Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#68, January 4, 2000


by Marylaine Block

If somebody had told me ten years ago that millions of Americans would cheerfully proclaim themselves "dummies," I'd have said "You've GOTTA be kidding." After all, we pride ourselves on our smarts, our cool, our native shrewdness. What could bring us to freely admit our nagging little self-doubts?

Answer: the Dummies guides, yet another contribution computers have made to our lives.

Because machines have been foisted upon us by employers; because most of us use them without understanding them; because we suspect they will trash all the projects that have consumed our lives for the past 18 months; because their manuals never answer the questions we actually have, and are written by people whose native tongue seems to be Romanian, computers have allowed 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 sincerely hope techies at internet service providers aren't solving our problems while flipping through the Dummies' guides to Linux Administration or TCP/IP.)

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 the 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 their own retirement plans and investments. It's not surprising we're now seeing books like Banking Online for Dummies, and even Personal Finance for Dummies (Abridged!).

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, grasshoppers, Harvey Wallbangers and the like, so publishers gave us Dummies' guides to bartending, and even to brewing your own beer.

Even our recreation has become more complicated and intimidating. I remember when all you had to do for a pet fish was provide a bowl of water and fish food; now you need 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 Fishing for Dummies.

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 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, allow us to admit that the modern world is beyond our comprehension.

Which is good. Because the most crucial step in learning is coming to understand how much we do not know.

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing