By Laura Moynihan, Director Digital Helpmates
This article attempts to shed light on the issues of learning and using modern technology. Achieving this is particularly important in design and publishing today as most industries are struggling to hire people due to a national labor shortage. There is the need to train new workers not just in how to use their devices and applications, but how to streamline their computer usage to get the most efficient work possible. This is what my company, Digital Helpmates, does. We call it Tech Tutoring.
This article also addresses the mindset needed for individuals and work teams to master this “everyday” technology. I call this mental shift becoming a Digital Boss.
On Becoming a Digital Boss
There is a term I coined a couple of years ago when trying to describe the responsibility we each have in operating the devices omnipresent in our lives today. That term, imperfectly stated, is to become a Digital Boss. It was coined after many thousands of hours teaching adults (mostly active seniors) how to begin to feel caught up in the digital age and to operate the computers, smartphones, and applications that are crucial today. What I began to notice was that it was not so much that people did not know how to operate their devices (although this was what they believed the root problem was).
The root of the problem was that people did not believe in their ability to tell their devices how to best serve them. Deep down, they believed that only the experienced, those who grew up with computers, those who were highly educated, or those with a better memory were able to “boss” their devices around. Taken even further, they believe that these people are the only ones worthy of getting the best out of their technology. However, it’s not just seniors who are victims of this defeatist thinking. Most of the people who are not in the top one percent of computer users ascribe to such thinking to varying degrees.
Rosey the Robot
Was this the way technology was supposed to be? Think back to when you first envisioned a robot and what it might do for your life. I like to think of Rosey, the helpful household servant of The Jetsons. Did Rosey demand anything of her masters? Of course not! She served. She made life easier, not harder. She made herself instantly available when needed, and tucked herself out of sight when not. She did not constantly interrupt, demand services, or offer roadblocks to requests. Of course, Rosey was a fictional character, borne out of the ideals we envisioned for a perfect utopian technological future. But this ideal is one that we might do well to remember when dealing with our current computers and smartphones.
This begs the question: Is our technology serving us (most of the time), or are we serving it? Believing that you have an inherent right to be served by your technology, in a way that is valuable to you and not some “twenty-something” Silicon Valley engineer, is the goal. Also important is believing that your software has been written to be able to be understood and configured by everyday people—even you. Short of a debilitating brain injury or disease, I believe that anyone can master the technology they own, to the extent that is useful to them. It is not a satisfactory excuse to claim that a normal aging brain is not able to use a computer, because after all, isn’t the best medicine for a slowing down of the connections in our skulls this very thing—learning new things?
There are some basic tweaks people can use to create their own “Rosey the Robot” in their pockets, but first, they must believe they are capable of it, and that it is their absolute right to be served by the technology they own. It is truly the last ethically acceptable form of servitude left to humans (at least until technology gains a consciousness, but that’s a topic for a different article).
Technology: Not Just For Children Anymore
Computers are omnipresent and unavoidable today, from children in preschool to those in their later years. Children are naturally drawn to the wonders of technology—and, contrary to popular opinion, so too are their grandparents. Research shows that only three percent of seniors are totally “tech avoidant,” meaning they have no interest in getting better with technology and would rather avoid it altogether (Research report: Digital by Device, 2021, p.2). This means that the vast majority of this growing senior population classify themselves as early adopters, everyday embracers, or at worst, reluctant users. However, what all three groups share in common is that they all want to get better at using their devices.
And why would they not? Even our Digital Helpmates clients in their 90s use their computers, tablets, and smartphones for accessing medical test results, ordering medicine, participating in clubs or groups, and paying their bills online. They enjoy seeing their grandchildren grow up through photos posted on Facebook and sending silly animated GIFs to them on their birthdays. The myth of the elderly slinking off to an easy chair and checking out of life is simply not the case for the majority of today’s Baby Boomer generation.
On the contrary, I have clients in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who have businesses or advanced hobbies (such as digital photography or music production) and still expect to “squeeze the marrow” out of each moment of their life. I find this to be incredibly inspiring, and technology enables it and is also an integral part of it. So they reach out to us to get the personalized guidance needed to use their computers and smartphones to these ends. As a result, I often see amazing transformations among our clients from unsure and anxiety-ridden to feeling comfortable with how their technology has woven into their everyday lives and interests seamlessly.
