Saturday, 8 June 2013

David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture (5) Generational Change and the Computer


Philip Harvey



Computerate is a late 20th-century word, a shortened form of computer-literate. The Free Dictionary defines computerate as “able to use computers” and this has been the general meaning ever since the real takeover of the things in the 1990s. It can mean having little more than elementary skills in moving a mouse, saving a document, and sending an email. When David Pearson talks about his mother, he is thinking about computerate in this first sense.

The landscape is complicated by the hybrid and transitional nature of the world we are living in; partly because we are not yet at the point where everything which we used to go to books for is yet available electronically, though we can see what such a world would look like and how it is technically possible, and partly because we have a series of generation gaps. Those who were brought up with books, and that includes me, will probably always instinctively regard print as the primary medium and electronic as secondary, while someone who learns to read on a Kindle – and I think that generation is almost on us – will think the other way round. My mother, who’s 84, refuses to use computers and despite her interest in family history and the riches which the internet holds for genealogists, I can’t persuade her that looking for printed directories simply isn’t any more the best way to do it.

Taken as a test case, we may like to believe this family portrait is typical enough. David Pearson would like his mother to become computerate. We who are computerate know this is no great hurdle. She stands to benefit from access to online resources, though this does not automatically relegate printed directories to that quaint by-way, “the rubbish dump of history.” She will continue to gain by reading from print resources, it’s only that now she has digital as well. She just refuses to want to know how to gain access. She doesn’t want to learn. One sympathises with Pearson’s dilemma, he’s only trying to do the right thing, but there are two minor fallacies at work in his argument. The first is the assumption that the computer will take over from the book, rather than live together in a continuous interconnected reading universe. I am not the only person who believes that this second vision is what is really happening. The argument that the robots are taking over drones on; it is an argument for another time.

The other fallacy is the idea of generation gaps. The generation gap is a concept that, as David Pearson would know, became common in the 1960s to describe the differences in behaviour, taste and thinking between parents and children in modern Western countries. It was used as one of the social signals of change. Unfortunately, it served to justify not so much the value in difference, as the wall of irreconcilable difference. It became a marketing tool as well, selling products exclusively to the young. The artifice of the generation gap started to crumble when you found that your parents quite liked Bob Dylan really and couldn’t see anything offensive in Indian cheesecloth shirts. Far from finding anyone over the age of thirty untrustworthy, it was some of your own peers who proved more capable of pulling a swiftie.

It has to be observed that today there really is no age marker for being computerate. People of eight and people of eighty are equally capable of pushing around a cursor, adjusting the text to the preferred point-size, and transferring all their holiday snaps to My Pictures. One could even say it’s only a small minority of people who won’t learn about computers. The reasons why people refuse to become computerate, whatever their age, need some consideration, indeed more consideration than is generally given to the question by those who are computerate.

Would the following list be comprehensive? I don’t know where to start. I’m sure it’s very clever but will it give me the answer. I’m too old to start that now. I won’t talk to a machine. I like things the way they were before. I find it awfully fiddly. I tried that once but the thing lost my essay so why bother. I enjoy my privacy. I feel alienated. I wish it were friendly. I don’t need it. I would rather communicate face-to-face with a person than vicariously by an intermediary like a computer. I will leave that to someone else to figure out. I don’t want to communicate by that means. I’m stubborn and won’t budge on this. I refuse to persevere. I don’t want to be made a fool of by that piece of technology. I could never learn that stuff now. I want to talk to a human being. I find that technology makes me feel vulnerable.

Librarians have a responsibility in increasing the skills of their users, whether computerate or not. If the way to knowledge and reading is through these means, then the means must be taught. We must be familiar with the means ourselves in order to teach others and make them familiar with the computer. This starts with use of the catalogue and branches out into online access, full text, and other emerging technologies. Rather than excusing the computer denial in some of our users, we should be getting them to overcome their denial. We are the enablers, just as we have been in providing access to knowledge, in the form of print media, in the past. Rather than creating an imaginary abyss like the Generation Gap, we should be building bridges. The young teach the old, the old teach the young. Often today it is someone in a family who shows a personal interest in someone, older or not, learning the computer which makes the learning happen. Being computerate is simply one of the characteristics of that much more important human skill that our society puts such store on, being literate. 

Computerate is a word that now carries other meanings. Dictionary.com gives the definition “very familiar with computers and computer science.” This would scare off half the human race, which would not see itself as computerate in this sense at all. In simple terms, the difference between being able to work a computer and knowing how the ‘back-end’, as it is charmingly described, works is a big difference. It is not just a difference in schooling but in aptitude and interest. There are different levels of computerate person: the one who can work at the keyboard; the one who knows all the terms and practices; the one who can repair a computer; the one who should be working at Google; the one who should be starting up the next Google. None of these unsubtle skill types has yet been refined into definitions in online dictionaries. Yet each day if someone is asked are they computerate, it could mean any one of these types.

David Pearson is right to say the landscape is hybrid and transitional. The word computerate gets underlined in red by my spell-checker. But meanwhile, computerate is such a common word in English that it doesn’t even make it into the Urban Dictionary. The closest thing is ‘computerated’, which is a shortened form of computer-generated. This word is defined as “to make, assemble or produce something with a computerised device.” It came into the language, it seems, in 2009 and here is the quote: “Many movies have been computerated, which is sad as actors are no longer needed for acting.” Presumably these are G-Rated movies for the whole family, everyone from 8 to 80.

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