My project from Parliament Hack, Blogs for MPs, won one of the awards, and I’m looking to finish it up, deploy it, and get some Members of Parliament using it for real. One comment to me was that I made it that so easy to blog that even technophobic “dinosaur” MPs could do it.
With this in mind, I’ve made it a goal to attract these members to my service. To do this, I have to think about what makes people afraid of technology, and computers in particular.
Technophobia and cyberphobia are both difficult terms to accurately define, because, like agoraphobia and ADHD, there are so many different symptom sets. Also, the line between the two is blurry because most computers are still “technology.”1 For the purposes of this essay, then, both terms are defined as a continuum of increasingly extreme views:
- Ignorance of the existence of computers.
- Ignorance of the benefits of computers.
- An unwillingness to try computers, or indeed any other new electronic device.
- A belief that computers do more harm than good.
- A belief that computers and the internet will someday destroy the printed word, replacing books’ indubitable veracity with Wikipedia’s unreliable free-for-all.
- A belief that the political movements on the internet will tend towards extremism and win victory in a revolution, so that the internet will not only be used to propagandise, but all books will be burned to prevent uncensored information being found.
For each of these symptoms, there is at least one person who I’ve met suffering from it. By the symptom 6 we are truly into tin-foil-hat land, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll posit a brief rebuttal to these. Starting from the most extreme case, which is the easiest to rebut.
To discredit the rationale of symptom 6: Internet extremism likely to overthrow governments tends to be favourable to free speech and democracy; such is the nature of an open, neutral medium. Indeed, censorship of the internet is so hard that China, with its notorious Great Firewall, doesn’t have a rational and consistent rule about which pages are banned and which not. The internet grows so fast that keeping accurate censorship is impossible. When the internet is censored, there is always a way around it — and one will inevitably be found, no matter how hard you try; hackers don’t like to be restrained.
In the case of idea 5, the idea that paper books and periodicals will die and be replaced by e-books/Wikipedia/blogs/etc. calls to mind the last time the “death of paper” was foretold—the 1980s–90s, when the ‘paperless office’ became a fashionable goal for companies. In reality. Paper will never die—I really believe that. People like writing on paper, people like reading paper.
The idea that computers are more harmful than beneficial, as definition 4 suggests, is a general one, but an easy one to refute. Every day people do things that would be impossible (or extremely complicated) without computers. I’m not just talking about things like guiding space probes and examining CAT scans, though those are (of course) significant. I mean more mundane things like calling people in far-away countries without paying international phone rates; organising events for hundreds of people to attend; and learning completely new skills, facts and ideas.
The first three symptoms are things I can’t really say much about. If someone ignores the value of a computer without using one (or even knowing what one is), they can’t really be helped. For the first two, the above paragraph might offer some guidance, but without trying a computer, it’s hard to make a case for them. It’s something you really have to use to get.
Having provided an explanation of why technophobia, at least in the spectrum of symptoms we see it, is not a rational fear, what can we do to understand its mechanics, i.e. why are people technophobic? And what can we do about it?
Computers are hard-to-use. This could at least explain symptom 4 — because people find computers difficult, they’re skeptical of their benefits because it takes them more time when they do something with a computer. This has not really improved over time: older computers were too difficult because they were too simple; newer computers are difficult because they’re too complex. For instance, in the 90s, if you pressed the power button on most computers, the power would go right out. This could damage the filesystem, so people were told to shut their computers down safely with the software power switch.
Today, the hardware power button starts the shutdown procedure instead, making the power button safe to press during usage. Not only that, but journaling filesystems make things much safer because if the power does go out, it’s easy to recover a corrupted block or two. Some people who remember older computers might still believe that the hardware power button is dangerous.
The point, though, is that older computers needed maintenance and care to ensure their long operation. Today, thanks not just to ACPI and journaling but to pre-emptive multitasking, protected memory, and security features like ASLR, computers are much safer and more reliable.
This is not the complexity that troubles technophobes, though — far from it, these things improve the computing experience for everyone. The real problem might be that computer interfaces have too many features.
Fact: features sell upgrades, but probably don’t attract totally new customers. Once you have too many features, it may come at the expense of usability. For too many of the user-interface decisions made while crafting (or crufting) new additions to the standard window-based GUI, I feel that nobody asked, “Hang on. How’s will this fly with someone who’s never used a computer before?” So advanced users know about the new features and try them out — but new users might never find it and they still have to deal with the widgets that have been added to the interface to accomodate it.
One way to solve this problem is to continually take a look at your interface and try and find all the things you’ve added that might trip new people up. And, of course, there’s no excuse for not doing usability testing, especially with people who’ve never used your app before and have limited computer experience.
One sure problem is that most people, especially technophobes, are slow typists. Everyone’s seen someone slowly tapping one key at a time with only one or two fingers. Typing is a significant hurdle in the steps to proficient computer use.
Touch-typing isn’t necessary; for many years I typed with two fingers, going only slightly slower than my touch-typing speed today. As long as you know the layout well enough that you know the approximate area in which a key is located, you can type fast enough to get along just fine for anything you need to do on a computer.2
As an application designer, you can mitigate this by not requiring users to type that much. In Blogs for MPs, the only time the one must type is at signup and login. Even when typing is necessary, keep it to a minimum. Twitter is a perfect example: even poor typists can tweet quite easily because it doesn’t depend very much on typing, owing to its 140-character limit. (If you make your application accessible on mobile devices, you can use their dictation features and typing becomes a non-issue altogether. Indeed, some of this essay was dictated with my iPhone.)
So, though the mouse is inaccurate and slow and not favoured by nerds, it’s the best choice for non-technical users, owing to its shallow learning curve.
Can we truly combat technophobia?
An obvious factor I’ve missed so far is age. It may well be that as one gets older one simply becomes more hostile towards new technology.
Certainly I believe that as neophobia sets in as one gets older, however I don’t think it has as much effect on opinions about technology as it seems. Ivy Bean, 104 years old, had Twitter and Facebook figured out. Maybe she was an outlier, but on the whole, I think older people’s deference towards computers stems mainly from the ideas addressed above.
I hope I can combat technophobia with Blogs for MPs, and that once it’s live I can convince Members to use it, especially the “dinosaurs.” One thing I have on my side is the word-of-mouth network-effect benefit in a small community such as the House of Commons. I imagine a casual conversation between two MPs:
MP1: So yeah I have a blog.
MP2: I’d like to have one of those. It just seems so complicated to set up.
MP1: Oh, I use a service called Blogs for MPs. It makes it really easy to share stuff on a blog.
MP2: That sounds good, I’ll take a look at that.
If I can convince a few MPs to start publishing blogs, then I think the influence of my service will slowly spread by word-of-mouth among MPs who want to communicate better with their constituents. If one technophobe persuades a fellow technophobe, I could be on to something.