Many years ago, in a different life, I used to train people on IT software packages. Word processors, spreadsheets, presentations, internet browsers and email software were all part of my curriculum. I enjoyed the job, particularly when people who came in to the classroom nervous and afraid of the computer would leave with a new found confidence. It made me feel good to think I’d made a difference to these people and given them some skills they could use in the workplace and at home.
But I was always curious about why people were afraid or nervous. Although I can’t say I grew up with computers (my school started offering IT ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in my final year there, too late for me to enrol) I embraced the opportunities they offered. When I was unleashed on a PC in work (the first one I’d seen) I made a point of learning the new software by playing around with it, pushing buttons and seeing what they would do. After all, I’m an activist, so it’s how I learn best.
Because I was prepared to push a new button, try something different or experiment with settings, I became the IT ‘expert’ in the office. I didn’t know much more than the people I worked with, but I didn’t give up so easily. For my efforts I was placed, against my will, on a new software project because I was the IT ‘expert’ (a monumental episode of misunderstanding). My first meeting was three hours of almost indecipherable IT speak. The others present were IT professionals – real experts – and I had no right being in the meeting. Within a few weeks I had managed to get transferred onto a thread of the project that involved skills transfers and the development of the user interface. Much more suited to my strengths.
I ended up in the training branch where I continued to encounter people who were reluctant to use PCs. Some had a genuine fear, others didn’t want to learn. I was happy to help the former. The latter proved hard to manage.
It is now 2011, a date that wouldn’t look out of pace in a science fiction story, and yet there are still people of my generation for whom the computer is a source of trepidation, fear and loathing. Everyone I work with and the huge majority of those who work in this organisation have to use PCs as part of their daily work, and yet that lack of knowledge and the unwillingness to learn for themselves hinders them and is the source of much frustration. If the same attitude was applied to driving or cooking or any other everyday activity, there would be a deafening outcry. But it seems it is okay to hate computers.
On the other side of the argument, technology that has been created and developed to make life easier seems instead to make life harder. Today I have lost access to most of the files I use on a daily basis. The servers are slow, as they have been for the last few months. Some of the software I use on a regular basis has an overly difficult user interface. There is no information about how and when these things will be resolved. There is some question as to whether it’s the technology or the people running the technology that are at fault. Despite all these setbacks, I don’t hate the technology and although it frustrates me sometimes, I don’t fear it.
After all, I know where the off switch is.