Sunday, 18 January 2015

Technophobia bytes the technophobe.

I guess in the world we live in you have to be able to use a computer and smartphone at the most basic level to be employable.

Technophobia is an issue that for the most part involves people who don’t have to contribute anything to the society in which they live and for the most part it eventually rebounds on these people quite badly.

I first came across it when I was a child in the 50s and 60s at that time my father ran the main bookshop in Salisbury and we had a home telephone, something fairly unusual at the time. Having the telephone was in some way related to work and occasionally he would be waiting for an important call. At some time or another this waiting corresponded with a visit from one of those aunts, who seem now to be extinct.

Anyway we all went out leaving the aunt behind with the instruction that my father was waiting for an important telephone call. When we returned and my father asked about the phone, the aunt said. “It rang at half past four, I didn’t answer it as I don’t know how to use a telephone.”

The next time was when I was a teenager and my parents rented out a cottage to a couple who had been tenants there since the time of the ark. This was a no bathroom, gas lighting, no hot water, loo at the bottom of the garden cottage, that my parents wanted to modernise, but the old couple were so resistant to change that my parents gave up and let the old couple carry on living in their timewarp.

The loo at the bottom of the garden was connected to another building that we owned and when this was modernised electric light was put in the loo, despite some resistance. Anyway after a space of about two years of having electric light in their loo the old couple were once again asked about the modernisation, at least replacing the gas lighting in their cottage with electric light. The answer from the old couple was made by the old lady. “I know the electric is there, but we haven’t used it, we is frit of the swish.” Further investigation revealed that when they had been going to the loo during the hours of darkness they had continued to light a candle, despite the presence of the normal electric light. Anyway when the parents had departed I being a teenager and therefore a different species and treated by everyone, my parents, the old couple and so on as a sort of classless entity that it was their duty to educate. So I sat drinking tea with them in front of their coal fire under the gas light, cake was produced, cigarettes were rolled and eventually the conversation came around to the electric light in the loo.

Obviously they used shops and the old chap went to the pub close by all of which were lit by electricity, the weren’t in any way stupid, subsequent visits showed that their sitting room was usually full of other old people drinking tea and chatting about any old thing, in fact they seemed to be having a much fuller social life than me. As a teenager I hung around there quite a lot and learned a fair amount about their lives. It was the switch that frightened them, they had never used one and weren’t going to start any time soon. The best I got out of them was. “We know it’s there if anything happens.”

This particular technophobia had an unfortunate end as the old man became ill and the old lady couldn’t manage to look after him properly, couldn’t carry in the coal to keep the fire going, couldn’t phone anyone up and ask for help, couldn’t plug in an electric fire.         

So does this sort of thing happen with computer technology now?

I know of one old person at the moment who is suffering very badly from refusing to learn to use new technology at the most basic level, I don’t really know the whys and wherefores, whether this was down to fear, bloody mindedness or some other reason.

The elderly couple are involved, they are both intelligent, sometime university graduates, the man uses computer technology and has done certainly since the BBC B came out in the eighties, the woman refused to use any of the new technology including a mobile phone.

A problem for many old people now is memory loss, central to this is not knowing where anyone is, what you have said to them and what they have said to you. This doesn’t seem to normally affect the things you have learnt to do. If you could operate the telephone you normally still can, if you can send a text message or an email, use the TV remote or the dishwasher, you normally still can.

One of the most helpful things in this situation is the stream of text messages on you mobile.

Say, they look something like this:

W where are you

H at church

W when will you be home

H 11.30

W will you buy a newspaper on the way home

H yes

Of course if you get memory loss and you haven’t mastered the new technology first, it is then pretty much impossible to learn.

So W goes to do the crossword, calls for H who isn’t there, so she works out he has gone out. So she telephones him, but as he is at church his phone is on silent and he can’t answer.      

So W telephones M who texts H who says he is at church and will get a paper, then M calls W who has forgotten she called M and has found the paper. Then W goes to do the crossword, calls for H who isn’t there so she works out he has gone out. So she telephones him, but as he is at church his phone is on silent and he can’t answer.  So W calls M who notices that W is getting agitated, and so it goes on.

This goes on and on, writing it on a bit of paper involves going off and looking for a pen and W forgetting she is on the phone. But and this is an important but, as this goes on M notices that W gets more agitated as this all goes on.

Now of course M isn’t a specialist in dementia, but this has been going on for several years and M is pretty much certain that W would be a great deal happier if she had all of the usual streams of messages on her mobile, telling her where her friends and family are and what she has said to them and what they have said to her.       

Now in our extended family there are quite a few old people, and most of the ladies have defaulted to a tablet type smartphone which they keep in their handbags and do most of their computing on. For the most part the men seem to be happiest with fairly clunky computers although obviously as all of the younger family members work they have both.

I guess WhatsApp, with it’s ability to text friends and family all over the world and easily send photos is one of the favourites. Skype of course is another, so if you have friends or family who are technophobes try and sort hem out a bit.

Smartphone wise the cost of a reasonable pay as you go Android phone is less than £50 and internet on mine ee/T-mobile costs me £20 for 6 months, so most people can afford it…

I am pretty sure that computer illiteracy among older people needs to be treated with the same amount of tact, perseverance and resolve that the reading and writing illiteracy would need to be treated.     


  1. You have made my day Michael, a very pleasurable read. A few home truths’ I must admit, the antiques road show has offered me a remarkable price for my mobile. My friend’s cottage still has no electric, neither has it a phone line; the plumbing is also very basic, but the peace and beauty of the Dorset country side in that heavenly place overlooking the ocean, many would pay a fortune for these days. I don’t know how many times he has been offered an unbelievable price for his old ford motor car with a split windscreen, made before the last war and still going strong. “ Why change it, its not broken, and what would I do with all that money, only buy another one that I guarantee wouldn’t last as long?”

  2. That's a very wise and thoughtful contribution Michael. Thank you.
    May I add that young people face barriers too especially if they have problems with reading and writing - you need to be able to do that in order to communicate at all. Some people, on a fb page I use, have recently been ridiculing people who think these things are important. A lack of basic skills not only excludes older people from the community but excludes young people from the kinds of jobs likely to be available in the 21st century. Reading, writing and now ITC are basic to our civilisation. don't knock it.

  3. Alan I guess that for the most part the key is to be able to use the technology in case you get dealt a bad hand in life. The problem though with the aging population and memory loss in particular, is that it seems apart from remembering the things you did in the 1950s or 1960s very clearly, the other recent complex stuff that seems to be retained fairly well is the stuff people do every day. I would say installing WhatsApp and using it with your partner, family and friends, to communicate on a daily basis would probably get one out of that particular bad hand, for a while at least.

    Tony I guess the young people I know who can’t read and write send me a voicemail via a free texting app, I think the point with the technology is that you don’t really need to be able read and write. You can very easily download Alice in Wonderland to your mobile phone and use a text recognition app to get your phone to read it to you. Particularly handy with long newspaper articles I find as it allows you to do something else at the same time. Obviously as a bookseller I have dedicated a fair proportion of my life to getting families reading, but I would say if you are computer literate then it is becoming increasingly less essential to be able to read and write to communicate.


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