Why Computers Make Us Feel Stupid & How to Get Around It


erica-manfred-headshotLast week in Aging With Geekitude, Erica shared her journalist’s tips for finding the answer to just about anything on the Internet – read it.  This week, she’s telling Miscrosoft to get smart.  

I am convinced that the major reason so many of us older folks avoid using computers is the fear of feeling stupid. We think computers are smarter than we are and that we should miraculously understand how they work. After all if a fourth grader can do it, why can’t we?

The reality is that your computer speaks a foreign language: a language that is native to children growing up today; one that you never learned. Kids absorb languages naturally, adults don’t. You don’t expect to understand Russian or Greek without studying it do you? You won’t understand computers either without some effort, and it’s not an effort some of us want to make once we’re past 60, unless we’re techies. I’ve been trying to understand computers for 30 years and I still feel really stupid when something unexpected happens – or when something expected doesn’t.

But we’re not stupid. The people who design the computer operating systems and software we use are the dumb ones. If they were smarter, they’d be able to make a system that non-techies like us could understand without having to learn a whole new language.


The Blue Screen of Death


I’m writing this on vacation. A few days ago I arrived at my hotel, confidently opened up my laptop to work – and nothing happened. After repeatedly pressing the power button, I saw some vertical lines flash on the screen, and then the blue screen of not quite death but serious, possibly terminal illness appeared. A whole page of white text on the blue screen was telling me that something was wrong, but the computer didn’t actually know what it was. Maybe the C drive was corrupt, or the bios (whatever that is) was on the fritz, or maybe the memory forgot and I should turn the computer off and try again so as not to damage Windows. So I did. The page gave me some incomprehensible instructions about repairing the bios (again) and then suggested I call a technician. Hey, good suggestion. I turned it off and on a few more times, until it actually said, “Windows is configuring” – whatever that means – and then the blue screen flashed on again.

Here I am in a strange city facing a deadline with no computer. What to do? I threw the computer in the car, figuring maybe I’d leave it at a repair shop – or possibly in the nearest dumpster. On the way back I spotted a dinky little computer repair shop.  The guy in the shop told me to turn it on and  – miracle of miracles, it booted up. Just like your toothache, it got better as soon as I got it to the dentist.

I did get a message on the screen to the effect of,  “Your computer had a recent malfunction. Do you want to report it?” No clue what the malfunction was or who I was supposed to report it to, so I clicked “no.”  The computer was just smart enough to know  it had fritzed out. It clearly had no idea why.

But I felt stupid.


What makes YOU feel stupid?


If computer malfunctions make you feel stupid, how about computer functions?  Like these ones?

Downloads  It took me the longest time to figure out that just downloading software wouldn’t do a goddamned thing. I would download some spiffy new program, and nothing would happen. Who knew you have to “execute” downloads to make them work.  You also have to find the thing you downloaded in order to execute it.  Your download folder might be in a different place than mine, so just go to the search box and put in the name of whatever you’ve downloaded; it will pop up. Then double click and voila, you’ll get the option to “exe.”  Sometimes you’ll even get a “wizard” to walk you through it.

Keyboards  You notice that all of sudden you are typing over your words instead of your text moving ahead as you type. Why is this happening? I had no idea I had to press “insert” to get it to stop.  Who would ever guess that “insert” means “erase.” Those of us who touch type hit insert all the time by accident. (If you were feeling superior and were going to tell me “get a Mac” because they don’t make people feel stupid, I have three little words for you. NO DELETE KEY. Why don’t Macs have a delete key?  Please explain.)

Error messages  You get an error message that makes absolutely no sense to you because it’s in computerese. Should you write it down so you can tell your tech help person what it said? Don’t bother. Ignore it. Ninety-nine percent of the time an error message means nothing. However, if it keeps popping up you’d better write it down, because when you call your tech he/she will ask you what it said – even though here’s a good chance he won’t know what it was all about either and will have to tinker to find out.

Windows Explorer  Unfortunately you may never discover this important function of your computer because it sounds so much like Internet Explorer, which is a web browser. Naming two important pieces of software almost the same thing is a classic “what were they thinking” issue?

Windows Explorer is like a Russian doll with smaller and smaller dolls inside one another. Your hard drive is organized into a “file tree” more or less like one of those essay outlines you had to do in college, with descending letters and numerals. Remember how you couldn’t figure what to put where in those outlines? Windows Explorer is the same, except much more complicated. There are libraries, documents, folders, files and favorites. (By the way, somewhere in there is “downloads.”)

Here are the basics, kind of: You can spot your folders inside Windows Explorer because they look like old fashioned manila folders. Everything you write, name and save becomes a “file” that winds up in your main “Documents” folder. Your photos will be in “photos” or “pictures” but they’re called files.  When you want to attach something to an email, you have to “browse” through these folders to find what you want, which is why you need to understand Windows Explorer.

Is that clear enough? If not, call Bill Gates and complain. Tell him to hire some smarter techies. Maybe some fourth graders.

Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction.  Friend her on Facebook.


12 responses to “Why Computers Make Us Feel Stupid & How to Get Around It

  1. The blue screen of death (BSOD) is not useful to anyone outside of Microsoft (MS) , and not even to them. There is nothing there that will help you troubleshoot your problem, and there is nothing that you should, or can, understand. To make any use of it, you need the Windows source code & the hexadecimal numbers can help you single step through the memory dump with a debugger. Nobody outside MS can do that. It’s a tool used during the development of the OS and no end user is meant to see it.

  2. Being ignorant of something that came along after you finished college does not mean you are stupid. It’s the classic case of you don’t know what you don’t know ….and did you really need it anyway

  3. This is one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read in my life. The error messages are important 99% of the time because they help you solve the problem that is occurring. Computers can’t make you feel stupid if you are stupid already. Please educate yourself first before writing an outrage article on the internet to show how ignorant you are, when you know absolutely nothing about computers and how they work.

  4. I am so tired of going to my stuff that I go to all time and if I don’t hit the right thing I get Everytime you turn around you get this thing wanting you to download something. I don’t believe in having all that stuff on my computer because it loads it down and stops it from functioning like it should.

  5. I love your columns, Erica. One question – how do you get your insert key to work? I’ve tried everything, because I love the insert function. But it just sits there. I have an HP Beats laptop with Windows 7, and there are no other functions on that key. So I have the reverse problem, dang it.

      1. Jazz, thanks. You’d think that would do the trick, but it doesn’t. Not CTRL, not FN, not ALT, not SHIFT, nothing in conjunction with the INS key (which, yes, is small and included on the top of the PRT SC key). I’ll contact the maker. Appreciate your time, though. Wish me luck.

  6. I think Erica’s articles are fabulous! Senior Planet is a great idea but her articles are clear and highlight important computer info for everyone at any age who isn’t a “geek”.

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