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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
New technologies, old problems
On Silver Surfers' Day, technology analyst Bill Thompson wonders what new technologies his children will have to grapple with later in life.

Two people using laptops
Computers can be seen as a challenge by the older generation
My mum is in her seventies and lives in Manchester.

Although she has a digital radio and a DVD player, she insists that she does not know how to use a computer and does not want us to try to set her up on the net or get her e-mailing her grandchildren.

I have not bothered with the argument that a DVD player is basically just a computer that uses a remote control, because she would not be convinced and it might just put her off even that.

For her, and for many of her friends, computers are strange, intimidating things and the net is something for younger and braver people.

But last week I met a group of people who have a rather different point of view. I was at the Silver Surfer of the Year Awards, and saw Dennis, Ro, Maureen and Rodney all stand up to receive their prizes from Anne Campbell MP.

The awards are part of the run up to Silver Surfers' Day, which takes place on 21 May, the last Friday of Adult Learners' Week.

All over the country, and for this year only on a wi-fi equipped express train travelling from London to York, events are taking place to encourage older people to use computers and the net.

Comfortable technology

The whole thing is organised by Hairnet, a social business that provides computer training for older people, relying on one-to-one sessions rather than larger classes, and working hard to make the training relevant instead of just plodding through the manual.

Bill Thompson
Computers, when they started arriving in people's offices, schools and homes, were a truly disruptive technology, completely different from what had gone before
They also argue loudly with anyone who will listen about the importance of bringing down the digital divide and ensuring that everyone has proper access to computers and the net, so they are obviously my sort of people.

For Hairnet 'older' means over 50, which I find slightly disconcerting since I am reaching the point where I can see it approaching, although it is not yet close enough to be really frightening.

But for my age I know a lot about computers and am pretty comfortable with technology, partly because even though I left school before the computers started arriving, they were around while I was at university.

Watching the awards made me wonder whether we will need the equivalent of silver surfers' day in 40 years' time, when my children's generation is 50-plus. Somehow, I do not think so.

Challenge of the new

Computers, when they started arriving in people's offices, schools and homes, were a truly disruptive technology, completely different from what had gone before.

When you replace a manual typewriter with an electric one, the typing skills you already have are still useful, even if you no longer need to remember to return the carriage at the end of each line.

IBM early computer
The arrival of PCs meant people have to learn new skills
When you come into the office one weekend and throw out the typewriters and replace them with computer keyboards and monitors, as Acorn Computers founder Herman Hauser famously did, then your staff suddenly need a whole new set of skills and knowledge.

It is the same when you move from consulting printed books to searching the web: Old strategies may not be effective, and new possibilities exist.

But will we see anything as disruptive in the next few years, a new way of accessing information or carrying out office work that makes the painfully acquired computer literacy of our generation redundant and leaves a group of 20-30 year olds behind as it sweeps through society?

I do not see it coming.

If anything, we are more likely to start building interfaces to our digital technologies that allow older skills to reassert their importance.

Perhaps in years to come those who can speak clearly and enunciate properly will grow rich because they can make themselves more easily understood by the computers that surround us all, and do not have to waste time persuading recalcitrant software to do what they want.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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