Something for the Weekend, Sir? “Sorry to bother you. Are you busy?”
Instinctively, I look at my watch. Here we go. Bet you he’s going to ask me to fix something trivial. “Don’t worry, Bill,” I reply. “What’s up?”
“The computer web isn’t working.”
Ah bless, the guy’s long past retirement age but still hangs in there. In fact, he’s a bit of an entrepreneurial demon. It’s just that he can’t conceptualise computers and can’t handle the terminology.
“You mean there’s a problem with your internet connection,” I prompt.
“I suppose so. I can’t see my messages. Can you pop round and have a look?”
Well no, Bill, I can’t as it happens. I’m six miles on the other side of town at the office of another client who is paying me to be there. Paying me proper money, Bill. I sneak another glance at my watch.
“It could be just that your webmail isn’t working,” I suggest. This is almost certainly the case. Even after I set up his small business with professional-class email complete with uptime guarantees explicitly defined in the SLA, he persists in using some My Yahoo! webmail shit that he got free with his home broadband and which falls over just about every day. To be fair, I think the webmail bit would just about work OK if My Yahoo! didn’t keep stumbling over the unfeasibly wack ads that it attempts to load on every page.
“I can’t see the letter I posted last night.”
Letter? Post? There is a brief pause as he waits for me to say something. At the same time, I am mouthing silent apologies to my client, rolling my eyes comically and pointing ridiculously to my phone – the usual mime.
“Should I unplug the Wi-Fi at the back?”
No Bill, the whole point of Wi-Fi is that it doesn't plug in at the back. An idea: can you check your email on another computer? Bad idea. Bill doesn’t really know what a computer is. He thinks the monitor is a computer and refers to the large rectangular box underneath it as a “modem”. Whenever I tell him to “use your mouse to...”, without fail he responds by picking it up and asking: “This thing?” Every bloody time.
In fact, terminology is a big problem with Bill. When I’m at his office, helping Bill through everyday tasks is a challenge because of this very lack of conceptual understanding of basic terms such as "menu" and "window". And "click".
It’s a bit like that apocryphal tale that bounces around IT support desks of the user who is asked to right-click and responds by reaching for pen and paper. Why? Because he was going to write "click". Aheh.
Come to think of it, Bill’s far from being alone in this respect. Most days I have to deal with people who in other circumstances I would describe as conscientious and articulate but who, upon coming into contact with a computer, begin talking in a kind of jumbled verbal nonsense. Worse, these people tend to be software architects. Worse still, they are entrusted to write the user documentation.
"Select the icon and hit go" was one brilliant example I found the other day in home-grown documentation at my well-paying client’s office. Select the what and do what? Fine, "hit go" possibly means that I should tap the Return or Enter key on my keyboard but it might also mean click OK or Save or Open or Close or Print or Destroy The Planet. After careful study, all I managed to establish about "select the icon" was that it was a phrase that could mean anything from ticking a checkbox to clicking on a radio button, occasionally activating a tool in a ribbon bar, but not once did it ever involve the selection of icons.
On one page, a menu "drops down"; on the next, the same menu ‘pops up’. Windows also variously "pop out", "appear", "explode" and – incongruously – "zoom up", and they are referred to under random monikers, such as "palettes", "panels", "screens" and "messages". Is it any wonder ordinary people find computers so bloody hard to use when people like us write the instructions with all the clarity and precision of a dirty Hungarian phrasebook?
Words are important to me. I use them to earn a living. When applied correctly, they communicate information and ideas, otherwise they just get in the way.
I’m still smarting from a previous telephone encounter with Bill during which he complained that he was “seeing balloons” all the time. For the best part of half an hour, I talked him through blocking pop-ups in Firefox – which I mistakenly referred to as a "web browser", thereby lengthening the call unnecessarily by another ten minutes – and explained how to disable tooltips in just about every program on his hard disk. All to no avail. I began to wonder if “seeing balloons” was some kind of medical complaint. At one point, I even imagined Bill phoning me from his grandson’s birthday party, complete with cake, presents and... "balloons".
It turned out that what he called "balloons" was the circular, spinning mouse cursor that he saw on-screen while Firefox strugged to persuade My Yahoo! to load another fucking animated ad for home insurance or family holidays or donkey-sized vibrators.
Looking hard at my watch now, as my well-paying client looks hard at me, I talk Bill though a host of options. I have him switching things off and switching them back on again. I have him try other computers (“They’re fine,” he tells me) and clicking on things with the mouse (“This thing?” Yes Bill, even though I can’t see it over the phone, that fucking thing) and restarting while pressing arcane key combinations known only to Lucifer and myself.
At one dreadful stage, I am forced to ask him to try re-entering the Wi-Fi passphrase. The reason it is dreadful is because I chose the phrase carelessly in an amorous mood while drunk and it is embarrassing telling it to Bill. It is worse when you have to say it over the phone while sitting in front of another client as they might think I am saying these things to Bill rather than recounting a password, forcing me to whisper to my client “That’s my password!” which makes me look reckless as well as oversexed.
Then I remember that I changed that password a month ago, so I have apparently outed myself unnecessarily.
Nearly an hour later and we’ve given up on Wi-Fi. We try plugging in cables. Any progress, Bill?
“Afraid not. It still says ‘No connection found’ on my computer.”
Er... what does? Have you opened a network utility, Bill? It beggars belief that he’d know how to do this. I ask him to describe in more detail what he can see on his screen.
“Well, it’s all black with a rectangle in the middle that’s moving up and down slowly, and it says in big letters ‘No connection found’.”
Bill, do you see the big button at the front of the big box under your screen? Good. Press it.
“Ah, there we go. Cheers!”
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He still finds it a thing of wonder during training sessions when he says “Click on the File menu at the top of your screen” that the trainee’s response will always be “Where?” He believes that if they can’t be sure where things go even when told precisely where to put them, they would be better off not going out on a Saturday night.