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February 04, 2005

Age and the Web

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For no good reason, I found myself wondering: up to what age do people take to computers? Up to what age do they embrace the web? Is there a cutoff?

One man I know who's in his mid-70s manages the computer well. He emails; he stores information; he shoots and manipulates digital photos; he prints out cards and images. In many ways he manages better than I do. I'm not entirely sure, though, that -- despite his prowess -- he grasps the basic principles of the digital universe, the hyperlinked/tree-structure/database thing that networked computers work on. The idea of managing folders and files puts him seriously off, and he seems to feel no urge to hang out on the web. But he's an enthusiastic user of his computer anyway.

By contrast, one very intelligent woman I know who's in her 80s barely turns her computer on at all. You'd think she'd love the capabilities that the machine offers; she's a creative and resourceful person. But all she uses it for is once-a-week email sessions and occasional games of solitaire. Otherwise she shuns the beast.

Moving into and inhabiting the digital mind-space can be a hurdle even for someone who's middle-aged: me, for instance. Thinking in computer terms -- slicing-and-dicing, hyperlinking, chunking, seeing some of the ramifications of all this -- takes an effort. It's fascinating, and it's cool. But finding my way around is also like learning to speak a foreign language. And my brain is a long way from being as pliant and energized as it once was.

I feel good about how well I do contend, given my age and my useless English-lit background. And I feel downright smug when I look at many of my friends. They gripe and they whine; they've chosen to hang out in the Old Media world and bitch about the direction life is going. But even I -- even I! -- sometimes find myself ruefully reflecting that I'm adapting to computers with a mind that was hammered into shape back in the Dewey Decimal years. Nonlinearity is bliss -- but wrestling a linear mind into taking advantage of nonlinear bliss does present some challenges.

Here's a small example. One New Reality I often encounter is the way that writing as it was once understood is ... well, what? Receding in importance? Merging with visuals and sound, and becoming part of a more general media soup? Something like that, anyway.

And I do have my moments when I think -- melodramatically -- "Sheesh, I went to a lot of trouble over the years to become OK at expressing myself verbally, using words alone. What a cruel joke it is that I'm reaching whatever prime I'm capable of just at the exact moment when this skill is becoming irrelevant."

Mature Me knows that the new developments and opportunities are good things: you're no longer just a writer! Instead, you're a writer/editor/filmmaker/designer/publisher! You aren't limited to lining words up in a row any longer! Now you can be a hypermedia creator! Inner Me, though, can't help feeling a little miffed about the timing of these developments. Contending with this particular small emotional load is very real to me. It's something that younger people, on the other hand, aren't stuck doing.

Although I dig what the technology makes possible, I'm also aware that I don't want to have to wrestle with another big change in the fundamental basis of culture. If another one should come along -- god forbid -- I suspect that I wouldn't have it in me to make the leap. I'm pretty sure that I'd join the opters-out instead.

What do you notice about people's ages and brains, and how well older people are able to take to computers? And what have you personally found hardest -- er, most challenging -- about acnieving semi-competence in the new digital world?



UPDATE: Terry Teachout asks a sensible question: "Could it be that the most immediate effect of the blogosphere on the mainstream media will be to make columnists obsolete?" I think Terry's onto something; if the blogosphere has made anything clear, it's how very many people turn out to be able to think out loud in entertaining and provocative ways. I wonder how columnists will be adapting to this fact.

posted by Michael at February 4, 2005


YES! No longer am I a letter-to-the-editor-writing crank on the one hand, a dorky bit-twiddling-weenie computer user on the other. Now I am a MEDIA CREATOR. Is that just too cool or what?

Posted by: Jonathan on February 4, 2005 2:52 PM

In 1996, I had hoped to die before having to learn the computer. Then I realized that at age 49, it was too big a sacrifice to pay for technology's sake and gave in. I have since built all my (five now) desktops and am slowly accumulating graphics software to accomodate my new media mania on my new laptop I networked into the system, of course. How's that?

Posted by: susan on February 4, 2005 3:57 PM

I've helped a few old-timers learn computer basics and the biggest obstacle for them is the same as it was for a senior citizen who I taught to use a microwave.

With all the different iconic and typographic buttons on the machines, they figured it was completely impossible to learn until I showed them they could achieve what they wanted in only one or two clicks, pushes, or steps.

The response was always the same, "That's it!"

It seems older people are accustomed to performing more steps with fewer options; whereas computers and technology have us performing fewer steps with more available options.

It's a different kind of thought process.

Posted by: Steven K. on February 4, 2005 4:45 PM

Jonathan -- I guess we're all media composers now, and whether we want to be or not. Or at least we become one once we've learned how to include a jpg in an email ...

Susan -- Good lord, you're showing how it can be done. I forget: are you a Macperson or not? If not, even more hats off to you. What are your next computer ambitions? I confine my own to acquiring a few basic skills (I'd like to get comfortable editing video in a simple way, though first I'll need a fresher Mac than the one I have). Hardward scares me, though.

