Good-With-Computers, Part Two: Technophobia

by Andrew Emmott on October 11, 2011

in Anti-Buzz,General

The Buzz: Technophobia can be overcome with experience.

The Anti-buzz:
Technophobia is overcome by, (surprise), letting go of your fear.

Part Two (Part One here)

Abstract Thinking and Problem Solving. Two hooks from part one to define “good-with-computers” in a way that accounts for both the software engineer and the self-made expert who uses Excel everyday:

This week, Technophobia. Of course, this is a technology blog, so it is unlikely that anyone reading this would consider themselves a technophobe. You got here didn’t you? You want to read up on technology, right? The very nature of this outlet implies a certain level of expertise, or at least eagerness, on your part. So why talk about people who are bad-with-computers? Because you deal with them everyday. How do you de-phobe your nervous dental assistant/office manager/grandfather? I don’t know but I can lend some insight into the phenomenon.

The Technophobe

True technophobes, I argue, are more or less non-existent, barring a few Kaczynskis. We all have cute stories from the 90’s wherein some 65-year old acquaintance refused to have anything to do with this newfangled computer fad. Older, even elderly, people who don’t, at the very least, check their e-mail are increasingly rare. In many ways, we’re all “computer people” in some form or another.

So why bring up the technophobe? Because there is no shortage of people who believe themselves to be technophobes, or more accurately, there is no shortage of people who have insecurities about their computer skills. The primary obstacle of technophobia is simply the fear of doing something wrong. On the other hand what the “good-with-computers” types all have in common is the stomach and patience for problem-solving-by-trial-and-error.

Fear of Failure: The freedom to fail is possibly the greatest cultural impact of computing technology, and is at the crux of any “generational gap” people feel in regards to computer usage. Let the technophobe in your life know that it is okay to do something wrong on the computer. It’s okay to do something wrong a million times! The cost of failure is basically zero. The cost of fear, however, is enormous.

As an example, consider digital photography. In another era, you might take a vacation and bring your film camera and maybe, oh, 5 rolls of film? You are gone for two weeks, and you have about 100 pictures to take; total, including your mistakes. Do people remember agonizing over which pictures to take? Which pictures to take again, because you weren’t sure if the first shot came out right?

Conversely, I took a digital camera on my last vacation, and returned with about 500 pictures. A healthy number of those are blurry or bad in some other way, but the digital camera gives both immediate feedback, (so I know when I need to retake a picture), and costs me virtually nothing to just keep shooting. Because the cost of failure is so low, I end up taking maybe 400 GOOD pictures which would have sounded preposterous only a couple decades ago.

The fact that doing something the wrong way with computing technology is basically consequence free actually enables us to do it the right way more times than we would have otherwise. Tell your technophobe they are allowed to bungle with their computer. The more doing they do, the more productive work they’ll get in. The mistakes will start to vanish on their own.

Tell them not to lock up every time something goes wrong. It’s okay. They will fail. We all do. The less time we spend on our failures, the more times we will succeed. Simple as that.

People who are technophobic are so because they spent their professional lives taking great care to do things right the first time, or not do them at all. Your ten-year old is so swish with Microsoft Word because they never had a boss that forced them to retype an entire memo from scratch for the sake of one comma.

Abstract Thinking: As comically demonstrated above, once the technophobe does get something right, they often don’t experiment at doing it better or faster. When this happens it indicates both a failure of abstract thinking and problem solving. On one hand, it is good that something got hammered out until it worked, but the entire affair is remembered as one solution to one problem, not a learning experience where many solutions were tried, and multiple solutions were found. The person who follows the above path learns how to save YouTube videos on their hard drive, use file-sharing aspects of their home network, and many other things, or at least they should.

Abstract thinking is the process by which all these tricks are remembered as solutions to problems that haven’t come up yet. A failure to compartmentalize the experience and apply it elsewhere is a failure of abstraction. Further, good problem solving skills mean more than the tenacity to dig up a solution; they also mean constant vigilance for newer and better solutions. The person who is content to accept that something conceptually simple, (sharing a video), is a 15-step process is a person who does not like to solve problems.

Fear of failure and fear of success: Sound contradictory? Well it is, and it precisely why computers confuse some people, because they demand that you fear neither of those things. You have to want to succeed, but you can’t be afraid of failure. The drive to find better solutions is inherently competitive, and a fear of success is actually a fear of winning, a fear of being perceived as mean for the sake of your own victory. Some people don’t want to do things better because they don’t want to admit that “better” is even a real thing.

So there it is, technophobia distilled into some sort of new age philosophy and/or business self-help advice.

But this is all theoretical. What about practice? I leave you this week with a call to arms, or at least a call for anecdotes. In what ways have you found success training the technophobe? When have you failed? Post your stories in the comments below, or e-mail them to me!

Until next time, fear nothing.

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