There are other ways to learn technology, of course, such as with specialty books and magazines on the topic of learning a PC, Mac, or smartphone. However, periodicals teaching beginner and intermediate technology users are mostly useless, in my experience, because they are outdated faster than they can be printed. Technology just moves too quickly. Additionally, they fall short because they try to solve the problem of gaps in knowledge simply by providing how-to and step-by-step procedures. What they lack is promoting the mindset that is imperative to believe that the reader can do it.
The steps to overcoming a feeling of helplessness and panic around technology are simple and achieved in this order:
- Establish relevance (teach what the client needs to know right now, with real data).
- Overcome feelings of learned helplessness (address mental blocks, perception of difficulty, previous negative experiences with technology),
and ONLY THEN—
- Follow simple instructions on one task in a step-by-step format.
- Once you learn that one task, move on to another, beginning at the first step—establishing what is imperative and relevant to learn RIGHT NOW.
Once these steps are accomplished, users can begin to learn more intermediate and advanced skills. But if the first step—the mindset portion (steps one and two)—are not addressed, then users will forever be dependent on someone else to help them with their digital tasks, even if they have been shown how to do it multiple times in the past.
Digital Helpmates embraces ten important mindset changes, which we call our Digital Boss Manifesto, found on our website, https://digitalhelpmates.com, and woven into our Mission Statement. However, not all concepts listed in our manifesto are created equal. There is one that is the foundation of all the rest, which is the lesson I took from The Jetsons. It is:
A Digital Boss has the right to be served by their technology, not the opposite.
Get rid of the interruptions and take charge
Do you find that you are constantly interrupted by beeps, dings, rings, drop-down banners, and notifications from your computer, tablet, or smartphone? Does it seem that your device is constantly demanding updates, on the schedule it chooses, right when you have something important that needs to get done? Do you find that you are always living in service of your technology to the point that you simply want to throw it out the window and go back to a simpler time when the only small things demanding your attention were your kids or grandkids? In summary: If you find you are serving your technology more than it is serving you, something needs to change.
To make this change, users of technology must embrace two important concepts: 1) It does not have to be this way, and 2) You are part of the problem.
Let’s start by tackling the former concept:
It does not have to be this way
And in fact, it SHOULD NOT be this way. Do your phone and computer need occasional updates? Yes. However, they are seldom so urgent that they should ever interrupt the needs of real life. These updates can be turned on automatically, and scheduled at a time when you are normally asleep or not using your device.
Does your phone need to notify you immediately of appointments, voicemails, emails, calls, Facebook posts, promo offers from products you have never purchased, texts from group chats that go on endlessly, and so on? The answer, of course, is yes to just a few, and a firm NO to all the rest. Of course, marketers work hard and pay lots of money with technology manufacturers to have the defaults of your notifications be as permissive as possible, and to grab your attention (and your purchasing dollars) with the utmost urgency.
Why? Because people aren’t watching network TV as much as they used to, so how else are advertisers going to get their products in front of your eyes? It’s up to you to be ruthless in what you are going to allow to disrupt your day, your conversations, your train of thought, your work — with incessant virtual taps on the shoulder. Even email notifications can be made as unobtrusive as possible; a badge notification is enough for almost everyone to get what they need when they need it. You get to choose when to pay attention to your email, and you are the gatekeeper of what email gets through. Delaying or abdicating this responsibility to take charge means someone else gets to take charge of you. However, taking fifteen minutes to dive into your notification setting to turn off all sounds and animated banners, except for the most crucial only (text and phone are usually enough), will give you as much peace as attending a 10-day meditation retreat. Clicking the Junk button on every promotional or political email will do the same. Give a gift to your future self by being ruthless as to who gets to demand your attention, and by using your Do Not Disturb feature while sleeping, at work, or simply whenever you want to focus your attention on your real life. You get to choose when your devices can grab your attention.