Steven K. -- It's a good point too, how much learning the computer seems to depend (for many people, anyway) on being physically shown how to do things. I've bought my share of computer-instruction books. But 90% of what I've learned has come from watching other people use the machies. I think you're right too about the difference between being used to simple-and-easy and tons-of-options ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 4, 2005 4:57 PM

Re. elimination of columnists. My take is the the blogs will act as seperators of wheat from chaff. The low quality writers will disappear while the high quality folks will attratce a larger audience as bloggers attach links to their columns.

Posted by: DarkoV on February 4, 2005 5:10 PM

Peggy Noonan
Theodore Dalrymple
Victor Davis Hanson
Charles Krauthammer
Dennis Prager
Ann Coulter
Jeff Jacoby
Mona Charen
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Maggie Gallagher
Joseph Sobran

All newspaper columnists. Well, I cheated a little. Some write opinion pieces that appear in newspapers and magazines on a pretty regular basis.

Would something be lost if the newspaper columnist is rendered extinct? I think it would. It's true that all these people do is offer their opinions on matters social/political; so can I, so can you: via the internet. But it takes a lifetime of wrestling with the english language to craft a style. That's what would be lost: those wonderful (or maddening, depending on your viewpoint) individual voices.

Posted by: ricpic on February 4, 2005 5:24 PM

I think that you're on the right track. Some newspaper columnist and magazine authors know and undertsand things that other's don't, and others have a gift for expressing their ideas well. But a lot of them don't. They express one sort of received opinion moderately well, and that's all.

I think that all the commercial media have entirely lost their gatekeeper function. The reason why nobody, including liberals, liked Dan Rather, is that he still believed that he should have the last word on things. But by now, no one acepts that.

Another powerful anonymous group that's lost power is the editors. It's a lot harder to bury a story with a misleading headline and lede now. Re-editing newspapers was IF Stone's stock in trade, and now everyone's doing it.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 4, 2005 5:34 PM

I'm neither whizz nor weenie. If there's something a computer can do that I want done, I can usually figure it out after a certain expense of hide and treasure.

My wife (we're both mid-50's), an intelligent and sophisticated actress, has no curiosity whatsoever about computers. If it's digital she wants nothing to do with it. I feel pretty sure that had she been ten years old in 1995 it would have been no different. At least for us, it's not an age thing or a brains thing. It's almost an aesthetic thing. She appreciates the things they can do, but would really not be bothered with how they do them. At least beyond getting me to do them for her.

Our daughter looks to be growing up on the whizz side, which, if I predecease my wife, will be a blessing for her.

Posted by: Sluggo on February 4, 2005 5:34 PM

Ricpic, how could you forget Lileks! Not mentioning Mr Teachout himself...

I don't know, Michael, how can you read computer manuals (you and 90% of people I see every day on a subway)? 3 paragraphs - and I'm lulled to sleep, guaranteed. Best insomnia cure (on par with collection of Brezhnev' speeches).
Everything I learned about computers I learned visually, either in class or from somebody showing stuff to me.

It's embarassing to be revealed as a lazy dummy, but there's no escape from reality: I am one. I use the box as a tool; collection of tricks to bring me what I need, either in work or pleasure. Theory bores me; show me where to click to get the result I look for and that's all that matters.

My winning tactic: befriend a comp-curious relative (I provided myself with a son solely for that purpose), feed him whatever he craves and demand a payback in computer "show-the-dummy" lessons.
Worked so far...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 4, 2005 5:49 PM

In my experience, there are three big problems with teaching older people how to use computers. (I note that when I began teaching computers, the computers in question were Commodore 64s, so now I suppose I am an older person).

First you have to answer the question, "Why should I care?" This is true even of those people who ask for instruction. Many people have been told that they need computers enough times that they believe it, but without ever being told why. Historically, the advantage of computers is that they make many things a bit easier rather than making very difficult things trivial. It is hard to demonstrate this in the amount of time available before the reservoir of faith is exhausted. It is harder still if the instructor doesn't understand the issue. It is nearly impossible if the instructor doesn't understand the things the student is likely to want to do. (Hint: Halo 2 isn't one of those things in most cases.)

Further, many of the things computers are good at are not the sort of things older people are used to doing. Before computers, for example, the average person never cropped a picture. Again, the value of an entirely new capability is very difficult to demonstrate in a short time. You need to show that it is both easy to do and worth spending the effort to learn how to do it, and you don't have much time.

Once you convince the person that a computer might be useful, you have to convince him that he is unlikely to break anything by just playing around. Computers are expensive, mysterious, and equipped with a ridiculous number of controls. Things with similar complexity and expense that the learner is most likely familiar with using tend to be unsafe for the uninitiated. (E.g., it would be a bad idea to tell a new lathe owner, "Just mess around with it. Put some wood in it and push some buttons. There are tools over there.") That it is possible to screw things up pretty badly (if quite unlikely) does not make this easier.

