The Techie: Light Switches and Rotary Phones

Mia Eaton wants luddites to stop being so hard on themselves.

Kids these days, they don't know what "dial" literally means, do they? There's a story I've told my grandmother, a story I tell anyone who says, "oh, I just don't get these things the way you people do." It's about a man back in the late 1990s who installed rotary phones in a children's summer camp. The children, bright young things, had no clue how to use them. The notion of putting their fingers into the corresponding numbered hole and dragging the "dial" around in a firm clockwise motion simply never occurred to them.

Why, in this increasingly innovative and interconnected device-driven world, should anyone be hard on themselves for not instantly knowing how to use wonderful, but usually complicated devices?

The reality is that it — whatever the "it" is for individual people — will only become accessible if and when a person can get past the notion that they aren't good at something simply because they don't get it right away. No one automagically knows how to use anything through the grace of their age or aptitude. These things must be learned.

Usability, as it's referred to, is a subject explored and studied by professionals like me, and by people much smarter than me. Interface design is so in our faces that it's practically invisible to anyone not thinking about it—though we're painfully aware of its failures.

You see it in the VCR that blinks 12:00, in those remote controls dotted with mystery buttons. It's in the editing software that announces it has more than one version of a file and asks cryptically which one you want to keep (when it could very well tell you exactly which file is newer, or present them side by side with the differences highlighted in yellow, but doesn't, because it's not well designed). Boo! Hiss.

I don't know why "up" means "on" for a light switch, only that in this country we can safely agree that it does, and I am grateful for that fact upon entering a dark bathroom for the first time.

Essentially, there's really no such thing as truly intuitive design or someone who naturally understands technology.

It has infinitely more to do with culture, with usage and experience, than anything faulty or gifted in an individual's brain.

So SW luddites, your thoughts please?

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Comment by Michael N. Marcus on May 4, 2010 at 9:00am
To Hellen Ellis: >>;

You (or the pussy cat) left the "s" of the end of your URL.
Comment by Charlotte Irrgang on May 4, 2010 at 7:18am
We used to have this rotary phone that was so stiff it hurt my fingers to dial it. I bet even your super-luddite cat couldn't dial that one! :) Of course, that one was a special case!

I taught my cat how to play piano on my husband's iPad last weekend though. It involved me scratching her spine where it makes her automagically lick her paws, while her paws were on the screen. Instant music! She sounded pretty good too, and even threw in some drums and guitar occasionally. iPads really are intuitive!
Comment by Helen Ellis on May 4, 2010 at 7:09am
I still use a rotary (and refuse to own a cell)! For a how-to, check out "Diary of a Luddite: How to use a rotary phone." You can also learn how to use a typewriter and radio, and how to teach your cat to answer that rotary!
Comment by Charlotte Irrgang on May 1, 2010 at 3:55pm
Well, I'm glad we all agree that mean people suck!
Comment by Michael N. Marcus on May 1, 2010 at 6:33am
To The Techie, Julie and others:

I think I've been misunderstood.

Although I am a the bearer of the rare Y chromosome, I am very much a feminist, strongly opposed to gender-defined restrictions, limitations and occupations.

In the last presidential primaries, it was difficult for me to decide whether to support Hillary or Barack. I felt it was equally important to have a female president, and a black president. I ultimately supported Barack because of Hillary's support of the Iraq war. I'm glad she's Sec'y of State.

My blog has frequently commemorated female firsts, such as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, first female Jewish president, first female poet laureate, first college dunk shot by a woman, first woman to vacation in space, first female gondola paddler in Venice, first woman in the US arrested for voting, etc. etc.

It's unfortunate that these activities are rare enough to be worth writing about. I celebrate women's tenacity in breaking through barriers.

I fully realize that the lack of affinity for or interest in technology in many women is the result of environment (including pressure from parents and teachers), not genetics and certainly not intelligence.

I have no children, but one of my nieces is an attorney and another is a rabbi and I'm proud of them both. My wife is my business partner. She often makes better business decisions than I do, but is absolutely hopeless with technology. The editors of my books (including technical books) are women. Two of my doctors are women. My mother is a woman. She went to a high school for "the gifted" and many years later a niece went to the same school. I have a sister-in-law who is much better with mechanical things than her husband or son are.

I know that Rear Admiral Grace Hopper invented Cobol, and had an amazing career in the navy and in industry. I once was in love with a woman who was a COBOL programmer. I could never be a programmer. I also know women who are better athletes than I am. OTOH, my wife says I'm a better cook than she is.

I like (and love) smart women. And I recognize that women are often better communicators than men are (will I get attacked by the guys for saying this?). That's part of the attraction of this forum.

My even displays the "I'm a Member of SheWrites" banner. How many other men's blogs or websites do that? Yesterday's topic pointed out that male Donald Trump was wrong to criticize the grammar of female Cyndi Lauper.

So, ladies, I may not be on your team, but I'm certainly a cheerleader.

Michael N. Marcus
-- Independent Self-Publishers Alliance,
-- "Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press"
-- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)"
Comment by Julie Jeffs on April 30, 2010 at 7:37pm
Brava Mia, love the post itself but love your response to Michael even more. Michael, unfortunately it is exactly that attitude that you bring to the table, that assumption that men are more inclined technologically than women that keeps women having to defend themselves, be treated horribly and usually paid less then men for comparable or even superior work. I would only hope that after witnessing the talent and intelligence amongst these women on She Writes you'd go out and find yourself a few more women friends who can show you how well they understand technology, and maybe a few other things.
Comment by Diane Meier on April 30, 2010 at 6:42pm
Oh Charlotte! Be still my heart! Just tell me where to sign up.
And thanks for playing with me---- di
Comment by Charlotte Irrgang on April 30, 2010 at 6:39pm
What we really need is a... 'seeing-computer dog' right? :)
Comment by Diane Meier on April 30, 2010 at 6:32pm
No no - of course. I do get it. It's not that I really expected a dog - even a German Shorthaired Pointer - to be able to figure out why my computer suddenly stopped being able to open an attachment. Although, I was hoping that she might solve a few of those pesky little glitches...

Sadly, I am not using dogs or horses to do anything at 907 Broadway,Charlotte. Marketing and design and writing go on, as usual - in human hands, with huge computer involvement.

And I DO appreciate the point of great design to the extent that my iphone is so intuitive, I never think of it as a damned appliance. I never try to bat it, like an old Philco television, or jiggle the antennae.

So - Mia's point is a good one. If the tech-designers worked with a higher degree of generosity, we might actually feel that the f#@ing things they designed could take a fence, or give us their paws without our winning a degree from MIT. And I'm all for that.
Comment by Charlotte Irrgang on April 30, 2010 at 12:07pm
See, that's my (and Mia's) point again. You grew up immersed in the 'technology' of dogs and horses, and therefore they are familiar to you. You know how they work because you learned it either actively or by exposure to watching people around you as you grew up.

Give a kid today a dog or a horse...ok this metaphor is breaking down since I have no idea what you're using these animals to do.

But if you think that saddling and bridling a horse is intuitive, you've got another think coming!


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