My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
August 1, 2004


If somebody had told me ten years ago that millions of Americans would cheerfully proclaim themselves "dummies," I'd have said "You're kidding, right?" Americans? Who pride ourselves on our smarts, our cool, our native shrewdness? What could conceivably bring us to admit our nagging little self-doubts in public?

Answer: the Dummies guides, which, like laser cartridges and mouse pads, are a totally new product computers have created a market for. Why?

Because for those of us who didn't grow up with computers, they were foisted upon us by employers; because most of us use them without understanding them; because we suspect they will crash and leave no trace of the projects that have consumed our lives for the past 18 months; because their manuals never answer the questions we actually have; because they appear to be written by people whose native tongue is geek; for these reasons and more, computers have liberated us to admit that we are utterly baffled by our brave new world.

Since nobody would reasonably expect most of us to understand this stuff, reading DOS for Dummies or Macs for Dummies isn't treated as a sign of intellectual dysfunction. Indeed, our bosses might even give us credit for trying to understand the systems we're working with, as we continue our self-education with dummies' guides to, say, Oracle or Palm Pilot.

(Some of the technology-oriented dummies' guides do worry me a bit: I really don't want system administrators to be resolving our problems by flipping to the relevant pages of Linux Administration for Dummies or TCP/IP for Dummies.)

The dummies' guides to computing, it turns out, were just the opening wedge for an entire industry. If computers are mysterious, our cars, for many of us, are even moreso; Cars for Dummies and Auto Repair for Dummies were logical next steps.

But there are lots more ways our lives have complexified on us. All of a sudden we're supposed to know how to program VCRs and operate satellite dishes, hence Satellite TV for Dummies. People who were used to smiling service station attendants filling their tanks and wiping their windows have had to learn to operate a gas pump; people who've visited tellers all their lives are now expected to use smart cards, do online banking, and even be responsible for our own retirement plans and investments. It's not surprising we're now seeing books like ATM for Dummies and Banking Online for Dummies, even Personal Finance for Dummies.

Then there's the ancient art of bartending, which was simple enough back when everybody pretty much drank rum or scotch. Now, though, you have to know how to make margaritas, cosmopolitans, Harvey Wallbangers and the like, so publishers gave us Bartending for Dummies, not to mention dummies' guides to beer and home brewing.

Even cooking and hobbies and recreation have become more complicated and intimidating, as it now seems we have to meet new quality standards; we can't just grill a brat, we have to grill it to the exactly perfect brownness after soaking it in a beautifully seasoned marinade.

I remember when all you had to do for a pet fish was provide a bowl of water and fish food; now you have to buy aquariums and aerators, and monitor the water's acid pH level. Fortunately, Aquariums for Dummies will walk you through the basics. Birdwatching used to require binoculars, a couple of reference books, and an endless tolerance for staring into space, but now it's complicated enough to need its own Dummies manual. As for catching fish, high tech used to be a rod and a worm, but now, with electronic fish locators, and different kinds of lures for each different fish, we need a Fishing for Dummies guide.

Still, as any geek would tell you, figuring out how machines and toys work is a snap compared to figuring out what makes carbon-based life-forms tick, so soon we were reading Cats for Dummies, Dating for Dummies, and Making Marriage Work for Dummies.

Of course, if we were talking about genuinely hopeless incompetents, we might not want to advise them about reproduction; Sex for Dummies, and Pregnancy for Dummies would not rank among the human race's all-time great ideas.

But the dummies in question are US: ordinary, reasonably intelligent people who are just hopelessly befuddled. The guides for dummies insidiously, step by step, have liberated us by allowing us to admit that the modern world is beyond our comprehension.

And you know something? That's a good thing. Because the most crucial step in learning is coming to understand how much we do not know.

NOTE: An earlier version of this column appeared in my Observing Us column at Fox News Online.

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