Finally, you have to explain the most basic elements of the interface; the things you have probably already forgotten that you had to learn. How do you move the cursor? Why would you want to double-click? How do you double-click? What's the difference between the left and right mouse buttons? What's a menu and how do you use it? The beginning of the learning curve is pretty steep, and the analogies between computer use and nearly anything else are pretty superficial.

That said, once you get past all of those, the ratio of effort to reward is pretty good (with the caveat that each new tool requires a similar initial investment to begin to use).

Perhaps the greatest testament to the worth of computers is that anyone gets through this whole process at all.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on February 4, 2005 5:55 PM

I'm 46 and have been using computers since I was in high school in the 1970s. I took easily to personal computers, and love them, both in theoretical and practical ways. I've long been one of those hapless souls, for example, who will waste days composing some routine in a scripting language so as to save me a few milliseconds. But I don't mind this, because I enjoy it--like doing crossword puzzles.

That said, what I long ago took to with computers was their ability to manipulate text and databases of text. I was in my glory in the days of CP/M and DOS (oh for the days of Lotus Agenda and GrandView and XyWrite!), when it seemed programmers marketed writers and scholars to an extent more so than today, when computers are conceived as "multimedia" tools. And though I do make multimedia use of computers, in digital photography and iTunes and such, it all still feels very foreign to me. And I have never been able to master any graphics programs (like PageMaker), as though I have some weird mental block to doing so.

So the "hyperlinked/tree-structure/database thing" is something I find intuitive and engrossing. It is the multimedia that I find daunting--and wish I did not.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on February 4, 2005 6:11 PM

My grandma was the first person I know to own a computer, in the early 1980s. She taught me how to use it, how to write storieso on a word processor, and how to write some BASIC code. She was in her 60s at this time.

She used her computer constantly to do work and to goof off on the internet until her death at 76.

Posted by: Michelle Murphy on February 4, 2005 7:05 PM

Seniors have a hard time using the Web particularly because Web sites are generally not designed with them in mind. It's an interesting topic:

Speaking as a not-old person I can confirm that many not-old people have the same aversion to using (and understanding) computers.

What's the big deal about linear vs. nonlinear? I find linear communication is still more useful than nonlinear 99% of the time, and I've been programming computers since I was four. It's very hard to express an idea with a hyperlink. And anyhow how old are the big Storyspace authors, I wonder?

One of my favorite, vaguely-on-topic links:

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on February 4, 2005 7:15 PM

I actually typed punchcards and played Zork when it first came out. Was on Compuserve in the early 80's and used gopher to find the web.

Still type with two fingers, though. And haven't yet figured out how to get off the Web. I am supposed to be grocery shopping.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on February 4, 2005 7:50 PM

My father-in-law is in his mid 80s and really enjoys sending and receiving e-mail and working with digital photos. He still doesn't quite "get" the Web, however. I told him I had posted some photos on a website and suggested he download them from there (they were too numerous and big to e-mail), and he just couldn't seem to get his mind around the concept. I ended up sending them to him on a CD, which he was fine with. I wonder if there is something about the Web in particular (as opposed to digital media and computers per se) that is just too far removed from traditional media for (some members of) that generation.

Posted by: MG on February 4, 2005 10:46 PM

Odd. I taught myself to program when I was fifteen (some twenty-six years ago, now), back when computers had eight-inch floppy drives if you were lucky and there were no image files, and no music files, and no networks, and most computer terminals and printers only had capital letters. I've been programming ever since, and been paid for it for most of that time, and I'm still a linear thinker.

Posted by: Will Duquette on February 4, 2005 11:33 PM

I find that when it comes to dealing with older people and computers, in particular 2 parents and 2 parents-in-laws, that the main thing is a resistance to technological change and somewhat of a mental block when it comes to learning new things.
Really, there's no reason that the same 4 people who can recite every minute detail of their pension plans and insurance policies can't learn how to operate a computer or scan and send a #%&@ing picture. But I find that their mental blocks are nearly insurmountable at times.

Posted by: Anniee on February 5, 2005 1:32 AM

I'm 52, and I recently asked my daughter to design a webpage for me. Since she wouldn't be able to start on it for a couple of weeks, I thought I'd play around with Paint Shop try and do some basic line layout and add some colors. Well, the "Help" screen was completely mystifying to me. It seemed I needed to already know what I wanted to know before any of the directions would make sense. Seems I needed a "Help" screen for the "Help" screen. Maybe I'm just dense.

Posted by: Tim B. on February 5, 2005 7:36 AM

Neat stories/thoughts/observations. A couple of things you've got me chewing over?

