My 74- year old mother is my most reliable barometer for how difficult learning new technology can be. For those of us immersed in new media and online tools everyday, we tend to forget how overly complicated the world can feel. I offer you this tale, from last night, a tech support parable.
My mom has a new iPad (Christmas gift) that she’s trying to master. We’ve had a few sessions together with it where she’s mastered the basics – email, searching on the web, and using the camera. She likes her new iPad very much and, for the most part has found it pretty easy. Up until last night, I’d say that her two main challenges have been understanding the language around the computer (techy jargon) and using her finger to “touch” – she tends to use her nail or not get her finger in just the right place. But she’s been mostly quite successful due to her good cheer, native smarts, typing ability, and persistence.
Mom has an in-home Comcast connection, with a recently upgraded modem to give her wireless for her new iPad. Yesterday she responded to a message on the iPad asking her to update her system software, which she dutifully followed. In true Apple fashion, it led her through the steps, screen by screen. When she got to the “almost done” part, her iPad asked her to identify the network to which she would like to connect. Full stop. Before she headed out to the Apple Store (which has become a life-line for her, though she says that she always looks for the “Genius” who is patient with older people), she called me (90 miles away). Given what she told me I explained that the problem she was having was a connection problem, not an iPad problem, and that the Apple store folks would not be able to help her. Oh.
So then we began to troubleshoot together. We quickly arrived at the limitations of her understanding – what is a network? why does it have a name? what is a wireless signal? why are there other networks in the list (who owns those?), why does it need a password? I don’t have that password. If I were to pull out the most common theme to technology problems I encounter it would be the whole access management/password confusion thing. Passwords for your network, your computer, your Apple ID, the individual sites you visit – which ID and password for what, etc.
After retrieving the paperwork from the Comcast technician’s recent visit we determined that there was no network password to be found. Comcast had thoughtfully provided a brochure with a to-be-filled in worksheet for the technician to write in the name of the home network and the password – both of which were blank.
Hokay, we need to call Comcast. But I knew I couldn’t do it for her; it was unlikely that Comcast would talk with me about her account. So, I set up a three-way call on the telephone. I asked Mom to find her latest Comcast bill, as we would need the information therein. She gave me the number, I placed the call, and looped her in, and we worked through the (formidable) phone tree (that kept urging us to go to the web site to solve our problems…as if!) and finally got a live person (roughly 10 minutes). Meet Paul.
I explained the situation to Paul, who was extremely kind and patient. Only problem, Paul has a very heavy accent. I knew that my mother could not understand him. So, we played out a hilarious kabuki where Paul would ask a question, I would repeat it to her slowly and loudly, and my mom would answer. Finally we got to the meat: she needed to locate and read off the WEP code on the bottom of the modem. ”The what?!” I urged her to put her phone on speaker, while she located the modem and studied it to find the code. It took a few minutes to find the speaker button on the phone (“why do they make these buttons SO small?!”). Paul and I waited patiently, listening to her rummage around, “Oh, my! Those numbers are so small! I can’t read that!” I suggested she find her magnifying glass. More rummaging. ”Here it is!” Now she read off the code….H21247323bA556…..I wrote it down and read it back to her. Check.
Now, says Paul, we need to type that code into the network password blank to join the network. I translated: “Get to the screen with the blue Join button, Mom.” She’s still got the phone on speaker, so she can have her hands free, but that means I have to shout. ”H!!!” ”212!!!!” ”Wait, wait!” she says in a panic, “There are no numbers on this keyboard!” Oh, right. The iPad has multiple keyboards. So I explain that she’ll have to access the “number keyboard” and then go back to the “letter keyboard” – that long access code had no less than five switches between keyboards, each one painstaking at her end. ”But I can’t check to see if it’s right since what I’m typing is just dots.” Riiiight. Oy. She finally typed it all in and clicked “Join”. ”Unable to join the network, ” she announces proudly. Paul and I sigh. Let’s try it again, just in case there was a mistake. Paul reminds her about caps/lower case.
“Ok,” says Paul. ”Maybe the technician did assign a password, but didn’t write it down. I’m going to ping your modem from here and zero it back to the Access code, just to be sure..” ”What’s that?” asks my Mom. She’s still hanging in there but I can tell that Paul might as well be speaking Greek and she’s getting tired.
Paul puts us on hold (extremely annoying music) while he does his bit. She and I try to talk, shouting at each other over the ridiculous music and end up laughing hysterically. Then, suddenly, my mom is no longer there. Oh, right! When Paul pinged her network from Comcast, the phone cut out. Oh, Paul, you should have thought of that. Now it’s just me and Paul. On our own. He comes back and walks me through what to do. I also ask him to walk me through how to change her network name and password to something a bit more memorable. He does, and of course, those steps are even more arcane than the shenanigans we’ve been up to so far. I’ll have to be hard-wired on her network, with a laptop, type an IP address in, get to her SSID, change the network administration settings…yaddha, yaddha….I’ll figure it out, eventually, I’ve got to run since I’m sure my mother is wondering what the heck happened.
I call Mom back. As I feared, she’s mystified as to what happened. ”Why did you hang up on me?!” I explained what happened when Paul sent his signal from home base. ”But that was the internet, not the phone!” Right. Let’s let that one go for now. So, she gets back in position and we go through the gymnastics of typing in the WEP code again, this time I remember to pause in the shift between letters and numbers to give her time to change keyboards. ”This is crazy!” says my mom and we both laugh, realizing we’ve now been working on this for nearly an hour. And, amazingly, we get it right on the second try! BAM! She’s online.
I explain to her that when I’m there visiting next, I will get in and rename her network and assign a new password. My Mom helpfully suggests that perhaps we could choose a shorter password, something with only letters. ”How about ‘shit’?” she offers.
So, a couple of things here….
1. I can’t say enough good things about my Mom’s persistence. Lesser people would have given up much earlier. I’m not sure what motivates her to hang in there, but hang in there she does. And, I think that persistence is the key.
2. Do modem and computer manufacturers have to name everything in such confusing ways? WEP, ping, router, IP address…it’s all just gobbledygook to most people.
3. When technicians come to your home to set up your network, could they please write everything down? Fill out the darned paperwork provided, please.
4. Can’t we come up with something more workable with this whole password management thing?
5. The importance of holding tight to your sense of humor.