Minds Of Their Own

I think it must be really strange not to have had computers as a part of everyday life. I don’t mean that it must have been strange then – you don’t miss what you’ve never had, after all – but rather that it must be strange for those people now.

Computers were just becoming the Next Big Thing when I was in primary school, although it wasn’t until secondary school that I had actual computer lessons, and we didn’t get our first PC at home until I was in Sixth Form, I would read about it on their websites but I only got my own much later. You could still pretty much do without them – nobody at school had really caught on to the notion of the internet as a research tool, or a cheating aid, for that matter. We learned basic spreadsheets (and then most of us never used them again in our lives), and word processing, but that was it. Even at university, I don’t recall researching any of my papers online. I went to the library and got out stacks of those hard-backed paper things with print in them. Books, you know. But by that stage email was pretty important to me, and I was discovering the many uses of the internet in terms of looking up social events, ordering hard-to-find products, and communicating with distant friends and family.

By the time I left university, it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t have a computer, and nowadays I couldn’t cope without one. Work, communication, shopping, leisure, research, blogging, networking… and gone are the days of having discussions ending in “oh, I can’t remember who sang/wrote/said that, it’s going to drive me mad!”, since pretty much every query can be resolved by saying “Google it!”. I really do think it’s amazing.

But because using a computer for nearly everything is second nature to me now, I have a great deal of difficulty in understanding how awkward and confusing it is to some people. Hence my opening statement – it must be really strange not to have grown up using computers, and to now be struggling to adapt. With my own parents, I’ve been impressed at how they’ve taken on email and googling, but in trying to help and advise I find it hard to be a good instructor. My parents are right – modern technology isn’t as reliable as the things previous generations have been used to. With a VCR, for example, you put in the tape and pressed play and that was that. With a DVD player, it takes its time to load and prepare and whatever else it does, and one press of the wrong button will have you at the end of the movie. Which is all very well for someone who’s used to it, but not for someone who lacks confidence in operating technology that they’re just not familiar with.

It’s surprisingly hard to explain to someone how to select a portion of text on a computer screen and print it. Despite the fact that I can do it without even thinking about it, I can’t teach it – mainly because, as my mother has correctly and frustratedly pointed out many times, the computer doesn’t do the same thing every time. It really doesn’t! You don’t notice when you’re doing everyday stuff on it by yourself, but when you try to give a specific set of instructions to someone who relies on following those instructions to the letter, you realise that what works one time may not work the next time. I showed Mum how to click at the start of the portion of text and then drag the cursor down until she reached the end of the section she wanted to highlight. But then I went to demonstrate it again, and it highlighted the entire page in one go. And then I did it again, and it highlighted one word and refused to move any further. Now, like I said, I don’t notice this when I’m doing it for myself. I guess I must just automatically correct it without thinking. But how is someone meant to do that when they aren’t familiar with computer quirks, and when for all they know, clicking elsewhere on the screen to clear it might do something completely different and potentially disasterous? The Parents get frustrated, too, with pop-up windows asking if they’re “sure” they want to “do this”. How the hell should I know?! asks Dad in annoyance. And right enough – how is he to know whether what the computer warns will be the consequence of clicking “yes” is harmless, or death to the hard drive?

I think the only way is to become familiar with computers. That’s the only way you’re going to know what’s OK and what’s not, and the only way you’re going to get the confidence to plow on regardless of “it won’t do what I tell it to!!” moments. Even at that, I still get plenty of those moments myself. I can’t for the life of me understand why this blog will sometimes stick on italics and refuse to let me switch back to regular text, for example. I have no idea why I’m able to format a Word document in a particular way on Tuesday, and then find it impossible on Wednesday despite pressing all the same buttons. I don’t care what anyone says – these things have a mind of their own. I applaud The Parents for persevering, because they are completely right to be distrustful.

And they’re a lot better with computers than some others in their predicament. Dad’s friend asked him yesterday morning in the pub if his computer had been working before he came out. Yes, said Dad. His friend looked confused. That’s strange, then, he mused. Mine said it was hibernating.

I would have loved to have been there to explain that there’s not a season of hibernation for computers in general as there is with, say, squirrels, but I fear that the ten minutes of laughter that followed Dad telling me this would not have been a particularly helpful response.

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4 thoughts on “Minds Of Their Own

  1. I’m now imagining all the computers in thw rold digging burrows for themselves and going off to hibernate when winter comes around. Brilliant!
    As for computers not doing what you tell them to… lately when I try to shut mine down it either actually shuts down like it’s meant to, does shut down but asks me for my password first or logs me out but stays switched on. Of course, whenever the (computer scientist) boyfriend is around it shuts down perfectly normally. I’m convinced it really does have a mind of its own and it’s decided that making me look stupid in front of the boyfriend is a fun game. Except I don’t find it funny at all!

  2. When I first started using computers at home I got really irritated if any of my daughters changed anything on the home page or desktop. When that happened, and thanks to Zoe – it happened fairly often, I felt as if I had a different machine to get to grips with and got all confused.

  3. Bevchen – yes, I do believe they try to make people like us look stupid. It’s sort of like when your body turns against you and makes you look like an idiot by causing you severe pain in a particular area for several days, and then becoming miraculously healed the moment you step into the doctor’s waiting room.
    Nelly – I’m generally not too bad with my own machine, when I get used to it, but give me anyone else’s and I’m clueless. And I, too, like everything on the desktop, my home page, and websites in general to stay in the same place so that I know where everything is!
    Grannymar – yes, that’s my parents’ main concern. I think you just need to be confident that you’re not going to wreck the whole thing by clicking on something that you shouldn’t, and march boldly onwards!

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