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More Application, Please

August 2010

As a general rule manufacturers seem to assume that the older you become the less capable you are of assessing and assimilating anything new, especially technology.  As a consequence  I usually ignore any computer related gadgets designed for “seniors” or “silver surfers”.  At best they can be patronising, but more often they are simply useless to anyone of any age.  

But it’s this assumption that “youth” equals “technical competence” that gets my goat, because it simply isn’t the case.

This may surprise some, because we are regularly given the impression that if you are under thirty you can work all technology easily.  Not so – they are not taught much, if anything, about computers at school or university, and they seem to be expected to learn how to get the best out of these highly complex pieces of machinery by trial and error.

I am constantly surprised by the number of sub-thirty year olds who look to me, with my grey hair, for help in managing their computers.  

For example, one recent graduate I know came to me in despair – he had removed his anti-virus software to make more room for music, and was astonished when his laptop rapidly became infested with goodness knows what evil electronic illnesses.  He’s a bright boy, but the innards of a laptop are a mystery to him, even though he is firmly of the generation who can hardly remember a time before the Internet.

Similarly, I am often asked to help resolve a computer related muddle in the offices I visit, staffed by twenty-first century bright young things.  None of the problems is very serious (I could not do anything for them if they were) but they are usually the product of the very fragile nature of the computers we are sold, and the inadequate training we receive from the manufacturers.  The software is certainly clever, but it is years away from being user friendly, whatever the disciples say.

I believe that computers at the moment are similar to cars in the early 1950’s; they are expensive, not very reliable, need regular maintenance from a mechanic, become outdated quickly and, in the final analysis, can’t be relied upon.  Nowadays we can all climb into each other’s cars and drive to Aberdeen without a second thought; but using someone else’s computer can often be a baffling experience.

In the last year or two, however, there has been a welcome and increasing realisation in the computer industry that if something doesn’t work for the likes of us, who won’t put up with badly designed, difficult to operate rubbish, however clever, then most other people, however young, won’t be able to use it either and consequently it won’t be bought in any quantities.  I suspect it has come about because of the increasing age of the senior employees in the computer industry; the head of Microsoft is 54, the head of Apple is 55; both unthinkably elderly by the standards of the first dotcom boom.

So what is the solution?  Well, first, I think that we should all seek out some training for using a computer, just as we would get some driving lessons before using a car.  There are many capable and useful local experts around (look in your Parish magazine) who tend to charge about the same as Driving Instructors, as it happens.

Secondly, I think that we should all do what we can to encourage manufacturers to test new products on older users.  As I mentioned, there is already a trend in this direction, so we should be pushing at an open door.  

Thirdly, bring back the hand book!  I am a great believer in the online help-file, but they are only really any good if you know what you are looking for.  However, if each computer came with a “Getting started on your Computer” style guide book, written for newcomers, taking you through some basics (much like your car handbook) many would flock to that manufacturer.

Finally, we should have the courage to experiment.  If you observe the basic rules about having anti-virus software and backing up your data, you really can’t do too much damage.  In all likelihood most of what you can be easily corrected – maybe by just by switching it off and on again.

So be brave.