Old computers - CC / Flickr
Old computers - CC / Flickr

I’m forever astounded when dealing with people outside my circle of friends and work colleagues when it comes to dealing with computers. Still today, in 2010, it’s far too acceptable in western Europe to have totally, horribly, shockingly bad computer skills and yet work every day in front of a computer. No-one would ever dare say “I don’t know how to use a telephone / DVD player / washing machine” but “I’m useless with computers” is still far too prevalent and indeed acceptable.

Here are some of the things I often encounter:

  • Double clicking every link on a website (no folks, a single click is almost always enough on the web)
  • Not knowing the difference between what’s on an individual computer (a Word file or PDF file for example), and what’s on the internet (a web page for example), and not understanding that most of use of the internet is basically exchanging data between you and your computer, and the vast thing out there called the internet
  • Capitalising everything (even usernames) and putting spaces after any data entered into any field
  • Clicking the Internet Explorer icon to open a new window in Windows, meaning IE runs many times and things slow down (rather than using tabs)
  • The assumption there is only one correct way to do something when, almost always, there are dozens of ways
  • The notion that a blog and a website are completely different things, when indeed a blog is just basically a website with a comments function
  • No idea whatsoever about images, resolution and pixels, and how this relates to the size of a file, or the size of a monitor
  • The prejudice that anything new is always a waste of time, when indeed some things (like RSS) are actually massive time savers
  • Assuming that all things work the same way on all computers (loads of PC users I know have never used anything other than IE, Outlook and Word, and have never used a Mac – there is another world out there folks!)
  • A complete lack of inventiveness to think, reflect and learn by doing
  • An assumption that, because I’m the IT guy, I can solve anything if they ask me…

For me all of this is real digital divide in Europe now – it’s no longer about whether people have access to an internet enabled computer or not. It’s instead between those that see that the internet changes everything, absolutely everything, about their everyday lives, and those that still feel that those dots on their screen are still something inherently alien.


  1. The Name You Know

    Here’s another common mistake: typing the domain name of a site people know into the Google search box instead of the browser directly. I see lots of people waste time and energy that way. And it’s not just the people I know that do this. Many of the top search words are domains.

  2. For a bit of humour in response to all of this there’s this brilliant XKCD cartoon. (Thanks VXL for reminding me).

  3. I think the most important thing is ones will to learn. I know older people who until their 40-50 never touched a keyboard, an now are easily using the internet or a software, and people of 30-35 who copy the link to a document on the stick and than wonder why, oh why is not working…. So is not the age, but the decision if you want or if you don’t want to achieve a decent level of knowledge in using a computer.
    And by the way, being the one who fixes the “aliens” in my colleagues computers, I am automatically supposed to be expert in fixing fax and xerox machines. So I’m getting better in that too 😀

  4. french derek

    Anon said a lot of what I would have said. As a 70+ year-old I admit to being useless with the DVD recorder (can just about manage the player!). I’m not so bad (really) with computing; and am an iMac fan after years of Microsoft misery. But, even so, I admit to having learned a few things from the list of “alien” mistakes/misunderstandings.

    One of the frustrations of being a professional (of any sort) is that one encounters such “rudimentary” understanding of one’s own profession and what it entails.

  5. What a depressingly arrogant and patronising post, typical I’m afraid of those that work in IT every day

  6. In 2010 there are still people in their 30s using spaces and new lines to draw tables in Word as well…

  7. Brusselsblogger

    Jon, I am not sure I 100% agree with you. For me most of these examples are really nice user interface challenges which are actually solved (and the user doesn’t *need* to care).

    Most people really don’t care what is a RAM memory, hard disk oder shared drive disk which is hosted in the cloud.

    On the other hand: one example that drives *me* crazy: people who are mostly editing files day in day out but don’t know how to use track changes with Word or that it even exists.

  8. @Simon – how you have managed to make the leap from what I write to Murdoch and governments regulating the internet is absolutely beyond me. Perhaps it’s due to laziness having not looked at what I have written over the last 4 years or so on this blog. Equally the blog runs off open source software and you’re welcome to use or share whatever is here… in fact the very opposite of the sort of internet future you seem to fear.

    As for the main point – no, the internet is not a place. It is a means, something akin to a pen and paper, using the internet is a skill that will become as ever prevalent as using a pen and paper, one of those things without which our society will not be able to function. People who cannot read and write get stuck in poverty, and that’s why states invest in education to help people out of that situation. Use of the internet will go the same way – those who cannot use it put themselves at a severe disadvantage and that’s the reason it’s vital for everyone to have good net skills.

  9. Simon Blackley

    Nice one! It’s an unattractive combination of laziness, stupidity and snobbery. Think of the digital world as a place and you are very close to the mindset of xenophobia. What’s worrying is that digital xenophobes don’t just waste huge amounts of their own and their colleagues’ time. They are also busy building paywalls (Murdoch) and regulating the internet (UK, Australian, etc. governments).

  10. robert

    I’ve found this does apply much more to people over 40-50 than younger groups and, to some degree, bears out my theory that it’s a matter of lateral thinking and recognising patterns of behaviour and operation – something I feel is more understood in younger people.

    Friends have told me how, in trying to get their parents to use an operating system interface, they have to explain every single mouse movement and click *every time* and get annoyed that said parents can’t recognise the pattens of common activities that apply throughout the OS and in each application.

  11. Kosmopolit

    Completly agree with you. Sadly, this list also applies to well educated people in their 20s and 30s – at least that is my experience in academia…

  12. ignazio

    All that pales in comparison with my former colleagues: using caps lock to type every single capital letter, and the question “I notice Word underlines in red some words, why is this?”. I had to explain that the spellcheck function actually exists. That was in 2008.

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