From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 29, 2006*: The (digital) cleaning lady

I live in a community with a large number of elderly people. Many of these people are still very functional. They are able to look after themselves and are highly lucid. Even so, they're no longer able to tend to their once pleasant gardens, and dirt accumulates in their apartments much more quickly than they're able to deal with it. They're in need of help to keep their homes in order, and, as is to be expected, an entire industry has arisen to deal with those needs. This aging population isn't particularly different from that in any other community, other than perhaps the fact that they are more visibly still a part of the community. Many of these people have taken at least the first steps toward being computer users. Often, their computers are hand me downs from their children, though lately their children seem to have realized that a state of the art machine is best for their parents. Many of these old-new users (no need to link to something on that, but I couldn't resist using the phrase) have haltingly learned to use these machines, sometimes only for games and passing the time, but quite frequently also for email contact with family, for typing their life stories into a word processor, and for pursuing interests and hobbies via the internet. I've had the opportunity to take a look at the workings of a number of these computers, either when I'm called in to solve a problem, or to give some longer range instruction. I've discovered that just as these people need help tending their gardens or cleaning their apartments, they could also benefit from a weekly clean-up visit to their hard drives.

On the face of things, I'm hardly the right person to be offering a cleaning service. My own hard drives are perennially in need of spring cleaning. They're filled with older versions of articles that were finished long ago and can now be thrown out, with numerous programs that never get opened but are still installed, with duplicates of items that I perhaps wanted to glance at in order to make sure they're truly duplicates rather than different versions of something before discarding, and lots more - primarily mp3 files and digital photos. And that's not to mention the vast quantities of very old mail that any normal person would feel quite comfortable parting with. But it's not the need for this sort of cleaning up that I've encountered when I've met with the older people I've worked with. Their cleaning-up problems are simpler - they don't accumulate files with anything close to the frequency that I do. On the other hand, their cleaning-up needs are perhaps also a bit more confusing. Many of the hard drives I've viewed suffer from what seems to be a classic problem of the elderly: shaky fingers. This may seem strange to people who feel at home with a mouse in their hands, but for some people, and many of the elderly are certainly included in this group, executing a double-click on an icon without the mouse moving at the same time isn't the simplest of maneuvers. Numerous times the results of the attempted double-click, rather than being the opening of the desired document or program, is moving it, or making an additional copy of it, or changing it in some other unexpected way.

Numerous tools are, of course, available for cleaning up a hard drive. I think the going name for this sort of thing is "system optimization", though a wide variety of functions can fall under that category. Perhaps the easiest way to return to a sense of order on an older person's computer would be to install one of these tools, set it to run an automatic weekly cleaning session (in the same way that we've learned to run a weekly virus check) and let the software do its work. My guess, however, is that a software package that cleans up somebody's hard drive makes certain assumptions about the mess that it's going to encounter, and in the cases that I'm familiar with, there's rarely method to the madness. What's more, I've come to realize that "the rest of us" aren't, and almost by definition can't be, the projected audience for these tools. Because there are millions upon millions of computer users, there are also a vast number who run numerous programs on their computers, and/or have thousands upon thousands of files that sooner or later demand to get put into some semblance of order. Within these groups there's also the target audience of those who are also willing to take the time to clean up their computers and make them run faster. The people whose computers I've "cleaned" wouldn't know how to run software of this sort. On the whole, they don't need it.

Judging by the number and variety of mishaps that I've had to put back in order, it's a good guess that there are very many elderly people (and not a few not-elderly) who could use a personalized digital cleaning service - someone who makes a weekly visit in order to move icons back to where they're expected to be, someone who deletes a duplicate of a folder that's causing confusion because it's inside its original folder, who checks the list of Word documents that weren't closed properly that shows up on a substantial part of the screen, blocking part of the desired document when Word gets opened. Virtual clutter may be less distressing than the tangible clutter of papers and dirt and whatever that accumulates in someone's apartment. The main difference between virtual clutter and regular old mess is that nobody really sees the former and thus nobody gets nagged for not cleaning it up. I'm convinced that there's a large and growing population of aging computer users who, though they're aware that something is amiss - they've misplaced documents, or a program isn't opening correctly, and the like - aren't calling for aid because it's easier simply to leave well enough alone. They may have an almost primal fear of technology that may not affect them on a daily basis, but comes to the fore when they have to turn for help. It's easier for them to simply adjust to the reality of not knowing where a particular file is, or no longer playing a game that doesn't open properly, or do things in a roundabout manner that avoids a problem but also makes the user experience much less enjoyable. Underlying this willingness to adjust rests an assumption that may be common to almost all computers users, but especially so among the elderly - that computers are too complicated for us anyway, so if something isn't working, well, that's to be expected.

Anti-virus and system optimization software promise a service that sounds rather high-class. The names of these programs often suggest a certain professionalism. We expect to find words like doctor or diagnostic in them. Perhaps a software package of this sort would be a laboratory. The same can't exactly be said for a janitorial service. What sort of name might we give to a software package that promised little more than performing an occasional sweeping up, or washing the dishes left in the sink? Whatever name we might give it (I doubt that Jack the Handyman would sell many copies, and it would be far too easy to think of titles with undesirable racial overtones) wouldn't be a name that would encourage people to spend money on it. On the one hard, perhaps that's a pity - this is a real need, and it seems as though it's not being attended to. On the other, I'm convinced that this is more of a hands-on task, a task that a flesh-and-blood person would perform much better than a piece of software. Perhaps he or she could even do a bit of explaining and teaching at the same time. But even if he or she were able to explain what to do in order to make an additional call unnecessary, it's my guess that a weekly sweep wouldn't hurt.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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