* I wonder if people who "get" computers and digital-life have any idea how bewildering it seems to those who don't get it. I semi-get the general principles, so like most of you can fumble around adequately, and if someone takes the time I can start to do a little better than that. (Although a screenful of programming language, or even too much HTML, will turn my brain off instantly.) But there seems to be a certain percentage of people who really struggle. When the company I work for installed a new computer system, I was recruited to teach people in my department how to get around it. It was fascinating. 2 out of 3 of them, I'd run them through the basic dance steps and they'd suddenly get it, and they'd be off on their own. Many details yet to learn, but up on their feet. But 1 out of 3 - and it'd often be a person who was otherwise quite bright, so it doesn't seem to have to do with intelligence per se -- had to "learn" everything, painfully, step by step. The general principles -- the basic footwork -- never seemed to soak through. It was always going to be a to-be-figured-out labyrinth to them.

* Even on an art-and-culture level, there are some people who just need to be shown what's happening, and they semi-instantly "get" the implications of a digital life, or at least they start to see their way there. Others can't see what the big deal is. "So writing's a little easier thanks to word processing -- that's nice, but so what?" -- that's about as far as they can see. (And like I say, they're often otherwise very bright.)

* I do think age has something to do with it. People growing up with computers and videogames take the basic principles for granted. You gotta eat, you gotta sleep, and the electronic universe is a huge, ever-morphing, interpenetrating, hyperlinked cloud of nested databases. They're all just basic facts of life.

Of course the bit about the nature of the electronic universe wasn't a basic fact of life until fairly recently. It was just a dream, and (to be honest) it was the dream of people who were ... well, a little dorky, nerdy, and weird. No one the average person really needed to pay much attention to. And culture itself was based on very different principles than it's rearranging itself into being based on today.

Imagine, for example, spending 2/3 of your life making your way through a life based on the Western musical scale. You know the songs, you have the expectations built-in (what the chord progressions are likely to be, etc). You've got a lot of your emotional life caught up with these experiences: songs you love, songs that mean something, great experiences at opera or jazz. To some extent, your brain and mind have almost certainly been shaped by their interactions with this scale and everything it implies ... OK, now imagine that someone waves a wand, and the whole culture starts to switch en masse over to a pentatonic scale. All your musical expectations and experiences begin to look archaic, even useless; you have a sense that musical culture generally is losing all touch with everything you know or have any familiarity with; you feel you've got nothing to add; and it's hard to ignore the fact that music composed using the pentatonic scale just will never speak to you the way that traditional Western-scale music does. You can adapt some and adjust some, but it'll always be a leap for you to participate, and the results will probably never reach as deep into you as music based on the principles you grew up with.

I know it's debatable, but the point can be argued that there hasn't been such a large and fundamental change in the basis of culture since Gutenberg. Why now? Why do we have to endure this?

Anyway, I think a fair number of older people have these reactions -- and why wouldn't they? Their lives are mostly lived already, and their brains were formed long ago. Some oldies will get semi-proficient at a new language; a very few will turn out to be freakily good at it. But most will mainly feel frustrated by it.

* A specific response to Rob's comment about "what's the big deal about nonlinearity"... I think the fact that Rob could ask such a question shows that he's on the "digital" side of the hurdle, not on the "analog" side of it. Lucky boy! Self-conscious experiments like the Eastgate hypertexts aside (boy, do I find them boring), digital tools have caused immense convulsions in the culturebiz. TV, movies, pop music, and magazines are no longer what they once were.

A close-at-hand example: Running a blog, vs (in the old world) "getting your writing published." There's a big diff. In the old world, you wrote, you networked, you worked, you hoped to get paid; there were hierarchies (critical, financial, social) you needed to learn your way around; there was a general consensus about what "writing" was. You served your apprenticeship, you learned your history, etc etc.

In the new world, you set up a blog, come up with whatever moves you, and click on the "post" button. Who knows what "writing" is? There are no hierarchies you have to wrestle with. And of course you probably aren't going to make any money. So it's much freer and easier; there's no apprenticeship; it happens in the moment. Most blogs have some fluidity built into them -- comments, for example, and links, neither one of which was possible in the paper days.

Here's a way that it's affected me very specifically: I'm just an OK writer where individual sentences and words are concerned. My strength isn't in making words pop, it's in structural things. I'm strong at taking a number of things and weaving them around each other, hinting at connections between them -- I do "associative" writing, and I'm aware that I do it pretty well. (I give just-OK surface, but I sometimes also deliver background, thoughtfulness and depth. That's what I'm selling as a writer. It's all I have to offer, really.) Well, in order to do associative and reflective writing, you generally need space -- you gotta be free to sprawl some for those connections to establish themselves and start to echo off each other.

