Alexandria Online

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Teaching My Mother to Use an iPhone

I'm teaching my 86 year old mom how to use an iPhone for Christmas. It's her present - not the phone, but the "training and on site support" for the phone. After all, I am in that business. In such a situation, it is reasonable to ask the question my mom asks in the video: "how did I get to this place?"

Anyone can hand their mom a phone and wish her well, but it's a little like giving her a new home theater system and then walking away with the junk all still in the boxes. You just gave your ma junk for Christmas.

This week's curriculum was a double-header: making a call and answering a call. I spent last Sunday afternoon setting her up and showing her how to do it. And every day this week I have called her on her iPhone and she has answered; and every day she successfully calls me. She was also able to retrieve, listen to and delete voicemails. We are off to a blazing start.

The first thing I did when I got the phone running was to hide as many of the icons as I could. The idea was simply this: get her to use the device as a portable phone. Her previous cell phone was a clam shell model. She became increasingly frustrated with it. It didn't ring when a call came in; she couldn't get voicemails; she got confused making calls; many many mysterious problems.

So why opt for the iPhone when my mom can barely handle a basic cell phone? Consumer culture. There are many more smart phones sold in the world now than basic models. People just like them more - all sorts of people. So I placed my bet on something a little more complicated but a little more in tune with, and intuitive to the customer.

The problem was that this particular customer grew up and grew old in a non-digital world. She was in her sixties when the internet became available to everybody, and in her fifties when the micro computer landed on people's desks at work. In addition, she never worked. She didn't own a computer until about ten years ago, when she was in her seventies. She had no use for it at home; she had no office where she had to use it.

Pick up your smart phone sometime and watch your fingers as you navigate it, tapping, pinching and swiping. You will begin to feel ridiculous pretty quickly. Ask yourself why you hit this arrow, or swipe up from the bottom to see the dashboard, or tap a triangle to play voicemail.

Try to explain how an iPhone works to yourself. The intuitiveness, the ordinariness, the ease with which we use it every day and every hour, crumbles away beneath you and you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of lame explanations and bizarre rationalizations. There is a reason it does not come with a manual. Words can't explain.

You have to feel your way through it, close your eyes and "use The Force." You are a rat in a maze, trying avenues, arriving at dead ends, getting rewards for right thinking. Apple and Google are training you to think the way they want you to think. It has become part of our culture.

Culture is viral. People just pick it up like language. You could describe the functions of an iPhone as a language, a visual language, with its own syntax and vocabulary. Like language, a domain of simple elements, like an alphabet, produces infinite semantic possibilities because you can combine them in so many ways.

The language of the iPhone evolved from the language of "tree menus" that we all used to use, or still use, with Blackberries, land lines, thermostats, printers and other devices that have limited graphical interfaces. The tree menus are much more like rat mazes and much more limited than the iPhone interface; nonetheless, hundreds of functions are possible depending on which choices you make on your way down the branches of the tree.

At 86, my mother wants to learn. She wants to participate, be part of the culture. And I admire her for that. She can't climb mountains any more; she doesn't want to take film courses or join a book group; she still reads the entire newspaper every day. She takes very seriously her relationships with her friends and her family and puts a lot of effort into maintaining those relationships. She sees the iPhone as a way to stay connected - and safe - through communication.

And now she is impatient. She is done with simple telephone calls. She wants to text her sons, see pictures of grandchildren, read email from friends, ask Siri how to get to the new restaurant she is taking us to. She will learn what she needs to learn in ways completely different from the way a child learns in school. There is no course for this, no MOOC, no manual.

As someone who has worked in education for 30 years, it is an amazing gift to witness someone who was born in 1928 adopt a technology that was born in 2007. New pathways are opening in her brain as she collides with the new digital language, hieroglyphs that jump, wiggle, slide or open into new sets of hieroglyphs. Sure she gets frustrated, but she works her way over and around obstacles. She reads the glyphs, she swipes, taps, taps again, and talks to the voices on the other end of the signal.


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