Internet Literacy Atrophy

It’s the holidays, which means it’s also “teach technology to your elderly relatives” season. Most of my elderly relatives are pretty smart, and were technically advanced in their day. Some were engineers or coders back when that was rare. When I was a kid they were often early adopters of tech. Nonetheless, they are now noticeably worse at technology than my friends’ 3 year old. That kid figured out how to take selfie videos on my phone after watching me do it once, and I wasn’t even deliberately demonstrating. 

Meanwhile, my aunt (who was the first girl in her high school to be allowed into technical classes) got confused when attempting to use an HBOMax account I’d mostly already configured for her (I think she got confused by the new profile taste poll but I wasn’t there so I’ll never be sure). She pays a huge fee to use Go Go Grandparent instead of getting a smartphone and using Uber directly. I got excited when an uncle seemed to understand YouTube, until it was revealed that he didn’t know about channels and viewed the subscribe button as a probable trap. And of course, there was my time teaching my PhD statistician father how to use Google Sheets, which required learning a bunch of prerequisite skills he’d never needed before and I wouldn’t have had the patience to teach if it hadn’t benefited me directly. 

[A friend at a party claimed Apple did a poll on this and found the subscribe button to be a common area of confusion for boomers, to the point they were thinking of changing the “subscribe” button to “follow”. And honestly, given how coy substack is around what exactly I’m subscribing to and how much it costs, this isn’t unreasonable.]

The problem isn’t that my relatives were never competent with technology, because some of them very much were at one point. I don’t think it’s a general loss of intelligence either, because they’re still very smart in other ways. Also they all seem to have kept up with shopping websites just fine. But actions I view as atomic clearly aren’t for them.

Meanwhile, I’m aging out of being the cool young demographic marketers crave. New apps appeal to me less and less often. Sometimes something does look fun, like video editing, but the learning curve is so steep and I don’t need to make an Eye of The Tiger style training montage of my friends’ baby learning to buckle his car seat that badly, so I pass it by and focus on the millions of things I want to do that don’t require learning a new technical skill. 

Then I started complaining about YouTube voice, and could hear echoes of my dad in 2002 complaining about the fast cuts in the movie Chicago.

Bonus points: I watched this just now and found it painfully slow.

I have a hypothesis that I’m staring down the path my boomer relatives took. New technology kept not being worth it to them, so they never put in the work to learn it, and every time they fell a little further behind in the language of the internet – UI conventions, but also things like the interpersonal grammar of social media – which made the next new thing that much harder to learn. Eventually, learning new tech felt insurmountable to them no matter how big the potential payoff. 

I have two lessons from this. One is that I should be more willing to put in the time to learn new tech on the margin than I currently am, even if the use case doesn’t justify the time. Continued exposure to new conventions is worth it. I have several Millennial friends who are on TikTok specifically to keep up with the youths; alas, this does not fit in with my current quest for Quiet

I’ve already made substantial concessions to the shift from text to voice, consuming many more podcasts and videos than I used to and even appearing on a few, but I think I need to get over my dislike of recordings of my own voice to the point I can listen to them. I made that toddler training montage video even though iMovies is a piece of shit and its UI should die in a fire.This was both an opportunity to learn new skills and manufactured a future inspiration when things are hard.

Second: there’s a YouTube channel called “Dad, How Do I?” that teaches basic householding skills like changing a tire, tying a tie, or making macaroni and cheese. We desperately need the equivalent for boomers, in a form that’s accessible to them (maybe a simplified app? Or even start with a static website). “Child, how do I…?” could cover watching individual videos on YouTube, the concept of channels, not ending every text message with “…”, Audible, etc. Things younger people take for granted.  Advanced lessons could cover Bluetooth headphones and choosing your own electronics. I did some quick math and this is easily a $500,000/year business.

[To answer the obvious question: $500k/year is more than I make doing freelance research, but not enough more to cover the difference in impact and enjoyment. But if you love teaching or even just want to defray the cost of video equipment for your true passion, I think this is promising.]

My hope is that if we all work together to learn things, fewer people will be left stranded without access to technical tools, and also that YouTube voice will die out before it reaches something I care about.

2 thoughts on “Internet Literacy Atrophy”

  1. Cost/benefit: the older generation in my life were unable to understand Snapchat until they realised they could communicate with their children on there. Now they are far more capable then me.

    Market: why aren’t there mobile devices and apps specifically designed for older age groups? YouTube Kids, but for older people. Is it that the target market just would never pay enough? Same market risk applies to educational tools.

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