I have a little study at the top of my house where I do my work. Or rather, I used to. For some time, my eight-year-old daughter had become increasingly infuriated about having to share a room with her little brother. It may have been the way he used to wake her up to ask her the time at 3am; or perhaps it was the long conversations he liked to hold with his bedtime companion Peter Rabbit after lights-out.
Whatever the cause, I eventually decided her sanity was more important than my study. And so, a couple of weeks ago, we transformed the latter into a little attic bedroom for her (with the aid of a new pot of paint, called amethyst).
Meanwhile, my “study” is now a corner of the kitchen.
Whenever one makes a decision, there are often consequences that are hard to foresee. Now that the computer is easily accessible, my five-year-old is rapidly becoming a technological expert.
His big brother has sat down with him and made him his own profile, complete with a password and a background image of his choice. (An elephant.)
He now likes to settle himself down in the revolving chair, open up Word, and sit there typing, earnestly. I had to show him that if he pressed the long key at the bottom of the keyboard, he could make a “finger space” between each word. This made his work quite a lot easier to decipher.
After two weeks of computer practice, he now finds himself in a position to instruct others. He saw me sitting at my desk yesterday, the screen blank because I hadn’t typed anything for a while.
“Mummy,” he said, coming over, “I’ll show you how to make the screen work. You just have to press any key. Look!”
I thanked him, gravely, for his assistance.
Of course, there’s nothing unusual about any of this. Children tend to be able to use technology as naturally as they breathe. Though, while I’m dealing in sweeping generalisations, it’s fair to say that this is not always true of the older generation. My mother (whom — let’s not forget the fifth commandment — has many amazing skills I can only dream of) has never been comfortable with computers, even though she had to use them regularly in her career.
Trying to operate my dad’s computer recently, she got stuck and asked me what to do next.
“Just press the ‘escape’ key,” I said.
“Where’s the escape key?” she asked.
How, I thought (and probably said), is it possible to have been using computers for 30 years and not know where the escape key is? The escape key has been at the top left key of every keyboard that has ever existed.*
My first publishing job was at an eccentric, independent publisher containing eccentric, independent staff. One of my colleagues would regularly go into conniptions, shouting, “Everything’s vanished! My screen’s gone blank!”
“Have you tried pressing Ctrl Z?” I would ask, gently.
“What do you mean? What’s Ctrl Z?” she would demand.
“It undoes the last action you did, remember?” I would say.
“Oh my god!” she would cry. “It’s all come back again. It’s a miracle!”
Before I am struck down for blatant ageism, I should say that my dad is a technological whizz. We acquired our first home computer in 1982, and he taught himself how to program in Basic. He wrote for his eight-year-old daughter (me) a program to test times tables. Every time I got a question wrong, it insulted me. It was worth making mistakes in order to see which insult it would select. There were lots of possibilities from which it chose at random. “Potty nit” was my favourite.
I think that there’s actually a lot of natural instinct involved in being good with technology, although kids have a huge head start on adults because of being born into it. In the same way that some people “just know” how to fix a machine, or how to copy a dance move, or how to sing harmonies to a melody, there are people who “just know” how computers work. One can still get a lot better with practice at all of these things, but the people with real talent have a big dollop of “just knowing” inside them before they even begin.
I, incidentally, learned Basic at the same time that my dad did. I wrote a program that started by saying, “What is your name?”. I would then get one of my three big brothers to type in their name. Philip, say. When he pressed Return, the screen would fill up with text saying, “Philip is an idiot,” over and over again.
I thought this was the funniest thing in the world — but please give me a break: I was only eight.
*For this statement, I have adhered to the Donald Trump school of fact checking.