Gill Smith
Gill Smith - Comedy Writer & Performer

Gill's Journal, Issue

Quarterly magazine of The ARM Club the Leading Independant
RISC OS Computer User Club.
Christmas is slowly fading into a distant memory, as your hands get used to a new set of callouses and bumps from playing with your latest new technological toy, sorry - gadget. You probably worked out exactly what you wanted in August, and some of it has finally arived! Sadly, there will have been someone you know, perhaps a member of your family, maybe a confused colleague from marketing who was far too terrified to venture into any of your favourite havens of technology to get something from your electronic Santa list. The bumper packs of socks and hankies are still being ignored in a corner.

Why is it that some people are so afraid of anything with more buttons than a fridge? Of course, some others are perfectly happy using the microwave, but run screaming at the prospect of having to even walk past PC World - and not because they've heard of RISC OS and know better.

Gill pleads for help and understanding for the Phobia sufferers needing care in the community, even if they did give you socks & hankies for Christmas

Whatever level of fear of technology people have, there is more to the phenomenon than just having got something go wrong on them once. I've identified a few categories of technophobe. Some of these categories can probably be given care in the community, and helped to get over their fear. Others are way beyond help or hope, and should be handed an abacus promptly. In many ways these categories overlap, and these tragic illnesses may well be linked. Scientists are researching the issue right now - please give generously - one day you, or someone you know may be afflicted by a bout of technophobia.

First, and possibly the most amusing category of sufferers are the Phobius Conspiritus, a group of people who seem otherwise normal, until you get them started on any subject relating to computers. At this point, they tell you that the computer deliberately loses important things... somehow it knows what is being done to a deadline, carefully checking to remove / destroy / delete only the most important and least backed-up files. They'll move from there onto the fact that computers are the mechanisation of the anti-Christ, and the amazing mathematical proof that Bill Gates is in fact the Devil incarnate, carefully information gathering, until the day when he can take over the world. Thankfully, the US government have saved us all, with the break up of Microsoft. Does that make the Americans God, or do they just think they are?

Behaviour to look out for in Phobius Conspiritus is random deletion of anything they don't understand, if forced to use a computer. It could have been the file that carefully scanned your brain for everything from your mother's maiden-name, to the bank PIN numbers, and sent them straight to Bill. Others, thankfully prefer to chose professions where they can share their conspiracy theories at will, without having to touch anything IBM compatible. Examples of these include taxi drivers, hairdressers, and of course pub landlords.

Phobius Electricus are that interesting breed of people who appear to be afraid of electricity. Except, that is, when it's in something that was invented before they were born. Hence in the elder generation, electric lights and fridges are fine, but video recorders are the spawn of Satan. Clearly something evil going on behind those flashing lights! Meanwhile, your average Phobius Electricus sixth-former merrily whirls her lunch around the microwave, regardless of the technology inside, but gets particularly nervous when trapped in the same room as a Pentium, and a phone is ok, but WAP is terrifying! If only they'd simply launched Pentiums as the next step up from your 486, a few extra people might be able to cope! And what is that scary 'intel' thing doing inside my machine - should that be allowed?!

To spot, and hopefully tame a Phobius Electricus before they burn the house down for being possessed by the demons in the latest digital TV, look out for certain give-away signs. Of course, the symptoms vary according to age, and according to consistency, but typical examples include piling everything into the washing machine, but washing up by hand, because the dishwasher powder "isn't natural." Others will happily put timers onto their electric lights for the holidays, while the video player flashes '00:00' for all eternity.

Watch out as to which clocks around the house get updated when the hour changes. Some will update a full set, because they are just clocks after all, invented before even the car was! Others, however, will update anything battery run, but nothing on electricity. Still more spot that batteries are a similar idea, and will only change the time on the grandfather clock! These people can be helped, so long as you are careful not to rush their therapy. Trying to accept electronics more than one at a time, and without being totally confident on the last may turn these poor people into the worse case Phobius Conspiritus. Be gentle with them.

Remember, never, ever tell a Phobius Electricus just how much of their car runs on electric circuits, and particularly avoid mentioning the computer, tucked safely away there somewhere they can't see it. Somewhere, I believe, behind the little imp that now winds the car up, so you don't have to. The wonders of modern technology!

There are another, similar breed of technophobes, who dress their fear carefully as a love of pen and paper, trying to hide their inability to turn on the monitor as well as the computer. Phobius Scrollus feel no need to get the hang of technology because "There's something nicer about pen and paper." or even an old favourite "If it was good enough for William Shakespeare..." Have none of these people realised that Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Wordsworth are all pushing up the daisies they used to eulogise? Computers weren't invented at the time. Written on a computer today, "The Scottish Play" would be all about devolution, and in writing "Hamlet" the Bard would lay himself open to being sued by a large cigar company. And besides, what could be nicer about pen and paper that the ability to edit both quickly and tidily doesn't more than make up for, unless of course you get high on the ink?

