Plain Text: The Tech-Support Generation

Next week, millions of college students and young professionals will head home for the Thanksgiving holidays. We'll sit with our families in warm, candle-lit dining rooms eating stuffed turkey, reminiscing over old photographs, preparing holiday shopping lists and ... Please. Let's be frank. We are going home to fix our parents' computers.

Forget the generational tags you've already heard, like Gen X and Gen Y. We are the Tech-Support Generation. Our job is to troubleshoot the complex but imperfect technology that befuddle mom and dad, veterans of the rotary phone, the record player and the black-and-white cabinet television set. Next week, on our annual pilgrimage home, we'll turn our Web-trained minds and joystick-conditioned fingers to the task of rescuing our parents from bleeding-edge technology on the blink. The tech media does us a disservice by trumpeting every product evolution and incremental software advance. They tend to overlook how each new improvement throws a fresh set of roadblocks in the way of the uninitiated. I'm as much a perpetrator of this unrelenting technology optimism as anyone. So, I hope you'll forgive me as I try to balance things out with a few personal recollections.

Last winter, my wife and I went to visit her parents at their home in Las Vegas. Between exchanging gifts and hitting the casinos, we spent hours trying to configure their new wireless network. (By "we," I mean my wife. I am pretty hopeless as a troubleshooter.) The problem, as I understood it, was that the new Linksys network router wasn't properly distributing an IP address to my father-in-law's computer. We spent most of three days trying to tackle the problem, including hours on hold trying to reach the Linksys pay-per-call tech-support hotline listening to stale holiday music. They never picked up. Eventually, we surrendered. At a computer-security conference a few months later, my wife bribed one of her hacker friends, known as "Simple Nomad," to come to her parents' house and to fix the mess. It took him over an hour.

Last summer, I visited my own parents in Cleveland. That weekend, we spent good, quality time together. By "we," I mean, me and my stepfather's laptop, an ancient Compaq. His colleague had generously configured it to the DSL network in their office. Now it no longer worked over the telephone line at home. My professional diagnosis: the computer had two versions of America Online on its hard drive that were somehow interfering with each other. I tried to delete both and reinstall the software. "Drivers not found," the computer told me when I went to connect to the Internet over the phone line.

I failed to fix that computer too, but I recently called to check up on its condition. "I never figured out what happened," my stepfather told me. He says he just doesn't use it to connect to the Internet from home anymore. It is the black sheep of the family--invited into the house but generally ignored.

For our parents, the lingo is foreign and indecipherable. IP address? Why should they even have to know what that means? The worst part is that they know it should and can work--if they can just crack the alien code. When they can't get it to work, they make preposterous compromises they never would accept with a new car or household appliance. Bringing the laptop home but not using it; or using dial-up while the broadband wireless network router sits unused in the office for six months--until the kids come home. I recently overheard one student saying to another on a college campus: "I told my parents I am coming home this Thanksgiving to spend time with them, not to fix their printer."

And the headaches keep escalating as digital technology infiltrates new, once simple appliances. Take the newest digital phones. Phones used to be simple and easy to use, didn't they? Over a year ago, I fell for a new Samsung mobile phone offered by Sprint. The phone, the i500, combined a Palm Pilot into a seemingly well-designed compact handset. It looked great, and I could carry one device around instead of two. Even today, 14 months after I bought it, the silver clamshell gadget elicits amazement from friends.

But the only thing that amazes me now is how crappy it actually is. The graffiti pad on the phone stopped working soon after I bought it. The screen frequently goes on the fritz. And the little stylus that slips into the handset appears specifically made to get lost in the seat cushions of my car. I recently checked a mobile-phone chat page on the Internet and found that lots of other users were having the same problems. We all paid way too much for a gadget whose primary function is to raise its owner's blood pressure.

Technology execs used to spend a lot of time beating the battle-drum of simplicity. Products had to be easier to use and more elegantly designed, they argued. You hear less of that now, but certainly not because they achieved those lofty goals. Too often, today's slick user interfaces appear to be nothing more than curtains hiding the wizard. Hit the wrong key, and you still get those incomprehensible error messages.

Every now and then, I indulge in a little revenge fantasy: as my computer freezes up or flashes its dreadful "blue screen of death," I put execs from a few choice technology companies in a headlock and give them noogies while demanding that they answer for the shortcomings of their products. But I would never actually do that. Though they probably share the sentiment, my parents wouldn't approve.

Plain Text: The Tech-Support Generation | News