24 December 2013 Web Ideas

Generational aptitude

There are few things quite as irksome as watching someone type “www.google.com” when they can just search from the address bar. It’s like counting out a hundred pennies to pay for a pack of gum. Why would you do that?! My internal monologue screams.

My grandparents and parents approach technology in a fundamentally different way than I do. When personal computing became mainstream, they had already reached adulthood. In their formative years, computers were something that very smart scientists and engineers built for large institutions. Knowing how to operate a computer was closer to rocket science than to auto repair, for example — and to some extent, I think this mentality still sticks with them today.

Anytime my father asks me how to do some new tech-related task, I write out step-by-step instructions on a piece of paper. My grandparents are the same way. They need those instructions written down like a recipe because they want an authoritative source of information.

If for some reason my instructions don’t anticipate every scenario — a dialog box that I failed to account for, or a software update that changes the layout of a page — they are reluctant to experiment. They’re not likely to google the problem, nor are they keen to click around and see what happens. Fear of pushing the wrong button prevents them from taking a guess.

In a way, this generational gap in computer literacy is similar to learning a new language. Immerse a child in Russian, and they’ll absorb the language as they learn and grow. Teach Russian to an adult as a second language, and their learning is skewed by the structure of their native tongue.

I’m not saying that everyone over 40 is a luddite. My dad actually adopts new technology faster than I do — he’s really excited about his new seven-inch phone-tablet hybrid while I hold onto my QWERTY Blackberry for dear life. My grandparents use software to edit photos and map out our family’s genealogy, and they subscribe to a PC power user magazine to keep themselves up-to-date on the latest trends in tech.

As I think about the generational differences in the way we approach technology, I realise that in some cases, the aptitude gap goes the other way. My 78-year-old grandfather has no trouble driving with manual transmission, but I wouldn’t know where to start. He also has a fascinating low-tech solution to encrypt the PIN codes for his various payment cards. It’s basically a cipher that he keeps in his wallet on a piece of paper the size of a business card. I would never have thought to secure my data in this way, but it works — and it’s far from the prying eyes of the NSA.

Indeed, I have my own mental ruts and preconceived expectations when dealing with new technology. I still hunt for a save button when working in Google Docs, and I’m sure that other innovations will continue to trip me up down the road. I may have come of age at the same time as the Web, but it’s evolving faster that I am. How long will it take for me to feel like I’m really out of my element?

Sam Nabi


Dad 1 January 2014, 14:41

I had life totally without computers until final year University in 1980. We used typewriters. Try typing a 20 page report sometime! As class president in 1980 I was given special permission to use the only word processor at Carleton University to send 300 letters inviting business leaders to our annual dinner. It was amazing watching it do the mail merge inserting different addresses. Life without technology made us get outdoors more.

Paula Agata 22 January 2014, 06:31

My household was always fairly technologically advanced and I’ve been using computers since I was about 3 and had my own by the time I was 7. Combined with having an older brother and an engineering father I learned both how to put a desktop computer together and enough code to be able to make a website or a simple game. At some point I stopped doing either of these. Nowadays I look at code and don’t even see it being possible to catch up. I used to advocate knowing how your device works, now I don’t care; everything has advanced so much I feel as clueless as every one else. Technology outpaced me when I was about 15. I can still replace parts in a desktop though!

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