Well, almost no one in the digital world has time for that kind of sprawl, space and time. Digital media promote punchy, poppy, here-and-now kinds of effects and approaches. A "blog posting" is (generally) a very different thing than a "ruminative personal essay" is. It hits, it hits hard, and then it evaporates. But my own talents and skills lend themselves to "ruminative personal essays." How to adapt my (laughable, but they're all I have) gifts to the "ongoing blog posting" form?

I've had to make some major adjustments in how I think about "writing"; I've had to throw out a lot of stuff that it took me time and effort to learn in the first place. I've had to learn, for example, to write short; to try to confine each posting to one topic; to let the interweaving thing that I live for happen over the span of many postings; and to give up my sense of control and (go ahead, laugh at me) virtuosity. If interweaving's going to happen, it's going to kinda happen on its own, without me even being able to exert too much control over it. I've also had to learn to give the look-and-layout part of blogging some thought. That's a big change in how I approach "writing." (OK, enough with the jokes about how I write too long anyway, even as a blogger.)

Another big change is much more simple and concrete: it's getting used to the fact that blogging isn't preparation for being "really published," it really is its own kind of publication. There can be a sense when you're publishing in traditional venues that you're being noticed by a certain club of people who are in the know, or who are at least taking note of things; there can be a sense that maybe you'll get noticed. (And that, frankly, maybe your genius will finally be recognized and The New Yorker will give you a lifetime contract. And you'll finally get to write exactly what you want to write.) You're getting ready to get to the point where you can be fully yourself -- a point which, for many writers, never came.

As a blogger, though, aren't preparing for total freedom at the New Yorker; you aren't preparing to be yourself. You actually already have total freedom. You can be yourself here and now. You can do almost exactly what you want to do and say what you want to say. But it doesn't mean what it once did. It doesn't mean that you're being recognized by Those in the Know; it doesn't mean you've "made it" in any sense; and it certainly doesn't mean you're being paid for your efforts. Instead, you're just doin' it. And if that isn't enough reward, then you'll probably stop blogging.

I'm all for these changes, by the way. I'm not complaining -- I've never been so happy where my artchat life is concerned. I especially adore the transparency and openness of online writing -- the fact that a blog posting can be more of a conversation-starter than a final, set thing. You're talkin' with people; you aren't carving timeless truths in stone. But I am saying that, even for a not-too-ancient, semi-wise-to-the-ways-of-culture, fairly-computer-savvy (for an English major) guy like me, it's taken a lot of adjusting. It really is like being an investor and finally writing off a lot of investments that once looked really good but turn out not to have worked out well -- there's some pain involved. I know a lot of people my age who are smarter and more talented than I am who are refusing to make the adjustment -- they've decided (on some level) that it'd take too much effort, and they probably don't like what they sense it'd involve. (Which includes a certain letting-go of professional ego. Again, all to the good as far as I'm concerned.) They've opted to cling to the old ways, and for very understandable reasons ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 5, 2005 12:01 PM

Didn't Bill Gates once say that using a computer ought to be as easy as picking up the telephone?
When do you think that day will come?
April Fool's Day, maybe.

Posted by: Notary on February 5, 2005 2:06 PM

I was working as a technical writer in the telecommunications biz when the typewriters in our office were replaced with computers. There were two older men working as editors in the office: one was something of a religious enthusiast, spending his later years on elucidating the real truth of the Book of Revelations that had escaped all the scholars up to now, while the other was a technically savvy guy who had worked for a NASA contractor during the Apollo project. One man never "got" working with a screen and couldn't pick up the computer thing at all, while the other took to it like the proverbial duck to water. Which was which?

It was the religious enthusiast who loved computers. He'd had his own printing press in his basement for turning out dense and unreadable tracts that he left on public transportation to no doubt the vast confusion of anyone who picked them up, and he immediately saw the advantages of word processing over a typewriter. The space program guy just couldn't get past the typewriters and hard copies he'd always known.

So it probably varies by individual. My own 80-something parents have a better computer set-up than mine. The last time I dropped by, Dad was drawing plans on the 'pooter for a model steam engine he was thinking of building. E-mail they know about. I get the impression that they're put off by the less savory aspects of the Web, though, and don't much surf.

I'm in my 50s, so computers came relatively late to me, as well. I appreciate the "smart typewriter" capabilities, but I'm probably nowhere close to using the whole works to full advantage. I still have to remind myself that the answer to just about any question (assuming it's a question that the answer is known at all) is out there somewhere, just a Google away.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 5, 2005 2:09 PM

I think that there are a number of things going on:

-Computer technology is still new relative to many technologies, and some of its features need more development. Control systems, for instance. IMO menu-button control interfaces are much harder to design well, and much harder to use if not well designed, than are the dials, knobs, levers and switches of conventional machines (e.g., mechanical cameras, automobiles, older kitchen appliances).

-It's also easy and cheap, when designing menu-driven control systems, to build in a lot of unnecessary crap. The proverbial VCR is difficult to program because it was easier for the designers to build in a wish list of menu-driven features than to do the harder work of making the controls as simple and easy to use as possible.

