It takes time to learn any skills … including building a computer

Recently, there was an article on Vice by Emanuel Maiberg arguing that it was still excessively difficult to build a modern computer. The article provoked strong reactions from support to disagreement and is still making waves around the Internet.

The reality is that whenever you begin something for the first time, you are going to be terrible at that skill. There is no way around it, except of course to not learn that skill. Pre-built computers are often presented as the “solution” to that problem, but of course come with their own trade-offs, such as cost and stabilizability. There is always going to be a trade-off between the amount of freedom that you get versus the amount time that you invest in a skill to maximize your potential.

X99A XPower Titanium

The MSI X99A XPower Titanium motherboard. By far the most complex part of building a computer is the component selection.

In some ways, this does resemble Linux. Compared to Windows and Mac OS X, there is more freedom in that you can choose your own distro, choose your own UI environment, and various other customizations. You can even compile from source yourself or create your own distro from scratch. The problem is that with greater freedom comes the need for greater skill. Linux from Scratch is not going to be for everyone, even not most computer enthusiasts. Apple is often cited as offering limited freedom in exchange for a “it just works out of the box” experience.

For those not willing to put any effort into building a computer, or for that matter any skill, not they will not be able to succeed simply because they did not put in the effort. That is going to be true of anything that requires persistence and hard work. It is true for not just building a computer, but also for learning basic life skills, such as cooking, professional skills, personal financial management, and basically anything that involves learning. It requires patience because whenever someone is a novice, there will inevitably be mistakes.

I must disagree with Malberg because what he implies with his article is that building a computer should be something that requires no skill. That simply is not going to happen. Any skill requires work. While I agree with Joel Hruska’s response that yes, PC building was more difficult in the past, PC building was far more difficult than it is today and that everyone can gain from making computers easier to build, it is not going to ever be an effort free experience. I am inclined to agree with Matt Murray’s response in that regard, who likes it because his heart is into it. Now not everyone’s heart is going to be into a particular skill, but the point is, that any technical skill is going to take time.

On that note, one thing I do disagree with the computer enthusiast community is that there is often quite a bit of elitism, where people are looked down upon for not having the latest and greatest. In many ways, I am reminded of those in the Linux community who look down on people for not compiling from scratch or using a particularly difficult and not user-friendly distro versus one of the more well known distros. Such attitudes will only alienate potential newcomers and are counterproductive. There is an important lesson though for newcomers, whenever looking online or elsewhere for help, find a friendly community or person willing to help out a neophyte.

What are the barriers? Why do they exist?

By far the most commonly cited barrier is the endless choice of computer components in the context of building a computer. Certainly that is not the only area that mistakes can be made (particularly with water cooling, there are mistakes that can be made), but it is an example.

The problem is that it is in the interests of computer manufacturers to sell their products to the end user. An objective comparison between multiple manufacturers would force a person (or a reviewer) to choose, to compare the pros and cons. The reality is that most manufacturers in a roundup will not have the best products or the best value. For a person with limited knowledge, there is a huge information asymmetry that exists. Even experts cannot possibly know everything about their products. For manufacturers, it is in their best interests to hype up their products, something that I have previously warned against. The challenge is that new products often do deliver impressive capabilities, but often the marketing overstates the benefits of a product.

It is not just a problem in the case of computer manufacturers either. Every manufacturer is going to market to you their goods or services. They want you to buy after all. That is true for pretty much any goods and services that you can buy, along with other organizations, such as  potential employers looking for top talent and trying to entice them. They would be out of business otherwise.

The difficulty is that most markets are saturated with products of varying quality. The good ones, from my experience at least, are few and far between. Choosing the right one and finding the right sources of information is a time consuming process. Most people do not succeed in identifying the best products, due to a combination of lack of time, marketing trumping over product quality, and people themselves not always being rational.

Why does this matter? What are the consequences?

In the case of a computer, well, you probably use your computer every day. It is a considerable investment in money and especially time. To that end, you want a computer that is functioning smoothly that gives little and ideally no hardware or software issues. Nothing gets  people more frustrated I find then having to wage a war with their computers. For many people, they spend more time at their personal computer when at home than everywhere else.

I believe that it is worth investing in a decent medium end computer at the very least, given the central role that they continue to play in our lives. Budget computers and components are often questionable in quality, although there are sometimes value “gems” that can be found, but only after considerable research. High end machines, unless you have a very specific use for them, tend to leave diminishing returns. It is not an area to buy the absolute cheapest at all.

What about any other skills? Well it depends of course on the skill and its importance to your life. Some are critical everywhere, such as your ability to negotiate. As far as the consequences of not negotiating, it could be a personal financial loss, a loss of a better deal, and is entirely dependent on the context.

Should you take the time to learn a skill? Time of course is a limited resource for everyone. I would argue that it depends on the context of the skill and the consequences of not having it. Often though, I would argue that yes, a person should have at least a basic level of understanding and intellectual curiosity towards most aspects of life.

The way forward?

Unique to purchasing, the problem is that there are competing interests – the consumer versus the manufacturer. There is an incentive to up-sell the consumer or over-promise and under-deliver. Such actions may be unethical and could damage a brand in the long-run if the manufacturer does not deliver, but in the short run, it could lead to sales from either gullible consumers or blindly obedient fans.

As for other skills, it is not such a zero-sum game. One person being intelligent for example, does not mean a loss for another person. The way forward is to maximize the most important skills that you think are key to life.

For computers, I can see a way forward for identifying the good quality components. A massive roundup, ideally by an independent source that does not receive any sponsorship. This would involve lengthy long-term testing for any issues and a set of metrics that are agreed upon. Manufacturers are not expected to like this round-up because most products will come deficient in some way. It is a matter of choosing for the reviewer and end user which one trade-offs to make. In practice, I think that there would be quite a few difficulties in setting that review model up because most manufacturers would not want to sponsor such a website, nor would they want to advertise there. Meanwhile, testing would be lengthy and difficult. It would be the optimal solution,  but extremely difficult to implement.

I think that while everyone can benefit from making a skill easier to learn, from obtaining better quality information, there is never going to be a case where doing a skill requires no work. It would not be a skill that is worth learning if that were the case. To learn a skill requires time, effort, and persistence. That is not about to change any time soon.

Going forward though, I think this whole drama shows how important it is to always be committed to learning, to self-improvement, and to having a strong sense of curiosity.

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