Seniors becoming savvy about digital technology

Early PC, complete with floppy disk drives source Wikipedia

During a frustrating hour or two updating our websites, I realised I am more savvy than the average 74-year-old when it comes to digital technology. Or so I thought. Later, you will read about how Covid-19 prompted many older Australians to start interacting with Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and other communications systems.

In what has been a busy month (editing the U3A newsletter, updating three websites, updating our self managed super fund and writing a new song), I am finding time to create a short course in basic computer skills for U3A members. Most of our members are in the over-70s age group and a few do not have access to the Internet. I am hoping some will find a use for U3A’s laptops, which have been in hibernation since Covid broke out in early 2020. In preparation to run the computer course, I took these laptops home and updated them.

It wasn’t too difficult, but these laptops were a reminder of how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete. I was reminded of that last Friday when the WordPress website which hosts this weekly essay “broke”. That’s WordPress community geek-speak for not doing what it’s programmed to do. Therefore, WordPress followers who had subscribed to the blog did not get last week’s email with a link to the website. The blog was still posted to the website, but the electronic sharing didn’t happen. It turned out I’d been ignoring reminders to ‘update your PHP’, which is the software within WordPress that interacts with plugins (or apps) that make the website work efficiently.

(That sound you hear is me snoring, having fallen asleep. Ed)

I am convinced that everyone who uses a computer has a ‘blind spot’, that is, a technological advance with which they cannot cope.

My blind spot would be anything to do with coding, editing the registry, updating drivers or any one of a dozen under-the-bonnet programming tasks. In this case, I asked Craig P from Inmotion Hosting to do the hard work updating PHP (the older versions are ‘deprecated’), and I’d take care of the detail.

Computer hardware and software companies are continually updating their products, to fix glitches in the system and to improve security. They also do it to sustain cashflow. There was a time when you could buy the complete Microsoft Office programme at a retail store and use it seemingly forever at no extra cost. Now they want an annual subscription (which includes updates and support).

I’ve been using a computer at home since the mid-1990s and came into daily newspapers at a time when they were leaving the old technology behind. I learned a lot, but don’t ask me about programming.

She Who Sometimes Shouts at her Computer told me the other day she studied Base 2 in grade seven. Base 2 is a field of mathematics that is particularly germane to computers.

As Wikipedia explains, the base-2 numeral system is that in which each digit is referred to as a bit, or binary digit. Because of its straightforward implementation in digital electronic circuitry, the binary system is used by almost all modern computers and computer-based devices.

Got that? You can log back into Facebook now and carry on regardless.

While kids are learning computer science and coding at school, we of the older cohort rely on the ever-changing versions of Microsoft Windows to make it easy. There have been 11 versions of Windows since 1985. Some, like Windows ME, 2000, Vista and Windows 8, were not perfect, so Windows moved on to 7, 10 and now 11.

One of my contacts in information technology tells me that Windows 11 is the best operating system yet because Microsoft has looked at security first and everything else second.

I haven’t upgraded from 10 yet. I limped along with Windows 7 until it got the point where Microsoft wouldn’t support it at all. As of this month, people with Windows 7 won’t even get security updates.

I set off with this idea of teaching older people how to take control of their computer because the conventional wisdom is that older people struggle with new technology. Our reflexes have slowed and we have leathery fingers – ask anyone.

But maybe not so much in Australia. A recent study by The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) set the record straight.

While older people have trouble navigating touch screen gadgets like smart phones and tablets, in the four years from 2017 to 2020, many were on an IT learning curve and probably still are. ACMA’s report, produced in May 2021, noted changes in the way older people engage with the online world.

While most use the internet at home, they also used a mobile phone to go online when out and about. Their adoption of other digital devices like smart phones, tablets and fitbits is also on the rise.

In mid-2020, ACMA found that 93% of older people had internet access in their home, up from 68% in 2017.

In 2017, only 6% of older people used apps and digital devices to go online. In June 2020, 26% of older people used five or more types of devices to go online.

ACMA says that parallel with their uptake of digital devices, more older people are using the internet for a wider variety of activities and tasks.

“Almost all older people now use email, while banking, viewing video content, and buying goods and services online have increased substantially over the previous 4 years, to become relatively common behaviours for this age-group.”

There was also a quantum leap in the numbers of older people who use apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to make voice calls, video calls and send texts. In 2019 the figure was 33% – a year later it was 55%.

The Pew Research Centre, which keeps tabs on this topic in the US, also noticed growth during the pandemic but observed that 7% of Americans aged over 65 are not online at all.

The Pew Centre said there were notable differences between age groups when measuring the frequency of internet use. Some 48% of those ages 18 to 29 said they were online “almost constantly”.,compared with 22% of those 50 to 64 and 8% of those 65 and older.

Joelle Renstrom, writing in ‘Slate’, an online magazine, said computer and digital technology companies are not designing devices that older people want. Renstrom cited research by Bran Knowles who studies how older people use technology.

Knowles says tech companies don’t see older people as valid stakeholders.

“That’s evident in how they fail to consider seniors’ needs, even when manufacturing products like the Jitterbug, a phone with extra-big buttons.

“Button size doesn’t dictate seniors’ decisions about tech use, and such presumptions highlight Silicon Valley’s bias toward youth.”

The people who drive tech development “can’t imagine what it’s like to be 80”, said Knowles.

Meanwhile, big organisations and governments continue to drive their customers/clients (young and old) to online accounts and digital apps.

RACQ’s Road Ahead magazine reports in its latest edition that drivers will have access to a ‘digital licence app’ in 2023. Queensland’s Department of Transport has been conducting trials since legislation was passed in 2020 to allow development of a digital licence (which will have equal weight to a physical licence). Drivers can store their digital licence on their mobile phone and use it for ID purposes as they travel. The Road Ahead article notes that the new digital licence will be ‘opt-in’ and not compulsory. Phew, we all said.

So, WordPress readers – did you get it?

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Frankie's dad
January 20, 2023 3:09 pm

As you indicate, we might be retirees but many of us were using computer technology for years before retiring. I was teaching computer and Internet skills in primary schools 22 years ago, when many children still didn’t have any of that at home and had never emailed or done an Alta Vista search. I do think, too, that some of our contemporaries easily accept the stereotype and give up when faced with new procedures and interfaces. As I always say encouragingly, “Far stupider people than you have worked this out.” (OK, could choose my words better.) We got a proper… Read more »

Neil Riethmuller
Neil Riethmuller
January 21, 2023 3:05 pm

Bob, the constantly changing programs are conceived to sell more technology. That is, built-in, planned obsolesence. Combined with the withdrawal of necessary support for – say Windows 7 – the hackers etc who all have access to your computer ensure that people of all ages must move on to the next generation of technology. The tasks required of Windows 11 are little different to those performed by Windows 7, or Millenium. This is built-in planned obsolescence, for the purpose of creating a captive ongoing market. More sales of technology are the bottom line. That is, the tech companies are screwing… Read more »

Bob Rastas
Bob Rastas
January 25, 2023 9:45 am

I have given up trying to keep up with the cutting edge of technology. One only bleeds money and it saps my ability to learn more about the “important” things. My goal now is to merely survive in the entrails of the failed systems I once resuscitated…

I did read with interest and realised my thoughts seemingly, are wide spread..