-A lot of computer hardware and software documentation is badly written and difficult to understand. This is strikingly true for the online help systems that come with some of the most popular software. You generally have to know quite a bit about software, and often quite a bit about the particular software you are using, if you want to get a reasonably quick and useful answer from the online help in, say, Microsoft Excel. A lot of these help systems were obviously written without much care. They frequently have ridiculously scanty keyword indices, for example. (This isn't true for all software by any means, but it tends to be true for inexpensive mass-market software, which is the software that computer beginners tend to use.)

-Computers are not equally useful for everybody. For some people they are nothing more than expensive typewriters. That's a very low-leverage use of the technology. Many others of us find computers indispensable for email and the Web -- valuable uses, to be sure, but most of us can take them or leave them, at least for much of the time. OTOH, for some applications -- particularly in finance, image processing, engineering, and of course software development -- computers can increase productivity by orders of magnitude. People in the latter group of users are likely to have a greater appreciation for the value of computers than are people in the former groups, and consequently may be more willing to devote the time needed to achieve mastery. I assume that the high-productivity users tend to be younger as well.

Posted by: Jonathan on February 5, 2005 2:52 PM

your analogy with learning to operate in kg, inches/feet and such is perfect.
I've done that - in the opposite direction, of course. And I can say that 1.2 mln. Russian-speaking population of Greater New York, not mentioning immigrants from the rest of the world, have done the same.
More or less successful, of course.

Emigration out of your habitat, with all the achievements accumulated at the point of departure, does give one a shake. Some never recover.

I know a very intelligent guy, a historian, two PhD's (religious movements of Europe, second don't remember), who after 15 yrs here works as a night warehouse cart operator and speaks grocery-store English. [He digs computers, though; spends his days chatting in historians forums; in Russian, Polish and German.] And he's a good example; do you know statistics of immigrants suicides, mental breaks and divorces? Huge.
I remember great effort it took me to understand that the inch fractions go as long as 32nds and even 64ths but only 12 inches form a foot; and yard's a different matter - unlike uniformity of 10ths in metric system. But once gotten over that initial confusion, I serve as a occasional translator of imperial-to-metric in the office now. What's more, it doesn't even click immediately; say, when crossing over to Canadian side I am delighted at the sight of 100 miles speed limit until it downs on me - stupid, it's in km and it's lower that ours!

When you consider the difficulty of learning computers in middle age, add to it learning different language, different counting systems, different cultural reference points. Too much, isn't it? And now, how would you account for the fact the prevalent new occupation in immigrant communities is computer programming and software writing? Yes, the boom of decade ago played it's role, but why so many people stayed after the bubble burst? Besides, it is not a profession you can talk your way around; you have to actually write the code (or whatever they are doing there) and hunt the bugs out.
Look at all businesses employing programmers - more than half of staff are Indian, Russian and Chinese immigrants. I can vouch assuredly only for Russians, but from what I know, majority of these people saw a live computer only after arrival. I certainly did; I was the only one in my business administration class at FIT who didn't know what Microsoft Office is.

My mom, who never had any formal English training (her foreign language in high school was German) surfs the Web and sends e-mails with fluency which absent from her English (she communicates on a level acceptable enough to be able to teach Advanced Russian in Midwest University).

Do you think there is some inherent quality in computers that makes them easier to grasp as a system than a foregn language and way of life?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 5, 2005 3:18 PM

Jonathan, re manuals, do you remember the DOS days? Manuals seem a thing of the past these days, replaced by web-based help that, as you say, is often scanty. Recent Microsoft software doesn't even have a help file, let alone a manual; click on help and it sends you to the web--an enormously cumbersome procedure when you're just looking for a quick answer. It is ironic that help should be so much harder to find as computers become so much more mainstream.

Anyway, how fondly I remember those old days of the once-glorious Lotus of Mitch Kapor, when 1-2-3 and Agenda and Magellan, all programs I used and loved, came with these massive help tomes, hundreds of pages long, often with subsidiary lengthy manuals on scripting and such. And, and, and--those manuals were reasonably well written! Ditto for XyWrite. I still actually have DOS XyWrite on my Win XP system, so I have the manual nearby: The main manual is more than 500 pages, and there are two additional manuals of about 200 pages each. I used to love to curl up with those manuals. (And then log onto a bulletin board--!--to swap "undocumented secrets," which were often things you could do with the program that the programmers themselves were unaware of.) Man, you really got something when you plonked down your $200 or $300.

I'm getting weepy.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on February 5, 2005 5:03 PM

Maybe 15 or 20 years ago I got interested in the question of how many writers in the country make a living at writing, and what kind of writing they did. I looked into it some. The answer to the first question was "not many." The answer to the second question was that a lot of them wrote computer-advice books or computer manuals. I met a few of these people. They were great -- hardworking, proud of their jobs, doing what they could in impossible situations to give the manuals some clarity and flair. Given that the software was often being tinkered with until a couple of weeks before it went on sale, they were frantically doing what they could to keep the manuals as accurate as possible.

