Call out to technophobes

Are all the digital communication gizmos we surround ourselves with outsmarting at least some of us? Are we all even fully computer literate? Trisha Hughes reports.

Call me a dinosaur if you want but typewriters were so simple. If you hit several keys at the same time and it seized up, you just had to reach in and pull apart the arms that had bunched together. The worst that could happen was you’d get ink on your fingers. And there was never a printer failure. All you had to do was wind the spool a few times with your finger and keep typing. For me, typewriters will always be monuments to a less stressful time before firewalls, emails, spyware, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Skype.

I could tell you lots of my pet hates when it comes to computers, starting with pressing the START button to shut it down. But in reality, thanks to Charles Babbage in 1822 for inventing the first mathematical Difference Machine and his son for taking it one step further with the Analytical Machine, we have been dragged miraculously out of the Dark Ages into a new and exciting world. No longer do we even have to sit at a computer to access information from the web. We can sit in a bus, on a train or, as most of us do, text and search as we walk.
Having said all of that, when Einstein said, “Frustration is born out of ignorance”, I’m sure he had computers in mind. There is nothing more frustrating when you’ve almost finished typing a project, and a window opens up and says, ‘A fatal operating error has occurred. The operation will shut down in...’ and the seconds start ticking down to zero. Then you know you’re cactus. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who gulps in panic when the computer asks, ‘Do you really want to delete this document?’

Feeling left behind

What with all the upgrades and innovations, (Google Drive, everyone?), it’s hard to keep up. But our kids consistently do just that. It’s like they instinctively know what to do… like ducks taking to water. I am always amazed that a five-year-old can be so competent at something that has taken me 25 years to be comfortable with. But then kids grew up with computers, and those of us of a certain generation did not.

The majority of adults born before 1970 weren’t taught computing in school and if we wanted to write a university dissertation, we slogged it out on a typewriter, smudging out our typing errors as best we could with the use of white-out and later on, correction tape. Not many of us were happy with the result. We either settled for a less than perfect looking paper or we typed it out again, a little slower, and we hoped the next version had fewer mistakes.

Computers were out of our realm of possibility because firstly, few schools could afford one. The price of this gigantic machine (it weighed in at over a ton) was between US$81,000 and US$142,000. By the mid-seventies, it had been downsized to the size of a refrigerator and weighed only 250 kilogrammes – still not something to put in our back pockets.

Secondly, our minds were focused on our own studies, not learning new technologies. We left that to the people who knew what they were doing. Enter Bill Gates. By 1975, he had dropped out of Harvard with an idea in his head and the backing of his parents, ready to start up his own company. The rest is history.

Learning curve

The assumption is that we can just get the hang of computers, now all manner of digital communication devices, without any formal training. But should we take the time to teach ourselves or do we need to be taught?

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“Due to the ever changing and growing nature of technology, we all become more computer literate as time goes on,” opens Terence Wayburne of Coding Kids HK, who offers classes in DB for adults (and kids). “This is less an issue of age, but instead one’s willingness to keep learning. From my experience, the older the person is the less depth of understanding they have for a programme they use. That is not to say they will not use the programme to fit their needs just fine, but they may miss out on some great features that could revolutionise the way they work and organise that work. There are some incredible programmes out there, like Google Drive, that everyone should take an hour or two to accustom themselves with. But even I – as a web developer – find it difficult to keep up-to-date with many programmes and even understand others.

“For the majority of programmes a person can learn a great deal from the comfort of their home and some YouTube tutorials,” Terence adds. “Other than that, I would recommend following some good tech websites to keep up-to-date on things you won’t otherwise know exist.”

Island School IT teacher, 17-year DB resident Paula Lepore Burrough has this to say: “Most programmes are user-friendly so that even those who are not native digital users are still able to easily navigate their way around. Now and then, we all need a little help figuring out how to set up the hardware, download, or make a simple purchase online with a captcha image (I can never read those things).”

It’s clear that a skilful teacher can make all the difference in developing a comfort level one can build on. As DB-based psychologist and life skills coach at Mind Matters Hong Kong, Dr Melanie Bryan notes: “If a person’s learning style differs from the mode they are being, or were, taught in, taking in the new information may be difficult. For example, if someone describes steps to be taken to repair a technical problem, or uses jargon, a visual learner may feel quite lost and frustrated. The lack of user-friendly design in many systems that presuppose prior training and experience can be quite frustrating for the moderately literate.”

The personality factor

In an age where computers and phones are becoming more and more complex, are they also becoming too overwhelming? It seems you either have the knack or you don’t. It’s not everyone who can master a touchscreen or even an inbuilt mouse. So let’s ask ourselves, is there a personality type that finds all this unappealing? Is it gender related? Is it born out of fear (of learning new things) or resentment, or laziness, or lack of patience? Or are we basically just scared of failing?

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“The ability to interact virtually with comfort and confidence has both nature and nurture aspects,” notes Melanie. “Just as some people are born with a natural affinity for language acquisition, others are born with an easy affinity for things technological – it all makes inherent sense to them.

“That is not the case for many computer immigrants,” Melanie continues. “If a person’s initial experience led to confusion and impatience, compounding mistakes, they may develop a strong aversion to the whole process, along with the belief that they are incapable of becoming PC literate. Lastly, a justifiable concern about the ever increasing lack of privacy and threat of one’s data being hijacked is reason enough for some healthy avoidance.”

Sometimes the fact that we are expected to use technology is more a frustration than actually using it. As Paula says: “Even in our Digital Age, there are students who embrace computing, gaming, design or media and those who feel less compelled by it and use it on a have-to basis. Communication, online banking and even shopping are becoming more difficult without putting our fingers to the keyboard.”

It’s true that the emerging potentials frighten a lot of us. But with the advancement of our practical knowledge, most of the negatives recede and become positives.

Whatever our needs or capabilities, computers are amazing search engines and even as I write, my husband is on the Around DB website looking for the DB to Mui Wo ferry timetable. In our own way, we are all computer literate and we can take that literacy as far as we want.

Find it

• Coding Kids HK, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.codingkidshk.com
• Mind Matters Hong Kong, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.mindmatters.hk

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