Myths of the Modern Age: Generation X’s mysterious harmony with computers

Given the unfortunate dearth of good coping skills for dealing with the new and central role of computers in our lives, certain coping strategies have developed among computer users which work in the short term, but are ultimately ineffective. Among the most pernicious of these is the notion, relatively common among computer users over 40, that there is a magical silicon empathy drug that they started giving to babies in the 1960’s, and if you didn’t get high doses in early childhood, you have no hope of ever really understanding computers. Maybe it’s the fluoride in the water or something.

This is a comforting myth, because if you are one of the aforementioned unfluoridated children, you are off the hook as far as responsibility for your computer problems: it’s up to those wacky GenXers to understand the durn contraptions. But alas, it just ain’t true.

Computer skills, like anything else, are acquired skills. Some people have an aptitude for them, some don’t. But that aptitude is pretty much evenly distributed with age. Admittedly, younger folks tend to have a head start on older folks because computer games provide a powerful incentive for children to learn how to use machines at a young age, whereas those who grew up before Pong are more likely to learn computing at a much later age, when forced to by circumstance. Still, that’s a head start which can be closed with a bit of application.

Now, taking that time is a hassle, and it’s probably easier to pretend it’s not an option. However, as we discussed last time, alienation from one’s tools is a highly frustrating state of affairs, and you’ll be able to get more done and reduce the stress of dealing with your machine by making that investment in learning the skills.

The myth of the silicon empathy drug can also induce people to do things which are less than sensible. I got a programming job once based on a semester of Introduction to Programming and having designed two web pages. But really, the key factor was probably that I was 21 at the time, and twenty-somethings can figure out any computer problem, even if they are unqualified.

It also encourages utterly unqualified young people to try for jobs in the IT industry, which we are assured is just crying out for personnel. Which is true, but it’s crying out for UNIX sysadmins and Oracle database programmers with a BS in Computer Science and 4+ years experience. And yet, aimless young people who can customize the icons on their desktop and have their own web page believe that there are dozens of jobs waiting for them out there, because they keep being told there are.

And then, of course, there is the most dangerous pitfall of the silicon empathy drug myth: entrusting your machine to someone just because they’re demographically correct to fix it. An eighteen-year-old technician-wannabe who assures you he can fix the problem may just not be aware that he has no clue what he’s doing (Remember the story of me and the misread on/off switch? I was acting very authoritative and knowledgeable at the time, and also very fifteen), and may erase half your files before admitting that he’s a jackass. In fairness to eighteen-year-old technician wannabes, many of them are in fact quite skilled; my point is that you want to evaluate your technician based on his or her actual qualifications, not age.

So although it may be easier on you to believe that you are incapable of learning computer skills, in the long run, it’s more trouble and stress. Take the time to learn what’s going on. A little knowledge goes a long way with these machines.

Whaddya Mean, I Hate My Computer?

In the pursuit of a remedy for misotechny, we need to ask ourselves why it is that people hate their computers. Technophobia makes perfect sense: computers are complicated and often unintuitive machines, and mastering their foibles is a daunting task. But it’s only a machine; why should anyone hate it?

The answer, I think, lies in the role that computers have come to play in our lives. Over the course of the 1990s, computers have ceased to become toys or conveniences for most of us, but necessities. There are many advantages to this state of affairs: easier communication, simpler revision of documents, cheaper production of documents, and so on for several pages. However, this means that there are thousands and thousands of people who depend on computers everyday–for whom these machines are a essential part of their work–and they don’t understand their tools.

To work every day with a tool which may, at any moment, stop functioning for opaque reasons, and which you are not able to fix or even to diagnose its problem, is extraordinarily frustrating. Frustration, in turn, tends to be channeled into anger. But who is the target of this anger? Most people in this situation won’t blame themselves; they know how to do their job, and they’re doing it correctly. They could blame the company who made the machine, but it’s often not clear whether the problem is with the hardware, the operating system, or the software, all of which were probably made by different companies. Which one is at fault?

In the end, most people, unable to find an appropriate target for their anger, wind up putting the blame on the computer itself. The computer is serving as a symbol for the entire computer industry and the societal structures which are forcing them to use this machine which they don’t understand.

The problem, of course, with being angry at an inanimate object is that you can never work out your difficulties with a machine. If it isn’t fixed, it’ll keep doing what it was doing that made you angry in the first place; it has no desire to get past the negative relationship between you.

Fixing the machine, of course, would fix its behavioral problems, but if you could fix the machine, you wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. And as we all know, a computer is never permanently fixed. So, the anger just builds up and festers. Anything you do with your computer takes on a bit of that flavor of bitterness. The next time something goes wrong, you are even less inclined to deal with it, moving closer and closer to the day when you hurl the big plastic beast out the window.

The solution to this, as we discussed in the first column, is understanding. Once you come to understand your machine, you can deal appropriately with problems, and you have a better chance of being able to place blame where it rightly lies. Your computer problems will remain problems, but they will be setbacks to overcome rather than slurs against your ability to do your job.