Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An Apple a day

I have almost had several coronaries watching my mother use her laptop.

For one thing, her fingers continue to behave as if she’s working on a typewriter—they hit hard and recoil hard, which, given the shallowness of computer keys, is a waste of effort on the downswing and a waste of time on the upswing. I’m no stranger to inefficiency, but this makes me grit my teeth.

Secondly, she hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that her thumb can be used to speed up the trackball-and-click moves. She will move the trackball with her index finger, and then move the same index finger down to the clickpad. However, since the trackball is old and useless it tends to drift, so by the time she’s ready to click she usually has to return her index to the task of correcting course. By the time the digit has begun its stately swing back to the clickpad, the trackball is veering wildly again, and so are my eyes.

Thirdly, her computer is a wonderfully portable piece of junk, which means that she can carry her troubles everywhere. A couple of keys have come off completely from the keyboard, but that’s the least of it. I have frequently found her hunched over her screen with her eyes completely glazed over, sometimes looking in slightly different directions, because the pixelation is so horrible that she has to try to connect the dots. She has done much of her ageing waiting for a document to open. If you’re opening a webpage, you have time for a small snack. And if you should get impatient and click on anything again, the whole system grinds to a horrified halt, and you may as well push off on a short vacation.

She says things like: “I went into the net but it’s not coming down.” She calls documents articles, folders documents, and drives folders. Her telephone book habits—the plumber’s number under ‘T’ for ‘That chap recommended by Gita’—have migrated to her laptop filing system, with the result that she has no idea where she can find anything, or which of six file versions might be the most recent. Her desktop display is reminiscent of the professor’s room in the movie A Beautiful Mind. She’s been using computers for at least ten years but did not know, until two days ago, that sometimes just restarting your machine will persuade it that there really isn’t a paper jam in the printer.

I’ve spent a vast amount of time arguing that swapping this beastly machine for an Apple laptop would be beneficial because a laptop is supposed to help, not hinder work, and because Apple’s machines are built for technophobes. My brother tried to help by loading Ubuntu onto her machine, which only unleashed a new tidal wave of confusion.

This week, after struggling for months to write an article and work with the editor on Google Docs to no avail, she finally caved in. We’re supposed to go off to the Apple store one of these days and return with something she can actually use, but she’s terrified of the process of watching a professional technician transfer her data, so I’m not holding my breath.

There’s a video being passed around on Facebook, of a woman back at work after thirty years. It’s four seconds long: she’s sitting at a computer terminal, typing. She gets to the end of her line, automatically reaches out with her left hand, and sweeps the monitor right off the desk. It makes you laugh until you cry, but that’s better than starting off in tears.


progga said...

Last year my dad, having slowly come to the realisation that the rest of the family had means of communication that he did not, finally gave in to pressure and agreed to start using a laptop. And his first question, on the unveiling of the shiny new toy was, "so can I do other things on it while it's playing music?" Heart-breaking!

Sanand said...

Awesome! The interesting thing is that our parents are gradually teaching themselves to become familiar with the concept of 'being online' and working hard to learn the rules as they continue using it. It's worth appreciating.

cowherd said...

Tsk, tsk!

Why are you blaming your poor mother for the failings of the the human-computer-interaction research community?