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.