Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: I have to admit the Internet is not for everyone

Duff: I have to admit the Internet is not for everyone

Spent the holidays with my family, as most of you probably did. I learned that, for an Internet columnist, there is nothing quite so humbling as sharing a day with people who don’t know what the Internet is.

The media likes to make noises about how great the Internet is, but fundamentally there’s still something odd and alien about it. The Internet is cool in certain circles, but Internet culture is still not mainstream.

Older generations fear the Internet, but they also hold it in contempt, as if nothing that happens in cyberspace could be real. I wonder if people had this same trouble with the telephone a century ago.

People who grew up in the age before computers face a tremendous learning curve now. My generation doesn’t think twice about navigating a commercial computer interface or driving a keyboard and mouse, but there are actually a hundred little skills involved here, dozens of unspoken conventions that the rest of us take for granted.

I’m reminded of a story told about a corporate CEO. The CEO was doing a demo of some Internet product, trying to prove how hip and cutting edge his company was. But the hapless exec had never used a Web browser before.

He fumbled around the screen for a bit, then someone in the audience shouted, “Click on the blue words!”

That’s funny to us today, when just about everybody knows what a Web link looks like, but how do you explain that concept to someone who’s never used a computer before? How can a novice tell the difference between the words you read and the words that can take you somewhere?

During Christmas dinner, my aunt turned to me and asked, “What is a blog?” There was a hint of desperation in her voice – an undercurrent of frustration and hostility. There are whole generations of people in our world who feel like they should understand this stuff and are angry that they don’t.

There’s a legitimate inter-generational conflict brewing here, and the hostility goes both ways. Older folks turn their noses up at the Internet, and younger ones make unfair judgments about people who don’t get it.

There’s a feeling that people who don’t understand computers are lacking intelligence, as if human beings should come out of the womb knowing how to operate Windows XP.

My dad is a smart guy, but he hates (and fears) computers. My aunt gave him a machine a few years ago, and he actually had to pay somebody to box it up and take it away.

During Christmas dinner, we discussed whether my dad should have a computer at all. It put me in a tough position. I write a column that celebrates the Internet and all the things it can bring to us. I’m fascinated by this technology, and I spend my life working with it.

People expect me to be some kind of evangelist, but after confronting the question over the holidays, I’ve decided that the Internet, for all its virtues, may not be for everybody.

Sure, my dad could learn to use a computer, but he would be starting from square one, and tutoring him would be a full-time job. He could buy a printer and start using spreadsheets, but at the end of the day, would computerized record-keeping really be that much faster than using a ledger and a No. 2 pencil?

He could surf the Web and buy things online, but would that really improve his life more than a phone line and printed copy of the yellow pages?

If computer software really was as simple as it pretends to be, I would encourage him to make the jump. But as someone who works with software every day, I know just how cantankerous and complicated these machines can be.

Microsoft and Apple like to brag about pretty interfaces and ease of use, but if you look at it like a novice, you’ll realize that a computer operating system is still a hundred times more complicated than a microwave or a VCR.

I think eventually someone will make a computer that is a genuine “information appliance” but no one has made it yet.

You can do a lot of cool things on the Internet. It’s great for answering questions and communicating with people. But when I think of my dad enduring months of frustration and bad design to perform tasks he can do faster by hand, I’m forced to admit that it’s not for everyone.

Whether they choose to join the revolution or not, I hope previous generations will stop turning their noses up at the digital world, and I hope the kids will cut their parents some slack and consider how hard it is to learn this stuff when you grew up in a world run by pencils and paper.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 4, 2008 at 13:43

Posted in Columns

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