Phobius Familius is another breed altogether. Generally speaking, these are intelligent, otherwise well-rounded human beings, who can work out the optimum time for microwave cooking, and could, with some thought, follow the theory of relativity. However somewhere in their family or circle of friends, is someone who will forever remain labelled as 'Good with computers' regardless of the fact that their idea of turning the computer on involves re-formatting the hard drive. This someone, clueless or not will have allowed the Phobius Familius to get away with asking them how to do italics at least once a week for the last fifteen years.

This means that, over the course of time, the intelligent, yet strangely trusting Phobius Familius will allow their family member to do ridiculous things on the computer, including regular loss of all files, totally destroying the motherboard, and probably even taking the machine apart, among other such joys, simply because this person 'knows about these things.'

For our innocent technophobe, it is easier to allow this, than to bother to work out how to turn the computer off without getting the Blue Screen Of Death on each re-start. In spite of the fact that many of these people can spot the flaw in a politician's argument, work out the facts from reading the paper, and cook a full Christmas dinner without burning anything. These are impressive feats, but somehow, the computer is too complicated. Well, technology can be pretty tricky. What can you expect when you use a computer? It must be Microsoft's fault (a reasonably logical deduction, to be fair) rather than ever being caused by your friend or family member who is, as we already know, 'good with computers.'

Not actually a technophobe, but closely related, the Simplicus Mechanicus can only really grasp that a machine does five things. Calculators can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and give a result. Computers presumably do a similar five, or fewer things... a letter and a spreadsheet can often be seen as too much for the computer by this na´ve breed. As for opening two windows and doing them at once...! On a letter, you can of course only do limited things. It can be torture to watch these people tab across three hundred times to get the address in the right place, before noticing a typing error, that means it is time to re-start from scratch. This can be followed by filling the end of the line with spaces, in order to have a right margin... it hurts to think about it!

The pain caused by watching someone open up a package like 'paint', in order to do a line drawing, without ever managing to get the lines straight can only be compared to the agony of watching their colleague open up a 'draw' package only to create large blocks of colour by thickening the width of the lines. Unless you take into account those who type figures into spreadsheets, and then get out the desk calculator to add them...

Phobius Complicatus is another problematic kind of technophobe. Afraid of doing anything, because it's clearly all so ridiculously complicated, these are people who think that adding bold will take at least half an hour extra, as the elves in the screen get their ladders out to get to the right place to add darker paint. They assume that because they do maths slowly on paper, that the poor computer needs some paper to make it's calculations, or at least needs a decent ammount of time. These are also the people who can be seen putting a floppy into the CD ROM drive, and then proclaiming the computer broken, or that it's for some reason decided that whatever they planned to do wasn't a good idea. These are the people that caused Charles Babbage to explain "On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question." I have to confess, it intrigues me too.

Like Phobius Familius, suffers of Phobius Complicatus would rather assume that something is terribly complicated, or can't be done, than open a manual, or click on the 'Help' button. These poor people dare not even ask the person they know who is 'good with computers' as those people are too busy spending three days changing font colour to worry about their little problem. And it's probably going slow so that the computer can cope with the wrong figures having been put in, and still produce the right answer... or something. I'm not sure that these people aren't way beyond help, but a long term therapy plan might help. Conduct the research by offering care in the community to a Phobius Complicatus near you now.

The last category are not really technophobes as such, but should still be banned from any room with a network connection. Excitius Clueless are often lovely people, desparately keen to try out the technical capabilities of their machine, and without fear in the world about jumping on in there and giving it a go. Somehow, however, this always leads to inexplicable errors, when they really haven't touched anything they shouldn't, of course not! No, nothing that wasn't on either a floppy, a CD or the hard drive. And no, they'd never be the one who casually clicked 'yes' to download dodgy software that makes the machine crash. There are certain people who, in spite of their keen desire to learn, and unstoppable excitement at using a computer can still blow up a CD ROM drive, or lose the file that runs the operating system, almost from another room! How Excitius Clueless manage it is a matter for ongoing tests, much confusion, and a strait-jacket to stop them touching your machine while we're still searching for the anti-dote.

Please take care of the technophobe in your life... they really can't help it, and medical science will one day be able to help (unless, in order to perform the surgery, the surgeon will have to use the operating theatres of the last century!)

Written by Gill Smith. Published Spring 2001. Reproduced with permission.