Your grandmother is smarter than you think
At a meeting a few months ago, a distinguished computer scientist approximately my age (62) trying to find an exemplar for the utterly clueless, digitally illiterate computer user picked this word: "granny". I wish I could say it was a one-off, but in fact he used "granny" in just that way no less than three times in his 15-minute talk. This approach is not uncommon.
I find I am losing my sense of humor about this as I continue to age into the demographic in which I could be confused with a grandmother. Some of you will argue that if I'm 62 I long since aged into it; but because my mother was 41 when I was born I tend to think of grandmotherhood arriving much later. In writing this, I was startled to realize that in fact my mother was 48 when she became a grandmother, though I didn't really notice that at the time since I was only seven years old. The only grandmother I had growing up was in her 80s, so that's the age I imagine.
The 70- and 80-something women I know vary as much as any other demographic group. Some took to email like they'd found what was missing from their lives because it made it so much easier for them to organize family gatherings and trips. Many worked, whether for pay or not: they did the bookkeeping for their husbands' businesses, they were secretaries, they ran Scout troops, football teams, the local quilters' guild, and volunteered for charities. Underestimating their abilities and skills is the same mistake that employers have made for decades in assuming that because the work they did was invisible and/or unpaid it must not have existed. This kind of thinking is lazy, obnoxious, and offensive.
In fact, the *most* helpless computer users I've met have been older men. Either they had the kind of jobs that didn't involve desk work or they had secretaries to do everything for them. Again, older men vary as much as any other demographic, but among my admittedly unrepresentative sample are several who refuse to have anything at all to do with computers, and at least one who gets his son round to help when he needs to delete a file. Yet geeks searching for a poorly assimilated computer user to use as an example never pick "my father" or "my grandfather". It's always "my mother", "my grandmother", or, as in the example we began with, "granny", as though all the women above a certain age had but one role in life: to be a technical support burden on their children.
In the last couple of years, as I've had to fend off more and more people intent on giving me their seats in the Underground (I tell myself they've just never seen grey hair before), it's begun to dawn on me that this is actually an issue of personal importance. I go to many events where I offer commentary based on the expertise about computers, freedom, and privacy that I've collected over many years of writing in this field. The constant depiction of older women as clueless is going to make this harder, year by year, as the gap increases between my age and that of newly arrived Bright Young Things. They will make assumptions, and one will be that I don't - can't possibly - know what they're talking about.
I had a sample of this last year at an event on online voting, where I set out to argue that the vast security problems mean it's a truly bad idea. A guy barged up to me and demanded: "Do you know what open source software is?" I was taken aback, because no one's ever asked me that before. I think at the events I normally attend that knowledge is assumed. As it happens, I wrote my first articles about open source software in something like 1993, and I hazarded the guess that my questioner wasn't even in the workforce at that point. I wound up telling him offensively that open source plus blockchain do not equal magic fairy dust you can sprinkle on online voting to make it mathematically secure, and it was clear he didn't know what I was talking about. I don't think he'd ever heard of an NP-complete problem, and he dismissed out of hand the notion that academic research had anything useful to say on the matter.
I like to think he was a one-off disturbance in the Force. But just in case...I would take it kindly if we could find some other demographic group to use as our archetypal clueless user. How about one-year-olds? They can't tell the difference between a tablet and a magazine. And it's clear they'll grow out of it, so any discrimination will clearly be purely temporary.
In the wider world, this particular prejudice has worse consequences. Not long ago, Kevin Marks wrote about the web's increasing unreadability due to skinny, grey type. If you think older people are too stupid to program for, you're likely to think it's not worth catering to the visual impairments many have (and which are waiting for all you programmers as you turn 40). So, please, folks: lay off the grandmothers.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.