new high-tech economy will involve fewer and less meaningful jobs, this installation of barriers, this reflexive concretization of ideology, will ensure that fewer applicants make the grade; computer-literacy ideology, with its own built-in justifications, will result in mass disqualification. By intensifying the already frantic competition for schooling and jobs, by reducing the numbers who will get through, and by justifying the exclusion of those who will be left behind, computer barriers impel a people to adapt themselves to the computer society, regardless of whether they are destined to become its “survivors” or its “casualties.”

Knowing something about computers, tools that are apparently being used to reshape our world, would seem to be superior to remaining ignorant of them; the ideal of a technologically informed citizenry in a technological age makes sense as well. But when one considers how education for computer literacy enfeebles in the name of empowerment, mystifies in the name of demythology, and disenfranchises in the name of participation, the questions must be asked: Is it even possible in the current ideological climate to provide a potent pedagogy about computers? Is it possible to teach about computers without at the same time exaggerating their importance and without depicting their use as the highest form of intellect? Is it possible to avoid hegemonic interpretations that automatically translate the omnipresence of computers into a mythical futurism called the “information society?” Perhaps creating the space for such possibilities should become a priority among serious educators, leaving computer literacy to the ideologues. And since the computer-literacy phenomenon is but one thrust in a larger campaign to accommodate the American people to the erstwhile imperatives of high technology, our focus should perhaps be directed to this larger campaign, anticipating its further incarnations.

In recent months, for example, computer literacy has been viewed with growing disfavor, and some business leaders and educators have suggested replacing its narrow focus with a more general “basic” education, one that emphasizes critical-thinking skills, which, they say, will better prepare people to adapt to a constantly changing job market. 39Although this appears to be a reversal of attitude toward computer literacy, it can easily be seen as a continuation of the same ideology. Since the new economy will require minimal intellectual functioning from the majority of workers, “adaptability” offers new justification for old “basic” educational policy in an economy that will no longer need many educated people. In this context, the clarion call for higher standards in the name of “excellence in education” is simply an excuse to further intensify the selection process for a streamlined economy. Most important of all, such education is still an enterprise, like computer literacy, that only further adapts a people to a world and to a future that is not of their own making.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 4, 1984, p. 602-614 ID Number: 853, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:19:23 AM

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