On Different ways to Understand the Computer

For a variety of reasons, my wife and I, who usually get along swimmingly, get into fights when I am trying to help her with the computer.  She has never developed a high comfort level with computers, while I have been using them since I was about 15, programming assembly language on S-100 bus CP/M computers (and yes, I have used punch cards too -- I am just old enough to have had that experience).

I realized today what the problem is.  She called me on my cell, trying to elicit from me the set of commands to do something-or-other in Word.  I kept saying I don't know and she got mad at me because she knew I had done it before, and she thought I was just blowing her off.

In truth, the difference is in how we have both learned to use the computer, and maybe even a fundamental difference in how each of us learns anything.  My wife is a memorizer and note taker.  If I explain to her how to, say, embed an image in a word document, she will carefully write down each step in a notebook she has.  She will never ask me again or falter at the task of adding an image to Word, because she now has either memorized how to do it, or she can look in up in The Book.

I, on the other hand, am nearly incapable of memorizing anything, and the sum total of the notes I took in college probably would not fill a single spiral notebook.  In fact, I suspect I switched from chemical engineering to mechanical engineering in college because, at least at my University, chemical engineering had a ton of memorization (can you say, Isomer?) while mechanical engineering was all about open book problem solving.

When I sit down to a computer, I just sort of figure things out.  When I had my old S-100 bus computer, that was essential, because there was no manual.  Today, its just how I am.  The disadvantage is that every time I insert a graphic in Word, I may have to fiddle around in the menus to figure out, for the 100th time, how to do it.  The advantage is that, if I am suddenly required to insert a spreadsheet rather than a graphic, I am not thrown for a loop - I just follow my usual process of poking around through the menus.

So, I have explained to my wife that to help her, I need to be at the computer.  Once I figure out how to do something, she can then document it in The Book. 

I have had friends who work like me try to insist that my approach is better than my wife's.  I don't think it is - just different.  Take driving directions.  I have no problem trying to find someplace I don't have clear directions for, because I have a good sense of direction and can usually get there by visual reckoning.  As a result, though, I sometimes cannot give street names to get to places I have been as many as 10 or 20 times.  Since I navigate visually and by real-time reckoning, any knowledge I have gained in my successful exploration is very difficult to pass on, just like I have difficulty passing on my computer knowledge.  If the world was all like me, technological society would end after this generation, because no one could pass our knowledge on.

In fact, as I write this, I am getting an epiphany about myself and why I did not do so well as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. (the reader is welcome to stop at this point, because what follows will likely be real-time self analysis rather than of general interest).  I was very very good at analysis, and quickly getting to a sort of 70% confidence level as to conclusions, and then I would hit a wall.  I had little tolerance for continuing to build evidence and analysis and the perfect polished presentation once I thought I "got it", and I had absolutely no tolerance for sitting down and writing a white paper or other published article about our experiences.  This profile probably makes me perfect for running my own business - I wish I had figured it out about 10 years earlier.

One Comment

  1. Liz:

    this is not a sex-linked characteristic. I am the same sex as your wife. I am like you on the computer front--learn by doing. I seem to have something of a place-mediated memory (I can usually remember which menu a given action is on). I know note-takers (sometimes the action of taking the notes is the memory-boost.)

    My former husband (the engineer) loathed all Apple products because the interface made him feel stupid.