No wonder I can't add McCain to my friends list

A recent visit to my parents was revealing. They had recently switched to Vonage for their telephone needs. At the same time, their telephone's built-in answering machine crapped out. So I suggested that they simply use the free voicemail service that comes with Vonage. They complained that no, it's complicated, and made a plan to buy a new phone with answering machine.

Me: Complicated? How?
Dad: You have to dial your own number, type in a passcode, press some more buttons. It's a lot of work.
Me: How exactly do you think I check my messages? It's not a big deal, really.
Mom: Yes it is. It's a huge rigmarole.
Me: Okay, how about this: you check your stock quotes on the computer right? You can check the voicemail over the computer too. Just go to the website like this, and click here.
Dad: That's too complicated. Look at all these things appearing out of nowhere.
Me: That's just a popup Media Player. It'll disappear after the message plays.
Dad: I don't want to break the computer!
Me: You're not going to break the computer. All you have to do is click a couple of icons and you can play your messages. It's cheaper than buying a new phone.
Mom: I like to walk into the house and see a number flashing on the phone on the wall that tells me how many messages we have. Then I like to just press "play" to listen to the messages.
Me: It's not that much different than sitting down in front of the laptop and hitting "refresh"!

And on and on. They wouldn't budge. When I left, they were busy trying to figure out which phone/answering machine system to buy. Apparently, the marginal effort required to check messages online was greater than cost of a new phone.

What this reinforced to me is that old people are stubborn. It's very hard for them to adapt to new technology. I'm not sure I know anyone over 55 who knows how to type. Peck, sure; type, no.

So I'm not surprised at all that John McCain is computer illiterate.

My question is-- does it matter?

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I recently gave up on my

I recently gave up on my parents, I don' t want to hear about their problem, I don't want to give any advice. Seeing them pick horribly suboptimal solutions just want to make me cry.

The answering machine is nothing. They're changing to an inferior, pricier ISP just because they are to lazy to call the current one and ask him to upgrade the modem for free. (See the new ISP vendors prompt them while the current one doesn't).

It' s not that older people are stubborn. I think they have an inferiority complex with technology, they feel ignorant, and the more risk they're taking by adopting new technology, the more they are likely to face problems reminding them of their ignorance. It's a vicious cycle.

Not everyone is affected though, but I think you need to actively monitor and suppress this behavior as you grow older if you don't want to end up like this.

A lot to be said for the old ways

First off - a lot of people have known how to touch type the qwerty keyboard since long before computers were using them.

The computer can break - yes it can! One of the problems of having everything on the same device is that if something seriously goes wrong with it, it puts everything in jeopardy. Computers seriously need to be overhauled so that the programs are better isolated from each other. That's what viruses and Trojans are all about, and it's not just them. Just install enough weird junk on your computer and, unintentionally, one or more of those bits of software are likely to break it, to make something to mysteriously wrong with it. Go ahead and call me a fool, but years ago I installed Norton Everything (or whatever it is called), and after a while was unsatisfied with some aspect and so I uninstalled it. It broke the computer's ability to connect to the Internet. Fixable (everything is fixable with enough time and effort), but the average person understandably doesn't want to have to deal with that.

Nice thing about a regular answering machine is that it doesn't break. Or, if it does, you buy a new one, no big deal.

And the interface. So what if it's "just" a few buttons? Apple is raking in the cash because it is outdoing the competition both in style and in simplicity of interface, and its customers are not limited to old people. It's not just the old who value simplicity. The iPod is so simple it doesn't even have an on/off button! When I first saw that, I thought this was crazy, this was stupid, of course you need an on/off button. But some seriously talented guy at Apple realized that, no, you really don't. So now the iPod has completely taken over, partly because of style but partly because of simplicity. (Which isn't to say that the iPhone wouldn't be too much for your parents - as the feature-set grows, the maximum simplicity also becomes more complex. I bring up Apple not as something that your parents would necessarily choose, but as evidence that even the young tech-savvy will pay a premium for simplicity.)

If you don't understand why people are willing to pay a significant premium for a streamlined interface, think of it as a luxury. Instead of pressing two buttons, pressing just one button is a luxury. Not absolutely needed, but preferable - hence, a luxury. So ask yourself, how much do people typically pay for luxuries? Compare the price of a utilitarian car and a luxury car. Both cars get you to the same place. The luxury car just gives you luxuries - stuff you don't really need. If you compare the price tags, you may notice that people are willing to spend many thousands more for mere luxuries.

Another example of success in simplicity is the runaway success of the Flip video camera.

But old people are different. It's not just that they're stubborn or afraid. It's that they don't retain new lessons as well as the young. It's true of you. Go to some country that has a language you don't know. Take a six-year-old child with you. Stay there a decade. Then test yourself and the kid to see who has mastered the language better. Of course the kid - he speaks like a native, and you speak like a foreigner and always will. The answering machine routine is something your parents memorized, they have it down pat. If they go on vacation for three months and then come back home, they'll still know how to check the messages on the answering machine, but they will have in all likelihood have forgotten how to check the messages on the computer.