I wonder what's become of that particular trade. (And what's become of the people who once made a living writing those books.) Does anyone know?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 5, 2005 5:57 PM

Computer manual writers. Where have they gone? Some are still writing. See, for example, David Pogue's brainchild: "The Missing Manuals: the books that should have been in the box":

Posted by: Dave Lull on February 5, 2005 6:53 PM

My father, Robert Mallary, was one of the first to do art on computers:

I'm a graphic designer and, though I know every program under the sun, almost never use the Internet! Whereas my best friend uses her computer primarily as a Web research tool, and never ventures beyond MS Word and email--doesn't even own a scanner.
The difference in perspective IS very interesting.

Posted by: martine mallary on February 5, 2005 10:16 PM

Of course the bit about the nature of the electronic universe wasn't a basic fact of life until fairly recently. It was just a dream, and (to be honest) it was the dream of people who were ... well, a little dorky, nerdy, and weird. No one the average person really needed to pay much attention to. And culture itself was based on very different principles than it's rearranging itself into being based on today.

Michael Blowhard, don't you think is relevant to your skepticism about genetic engineering?

Also - it's hard for me to decouple "computer savvy" from smarts in general. I have some degree of pity for old people who don't understand computers, but no mercy whatsoever for the (few) teens and twenty year olds who "don't get it".

For some reason, I don't think I'll be one of those 40 year olds who's left behind by the "next wave" of technology, when that day comes. I'll do my damnedest not to be. I don't care about knowing who the 50 cent of 2025 is going to be, but i'll be damned if I'm not going to know the Linux of 2025...

Posted by: occasional_gnxp_reader on February 6, 2005 3:30 PM

A lot of individual enthusiasm for computers comes down to finding your very own 'killer ap'. I don't like that phrase much, but I respect its premises: for many of us, there's an 'aha' moment when we step over a mental ridge that's been hemming us in, and glimpse a whole other world of what can be done. For some people, especially those who manipulate words for a living, word processing was enough. For the numerical, spreadsheets. For others -- well, those tricks you're showing me on screen are cute, sure, but so what?

I got in on the computer revolution early enough; I learned word processing and BASIC in high school in the 1980s. I've used computers throughout college and my working life, and thought I was sufficiently appreciative of their powers, especially once the Web came within my grasp. But I don't think I met my own 'killer ap' until a couple of years ago, when I bought a digital video camera and an Apple with iMovie installed. I am decidedly no auteur; I just do home movies of my family. But being able to do what I do with moving pictures still amazes me. And they give the application away for free with the machine!

Posted by: mr tall on February 7, 2005 1:43 AM

Michael: I know nothing about today's TV, movies, pop music or magazines. Isn't all that counter-culture always going through convulsions anyhow? In the few glimpses I get now and again, I've seen that TV/movies look like video games and magazines look like Web sites. Pop music is noise made with computers. But it's all still very linear stuff, isn't it? On the flip side, a lot of people credit A Pattern Language as being one of the first hypertext documents, and it's a printed book. (I like the printed version much more than the online version.)

I've made some very nonlinear stuff at but it's been a real challenge demonstrating its usefulness to people. The most drastic nonlinear toy I've seen lately is the new version of the Trillian IM client: it hyperlinks most words of your IM conversation to the Wikipedia. Just mouseover your conversation to find out what it means.

I see that nonlinearity is a Big Deal, but it's not terribly useful when it comes to the arts... isn't the whole point to arrange things in some meaningful, beautiful order? Woody Allen said, "There are two things you can control in life, art and masturbation...." Well, if we aren't controlling our art, what does that leave us?

Why do you find the hypertext novels boring? I'm in 100% agreement with you on those, but I'm curioius as to why. Personally I have a hard time reading anything over a few hundred words on a computer screen but have spent many days reading the printed page from dawn to dusk. I feel very lost in hypertext fiction pretty quickly... I can't derive any meaning from the particular path I've chosen, and start hitting the back button before long. The ability to go anywhere leaves me feeling I've gone nowhere. I also share your sentiment that hypertext fiction is rather pretentious and self-conscious, and this is coming from someone who finds Fellini unpretentious!

Also, I liked the music scale analogy a lot, that one helped me to see where you're coming from. Though Debussy for one incorporated the pentatonic into music extremely palatable to this Western ear. But when it comes to tonal/modal vs. atonal/amodal music? I was at a concert last night where the conductor led his own recent raucous oddity, followed by Canteloube's Auvergne songs and Beethoven's 6th. How can a person have a deep respect for ineffable beauty yet desire to produce this useless funky, noisy stuff? The gap between tonal and atonal is the one I'll never cross.

