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Sunday, April 21, 2002


Reality bytes across the Digital Divide

The latest fad in worldwide rifts is not East/West, North/South, Rich/Poor -- nor even Love Britney/Hate Britney. Rather it is the "Digital Divide" -- the gap between those who are prepared to live in our brave new world of information technology and those who are not.

Which means woe is me -- because the Digital Divide rips right through my house. I stand on one side, casually and quietly sipping my coffee . . . while on the other side sits my wife, screaming at our computer.

"The darn thing broke! It won't open my file!"

"Did you click twice?"

". . . Oh."

Not that I am what you would call a techie. I stumble through most of life with minimal skills. If you need someone to, say, switch channels with a remote control or perhaps squirt toothpaste from a tube, I might be your man.

But if you're after something harder, like wrapping packages or folding linen, you'd probably be wiser to outsource.

Yet . . . running a computer is like riding a bicycle. I may not be the fastest cyclist in town, but I always get where I'm going. And if I end up lost, I just mouse around and sooner or later things work out.

"I tell you!" my wife hollers, "it's broken! It won't send my mail!"

"Hit return."

". . . Oh."

My wife, meanwhile, fits the overplayed stereotype of a nimble-fingered Japanese. Arts and crafts, music, cooking -- there is not much she can't do. Except for one thing . . . work a computer.

"I can explain that," she says with her hair a muss and her eyes askew. "It's the machine's fault. It's evil."

"Look," I kneel at her side and point at the monitor. "I bought a Japanese system just for you. If you get lost, just look at the screen and read. That's what I do -- and I read Japanese the way most people read Aztec."

"Please," she begs. "Can't I just go get the frying pan and smash it?"

"No!" I shout -- then grow excited at the implied opportunity. "Not unless I can buy a new one. With maybe a zillion more gigabytes."

She leaps away. "It bites?! See! I knew it was evil!"

"I meant we could use more memory."

"What we could use is an exorcist."

I tell her I am amazed that anyone can get so tense over technology.

"Look who's talking -- the man who gets dry heaves when he can't find his socks."

I tap the computer. "But this," I say, "is a simple tool."

She laughs like she's laying an egg, then stops. "If this is simple, then I'm Hello Kitty."

Simple . . . Perhaps that's the problem. Techno-challenged people like my wife have heard the word "simple" too much. They think it means "magic."

It is for people like this that Compaq is considering changing the "Press Any Key to Continue" notice to "Press Return." Apparently Compaq switchboards have been jammed with users who can't find the "any" key.

"And not only that!" My wife drops her key chain on the desk. "None of these work at all!"

I admit to a fear that I will awake one morning to the sound of my wife sawing wood in our garden.

"But didn't you say to log on?"

So perhaps "simple" should be avoided. The term I now use is "diabolically complex."

"That's more like it," she says.

"The secret to making it work is just this: You have to follow directions."

She buries her face in her hands. "I knew it! It's beyond me!"

Part of her frustration comes from seeing her offspring use the computer as if they've been doing it all their lives -- which they have. They ride the mouse off through the Internet like they were blasting along on a Harley.

But as soon as she touches the machine -- often as lightly as a snowflake -- it crashes.

"Sometimes I don't even have to touch it. All I have to do is make a face."

"Well, if it crashes you just have to reboot."

Luckily, I grab her leg in time. "I mean turn it on again!"

Once more we go through the processes: starting applications, opening and closing files, sending and receiving mail. I stand back and give soft orders as if I were talking down a novice pilot landing a Cessna.

"Are you ready to try on your own?"

Her spirits have risen. She blinks with bright eyes, then says: "You must be out of your mind."

Yet I leave her with the machine. Upstairs, I type away at my own computer until I am overwhelmed by a spirit of silence behind me.

I turn to find my wife in the doorway with her chin in a pout.

"It won't work. I think it's broken. And perhaps ready to explode. Maybe we should evacuate."

So I tromp down and push the accursed "any" key. The computer hums.

"It's not fair," my wife sniffles.

"Maybe you should enroll in a class."

"Or maybe I should beat it with a chair."

Actually, she did take a class. But, like much technology, her knowledge was obsolete within weeks.

"You have to keep at it."

And she has. Nowadays our Digital Divide is no longer the size of the Grand Canyon. More like only the Snake River Gorge.

"One day you'll get it," I tell her.

She looks at the machine and pats the frying pan in her hand. "That's the very thought," she says, "that keeps me going."

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