Newbie art

A title of distinction

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 11, 2002.

There has always — or at least, there has long — been an element of elitism and snobbery in the computer field. Rather than reflecting on their good fortune in having both an aptitude for and access to computers, some folks feel the need to remind everyone else of their superiority in the digital realm.

Instead of holding out a helping hand to those who have followed, too many computer veterans dismiss the rest of us with the condescending name of "newbie."

Which to my perspective reflects more on the snob using the word than its intended target.

In the olden days of computing, when there were no such things as personal computers, many programmers and technicians set themselves up as a holy priesthood, dressed in white lab coats instead of vestments. Peons wishing to access the gods had to go through this priesthood, dropping their offerings and prayers off in the form of batch cards to be processed by the acolytes. Mere mortals could have no direct access to the gods; only this priesthood was allowed into the inner (and air-conditioned, I might add) sanctum.

Of course, there have also always been those who have recognized their good fortune and sought to share what they've learned. It was this very sense of community that led to the development of the personal computer and the revolution that's followed.

Computer professionals like Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, who had learned their skills at Hewlett-Packard, took the people-oriented mentality they'd gotten working for Nolan Bushnell at Atari and set about to create computer technology that would be accessible by the entire world. And they were only joining folks like Ed Roberts (Altair) and Lee Felsenstein (Homebrew Club). Even Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to pursue this crazy dream of bringing computers out of Fortune 500 and universities and to the people. These were all members of the digital priesthood who decided that the computer gods didn't need go-betweens, who believed that computer technology belonged to the world, not to the self-appointed few.

I got in on the ground floor of the PC revolution when my dad built a homebrew KIM-I computer in our basement back home in Ohio in the mid-70s. So I've been using computers for a quarter-century now. And yet, there are literally tens of thousands of 14-year-olds out there today who already know more about programming and hardware than I ever will.

To them, I offer both a nod of respect and a couple dozen questions I've cribbed on scraps of paper tossed around my desk.

When I hear or read of someone using the term newbie, my own estimation of that person is immediately diminished.

Those cursed with the epithet of newbie, on the other hand, seem worthy of our respect — and whatever little help I can offer. They're willing to try something new, to tackle a technology that can seem intimidating even 25 years after first taking a stab at it. And when their new-found enthusiasm for computers remains undaunted even in the face of computer snobs who would dismiss them for being inexperienced, I find it all the more admirable.

There's no crime in being new to computers — there is something wrong with putting people down to boost your own fragile ego.

Besides, no computer expert can know everything about the field. Maybe you're a whiz at C++. Doesn't mean you know squat about Java. Are you able to tear a P4 down to its essentials and troubleshoot it without fail? Great — but what about this Sparc 5 I have over here? The computer field is too vast for anyone to know more than a tiny sliver — and as computer technology advances, that sliver of what a single person can know will become less and less of the whole picture.

In that sense, we're all newbies. But those dismissed as newbies seem to be the smart ones, the ones who aren't afraid to admit they have imperfect knowledge, who want to continue learning.

A newbie? I hope I'm always one.

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