Francis: Those old manuals were great, weren't they? I hate, hate, hate, hate this online help business. It's so infuriating I don't even bother with it... straight to Google with my questions. (I also feel ripped off when I don't get a fat manual for my money, not to mention I just bought a $200 piece of software where I just plugged the serial number into the demo I downloaded.) That said, the nice thing about building Web applications is that I can devote a column of the page layout to instructions on how to use the features of that page. Most people don't take advantage of this possibility, but I figure why not? There aren't any rules yet what a Web page is and isn't.

Tatyana: A very interesting post. As for your question, computers vs. foreign languages/cultures, I find that computer languages are not far divorced from their 1's and 0's; the symbols are very concrete, whereas a spoken language used by a real culture is an infinitely subtle, constantly changing phenomenon. The levels of complexity are orders of magnitude apart. What does nl2br() do? One answer. What does "komarimasita nee!" mean? As many answers as speakers of Japanese. I'd trade a dozen computer languages for fluency in one extra verbal language. These electronic toys aren't all they're cracked up to be, imho.

Hooray for self-publication though! Each of us a Voltaire! (I have my own L'esprit Nouveau.)

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on February 7, 2005 4:14 AM

I can cite the example to two guys I know very well, both in their mid 70s.

One is a musician - has been heavily involved in jazz, brass band and classical music all his life and done quite a bit of composition. In the last couple of years he has learned a musical notation program called "Sibelius", found a publisher and is steadily keying in and publishing decades' worth of his manuscript scores that until now had only ever been played by small ensembles in his home town. He has no illusions about making significant money from it, just says "I'll be happy if I can think somebody might be playing my music after I'm dead".

He answers his emails, but that isn't the object of the exercise - his computer *is* in fact an expensive musical notation typewriter, but he has a focused reason and motivation for using it.

The other guy, though he hasn't written for years (and that may be the key difference) was a published poet and editor of a poetry magazine in the 60s and 70s. I've mentioned to him the idea of maybe putting his stuff up on the web, but it hasn't fired his imagination enough to get him to venture outside his comfort zone.

Similar situations, different motivations - I think age has much less to do with it than the character of the individuals concerned.

Posted by: Alan Little on February 8, 2005 7:40 AM

I am 46 and I love and (if you'll excuse the teen-speak) totally get the Web. It almost seems like something I've wanted to be able to do all my life but didn't know quite what it was that I wanted to be able to do until it became reality.

To me everything about it is so obvious. The mouse and keyboard are extentions of my brain. I use them without even thinking about it. No one ever had to teach me how to use a mouse - it was always so obvious - but my mother has the most difficult time with it. She can't seem to understand the connection between the motion of the device and the motion of the little arrow or whatever on the screen.

I want to be a fair and understanding kind of person but I have to admit that I just don't "get" people who don't "get" the Internet. Imagine dealing with someone who can't figure out how to turn on a light and no matter how many times you show them how to turn on the switch they don't get it because "how can this switch all the way over here turn on that light all the way over there?" It's hard to teach someone about something that is obvious to you.

It seems to me there are three levels of "getting" or "not getting" the Internet: Those who don't get it at all, those who totally get it, and those who get it enough to use it but don't really get it. I think those in the last category are probably in the majority. (For an example see these two posts on searching: )

When it comes to anything other than surfing the Web, however, I'm a little less competent. Most software is fairly obvious but as soon as something goes wrong I have to ask for help from my computer tech husband and what he does is nearly incomprehensible to me.

The original question was about age. Age does seem to have something to do with it but there are lots of younger people who don't get computers. I think it has more to do with desire. You have to have a desire to do something that you can't do without computers. Older people tend to be more satisfied with (or resigned to) life the way it has always been.

Posted by: Lynn S on February 8, 2005 2:03 PM

Oops. That first URL for the "post on searching" is incomplete. Here it is:

Posted by: Lynn S on February 8, 2005 2:07 PM

Lynn--I'm your same age and surf as much as anyone else BUT I am always aware that mankind made it perfectly well for a billion or so years without the NET. It's a privilege, not a necessity. A caveman wouldn't "get" the NET either, but would think you were pretty weird for asking him what his wall paintings meant when it was "obvious" to him.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 8, 2005 11:12 PM

Older people will learn to use computers if they are motivated. I've taught several retired people on fixed incomes how to sell on ebay for extra $$ -- yes, they found it confusing but persevered because they could see the potential rewards. Others, though, like my Mom, don't see any rewards...why email when you can pick up the phone, why shop online when scores of catalogs come to the house, why play solitaire on a computer if you have your own cards and a lap table? In which case, computers are just too much trouble not to mention extra money (remember a lot of people in their 70s and 80s grew up in the Depression -- they wash foil and save rubber bands).

Posted by: Jodie on February 10, 2005 10:29 AM

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