So down to the latter concept:
You are part of the problem
What does this mean? It means you have learned habits from a pre-Rosey-the-Robot era that need to be unlearned if you want your technology to truly serve you.
For instance: Do you believe the phone needs to be answered every time it rings, even if you are in the middle of a conversation with someone else? Gone are the days when a ringing phone deserved to be the number one priority above all else because we had no answering machines, no caller ID, and no text messaging. If you missed a call when I was a kid, folks had to call you back and important information was often delayed by hours or days. Today, we have almost no excuse to interrupt a real-life conversation with another person when a phone rings. In most circumstances, it can wait, or the information can be relayed to you quickly enough through a text message. If you are over the age of 40 and still interrupting live conversations due to non-urgent phone calls, you are probably doing it out of habit and not much else. Not only does it feel dismissive to the person in front of you; this very task is exactly what your smartphone is built to do! It should be your “virtual butler” that takes messages for you and delivers them in a non- intrusive format. By not allowing your phone to do its job, you are depriving it of what it does best: Managing the mundane tasks of your life. If a smartphone had a consciousness, I would say that you are depriving it of its best purpose in life, and quite possibly driving it to the brink of utter despair by denying it the ability to do so.
Lead or be Taken For a Ride
Years ago, I was lucky enough to study Equestrian Education in London. This involved not only riding horses English-style in Hyde Park but also spending time in a classroom learning the physiology and psychology of the horse. I think of these lessons often when coaching people about their technology. It was explained to me by my very experienced instructor that what a horse craves more than anything is a confident leader. When you ride a horse and are unsure of the commands you give it or do not believe in your ability to command a horse, it can sense it in your body movements and in the way you hold the reins. The horse will then either “ride you” (by ignoring your half-hearted commands) or it may even throw you. When you fail to approach your devices with the same sense of ownership and knowing who the "boss" is, they also will ride you. Marketers will have you under their thumb. Silicon Valley programmers will decide how you like your day to be managed. It is your choice to let them — or to not let them.
Recently, I turned down an offer to write a book because the publisher saw these mindset teachings around technology as being “out of scope from our publishing strategy.” They said they would have been interested for me to write a book “revolving more around [a] device user manual, device hacks guide, expert guide, and power user guide.” But frankly, I do not believe this helps anyone but the most advanced users of technology. I am most interested in the beliefs that everyday users have internalized about what technology means, its importance (or relative unimportance) in their daily lives, and figuring out how to make it work for them — no matter how simplistic those needs may be.
It is almost as though we need therapy to begin to understand and heal the dysfunctional relationship we have developed regarding our devices.
Giving you a “how-to” guide to change your notification settings on your phone is something only those who already believe that their technology exists to serve them would be interested in reading. However, starting with the premise that your smartphone is actually in control of YOU, and not the opposite, brings recognition that there is a problem that many people are not aware of, or have simply accepted as the new reality we must all endure.
Technology, far from being endured, ideally exists to enhance our lives, and make them more efficient, perhaps even easier at its best. I try to never forget the ideals of The Jetsons when viewing my technology. Sure, even Rosey needed new parts and tune-ups occasionally. But she lives to serve George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy, and never demands their attention unreasonably. Far from being users of their technology, The Jetsons were the bosses of it.
Should we all not expect the same from ourselves, and from the virtual butlers in our pockets?
Research report: Digital by device (2021). PDF File. https://www.ageofmajority.com/wp- content/uploads/2021/04/AoM-Q1-Research- Report_-_Digital-By-Device.pdf. Accessed 13 August 2021.
“Research report: Digital by Device.” Age of Majority. https://www.ageofmajority.com/research-report-digital-by-device/. Accessed 13 August 2021.
Laura Moynihan is a former graphic designer, copy editor, journalist, and high school English teacher. In 2020, she founded Digital Helpmates, her fourth business venture, after tutoring technology full- time since 2015. Today, she manages several other Tech Tutors and teaches them how to provide the best one-on-one tech help available today. She holds degrees from Pepperdine and Dominican Universities. Her burning desire is to help elevate humanity through teaching and technology.