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

September 26, 2000*: My Connected Mom
It was about half a year ago that my mother got her computer. It's hard to say just why she got it, and I suppose that it's fair to ask just why an 86 year old woman needs a computer at all. But her children, and especially my brother, convinced her that this was a worthwhile investment, and since the money really wasn't much of a problem, she took the leap.

Getting started was a bit difficult. In the past Mom was an accomplished typist, but her hands aren't what they used to be, and her first letters (prepared on a word processor, printed out and sent by snail mail) showed clear signs of being rusty on the keyboard. After a while, however, her typing abilities and our reading expectations seemed to find a middle ground. Today snail mail isn't necessary as she's able to e-mail those letters to us straight from her word processor, even without phoning my brother for instructions. For many years she maintained a schedule of weekly letter writing, but that habit came to a halt a number of years ago. Now that all that's necessary in order to establish contact is to sit down, write a letter and click on send, it's once again easy to write (for me as well).

But though there's perhaps a certain novelty in an 86 year old woman connecting to the internet, that in itself isn't really something to get overly excited about (unless it's your mother), let alone something to which to devote a whole column. As I examined the manner in which Mom used this new tool, however, I realized that something very interesting actually was underfoot.

I've devoted many hours to teaching internet basics. Sometimes this even includes how to hold a mouse. I'm well aware that many people have a very unclear picture of just what's happening when they log on and start clicking from web site to web site, or send e-mail around the world. The basic internet tools are very simple to master, but even so it takes a bit of experience, and even more self-confidence. My mistake seems to have been that I've assumed that what people need is more experience and a better understanding of how the computer and its programs work. I won't say that I've now learned that those are bad, but I've discovered that what most people really need is programs that allow them very little room to make mistakes.

This wasn't really a new discovery. I suppose I've known it all along. After all, it's the graphic user interface which has made the computer as much a part of the household as the television, and I've traditionally sided with the GUI advocates against the DOS cultists. User-proof programs would seem to be a logical next step along the road of ease of use. Except that this direction goes against another basic assumption about computer use - the computer as open tool. Most computer users I know have at least one story about how they purchased their computer in order to use it for one purpose, and then discovered that it helped them do something else. It's a given of computer lore, and an important built-in element of any truly functional computer. Limiting the tool's capabilities in order to make it less threatening to the uninitiated user may have certain benefits in the short run, but in the long run it's a dead end.

Most users, however, don't seem to mind encountering that dead end. And I can't really blame my mother for being one of those. In retrospect, it's fair to say that a letter we sent her about using a computer before she actually made the purchase was directed much more toward a power user than the sort of user Mom is turning out to be, and the sort of user we could have expected her to become.

What's more, there really isn't any reason for her to become a power user. A glimpse at how my brother has set up Mom's computer drives that point home all the more. Mom has an iMac. It's a beautiful little machine and fits her needs (and desk) beautifully. But even more impressive than the computer is the e-mail program that she uses, Nisus Email.
Most people, in order to send or check mail, have to open their e-mail program. For some this means a component of their browser, as in Netscape, while others have a separate, stand alone, program. On the whole these are rather simple programs to master, though as I've already admitted, I'm not necessarily the right person to determine what simple means. Mom doesn't have to know that a special e-mail program even exists. Instead of a program, what she uses might better be referred to as a screen on her desktop. From that screen she can send or receive mail. Clouds on the screen which indicate her various correspondents become highlighted if she has incoming mail from any of these. Clicking on a cloud brings up the incoming letter. When she wants to send mail she can do so straight from her word processor.

This is an attractive and easy to use program, and power users might even enjoy using it as well, though I'm not sure that they'd even want to try. They certainly don't seem to be the target audience. One of the greatest benefits of this program is that it makes e-mail accessible from any application on a computer. Once again, that can be attractive to the power user, but what makes it even more attractive to the novice is that it's hardly a program at all. Even though e-mail programs are not particularly difficult to use (it's even a fair guess that after a relatively short while Mom could have learned to master one) it's even easier not to have to learn a new tool.

But that's precisely what raises for me an intriguing, if not necessarily important, question: Is Mom really using a computer? As I've already suggested, what distinguishes a computer from other tools is that it can perform tasks that we hadn't even imagined we'd want to perform when we first started using it. But Mom is using her computer to perform two basic and pre-determined tasks: writing with the aid of a word processor, and sending and receiving e-mail. That seems to be enough for her. She doesn't sit in front of the computer and explore what's there. She doesn't ask "what would happen if I click on this?". Although some mothers even build their own web sites, mine seems content to have this tool at her disposal in order to be in more immediate contact with her children and grandchildren. And if she's satisfied with that, why shouldn't I be as well. After all, it could be rather embarrassing to write about "my mother the hacker".

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

Jay Hurvitz

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