Buying a Computer for Mom

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 July 2000

I’ve been avoiding this moment for a long time. But eventually, I knew I’d have to deal with it.

Having been involved with computers for, what, the past twenty five years – I’d think I was quite capable of picking a system suitable for my soon-to-be 63-year-old mother’s introduction to cyberspace. “Just get me something that will do America Online,” she told me. “And maybe print out some letters. And faxing. I’d love to get one of those printer/fax/scanner copier machines,” she said, referring to something she saw at my brother’s house. “I can do that, right?”

Not such a tall order. She’s not asking for video or advanced graphics. Just the very basics. Easy. Or so it seemed at first.

I’ll just get her an iMac, plug it in, and she’ll be ready to go. But a Macintosh, well, it may be hard to find a printer/copier/fax for one of those. She’ll be in constant compatibility hell. “Why can’t I have a fax copier like your brother’s?” she will want to know. I’ll just find her a Windows PC. Hell, it’ll be a lot cheaper, and I can get one with an older, more stable system than Windows 2000.

But which one? And how will she ever figure out how to use it? I imagined an endless string of phone calls from her at all hours, asking about device drivers, install wizards, and resource conflicts. “Download it from the web?” she’d ask. “Where do I click for that?”
How could any loving, self-respecting son send his mother into the nightmare otherwise known as Windows? I couldn’t live myself.

So a Mac. Fine. When I got my first Mac, it guided me through what it means to point, click, and drag in a lengthy set of tutorials. She’ll need them. The poor woman has never even touched a mouse. But do Macs even come with those sorts of tutorials anymore? Skills like pointing and clicking are taken for granted, these days. “Scroll down?” she’ll ask. “What do they mean by that?” How does a virgin user even begin to approach the complexities of an intuitive interface?

Okay, so let’s say I buy the computer, bring it over, set it up, and show her the basics of turning it on, clicking on things, opening files, and saving them. Let’s say I even get her America Online account up and running, and configure the modem so it dials in automatically when she opens the program.

I know it will only be a matter of time – probably by the time I get home, in fact – that my poor mom will be on the phone, complaining of her first crash. She won’t even know what happened – only that the screen froze, and that moving her mouse doesn’t change the position of the cursor on the screen, anymore.

” But I didn’t do anything wrong,” she’ll say. “I only did exactly what you showed me.”

And, chances are, she’ll be right. Through no fault of her own, the brand new computer system that I bought her for her birthday will have frozen before her eyes. And I’ll be utterly incapable of convincing her that this is not a broken computer. It’s working exactly as a new computer should, by current standards. It’s simply crashing for no reason, at absolutely unpredictable moments.

Even though she installed no new software, downloaded no viruses, nor asked the machine to do anything even slightly out of the ordinary, it will, to my mother, look and act broken. No matter which machine I pick for her, and no matter how meticulously I set it up, this outcome is inevitable.

How and why this became the current state of home computing is a testament to the market-crazed development cycles of today’s leading operating system manufacturers.

Bill Gates is so driven to absorb every software trend in his path that he adds new “functionality” to Windows before it’s even compatible with the rest of his system. And Steven Jobs is so obsessed with resurrecting the decade-old Rhapsody in the form of the much-heralded but already condemned OS-X, that he’s allowing current Macs to be released with known bugs. It’s not planned obsolescence – it’s obsolescence by default. And no amount of fruity colors can make up for a computer that just doesn’t get the job – simply turning on and staying on – done.

So what’s a loving son supposed to do?

” It’s perfectly normal,” I’ll tell her. “Computers are not like your other appliances, mom. They’re not supposed to work. Just push the restart button and try again.”

Sadly, only when my mother begins to accept such frustration as a matter of course, will she be what we now consider computer literate. Welcome to cyberspace, mom.