Thursday, May 28, 2009

The myth of computer competence

There is a persistent world view that young people have grown up with computers and are therefore more competent than the "older" folks who use computers. Since I have been doing computer support for almost 30 years now, I have a little bit of a perspective on the age factor as well as overall competence in using computers. So lets look at the age factor in computer use.

I know very few, if any, teenagers who are computer competent other than playing games, sending text messages and perhaps, reading E-mail. Almost without exception, I cannot find one young person who can adequately use word processing (other than in most simple sense of typing a short school assignment), spreadsheet, presentation program or any other every day useful program. One young man I know can write short computer programs, but lacks basic skills of formatting, layout and composition.

So what are we talking about here. Young people mostly use computers like they drive cars, carelessly and without knowing how to change the oil, rotate the tires or even wash the car. Just because someone knows how to turn on the computer or operate a computer game, does not make them computer literate.

I do know younger adults who are computer professionals. They have on the job experience with networks and Internet connections. They can set up a computer and connect it to a network, but often don't know what to do with it past Facebook and or MySpace.

Most of what older people perceive as computer competence deals with learning a few basic instructions, and having the manual dexterity to operate a mouse and keyboard. But I know people in their 80s who know more about computers than a teenager could ever hope to know. The computer support staff I presently work with consists of retired engineers in their 70s who design and maintain a complex computer network of over 50 machines. Younger people may know how to drive through the computer city, but these people know where the wires, plumbing and power come from and go to.

I regularly work with groups of Boy Scouts on the computers working on the genealogy merit badge. By and large, they know absolutely nothing about the computer or how it operates. They often have to be shown how to do a simple search on Google. Just because your teenager knows how to operate the remote on the TV does not make him or her a computer expert. Get over it. Anyone at any age can learn about computers and gain competency. Sometimes, by the time a young person enters the job market, they acquire real computer skills. But even the younger office workers in my office are absolutely lost on the computers if the programs do not operate exactly as they expect them to.

It is time the older people of the world get with the program and take back the high ground of computer use. Let's change the stereotype and start having your grandchildren come to you with their computer questions.


  1. Go team! End that reverse discrimination! :)

  2. "Get over it."

    Ha! Tell us how you really feel, James. :0) Good points, though. I wonder, however, if the distinction is in the approach rather than the extent of knowledge. I have noticed that many elderly folks are simply overwhelmed by computers, word processing, and the Internet. For their generation, computers were the tools of a very specific profession, not a common household electronic fixture. Many don't even try to understand computers because they are afraid of breaking them or making them "freeze." Younger generations, who've grown up with the constant companionship of computers, are more likely to tackle a computer problem head-on, by clicking around, playing, and learning by experience. I may not know how to put together a power point presentation right now, but if you sat me down next to an equally inept 70-year-old and told us both to figure it out, I can almost guarantee I'd finish faster as I cruised my way to instructions on YouTube and step-by-steps on and friend tips gleaned from a Facebook status plea. *Said with the proper amount of humility, you understand.* :0)