For most of us, our high-tech world leads to low-tech frustration

ON BLOGGING

November 18, 2008|By ANDREW RATNER | ANDREW RATNER,andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Ilined up the snacks and drinks a couple of Saturdays ago to watch the Penn State-Iowa football game on TV.

When my son and I turned on the set at the appointed hour, the audio of the Penn State game was playing, but the picture was of a game between Texas A&M and Oklahoma. After a few frantic minutes, a crawl appeared on the screen indicating the station was aware of the "crossed signal" and was fixing it. A couple of minutes later, the problem was reversed: We were getting Penn State video and Texas A&M game audio. And a few minutes later, the station went completely to the Texas A&M game, audio and video, causing us to trudge off in the direction of the nearest bar with a satellite dish. (The station general manager wrote in an e-mail a few days later that a snafu with new equipment caused the glitch.)

Ultimately, my alma mater, Penn State, lost, ruining hopes for a national championship. So maybe Channel 2 was just trying to be kind and insulate me from disappointment.

But the incident stuck with me when the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report Sunday evening about user frustrations with computers, especially at home.

The "crossed signals" for the football game were frustrating, because you don't expect something like that with TV. It's virtually always reliable. Same with electricity, as BGE often reminds us when severe winter weather knocks out the power. And telephones, too, for that matter; or at least before they went cellular.

But people have more of a love-hate relationship with their computer, which often makes them feel more ignorant or powerless than other modern technologies do. The conflict gets played out in multimillion dollar TV campaigns from Apple and Microsoft that portray the PC as dork or hero. Computer frustrations have spawned a cottage industry of souvenirs, from T-shirts to office gag gifts.

Half of the adults who responded to the recent Pew study said that when using their computers or cell phones, they usually need someone to help them set up a new device or show them how to use it. About 44 percent said their Internet connection at home had failed to work properly during the previous year, 39 percent said their computer or laptop failed to work during that time frame and 29 percent said the same about their cell phones. Only 15 percent had that complaint about their iPod or MP3 player.

Not surprisingly, the young get less frustrated than older people about computer malfunctions, but they're also more prone to having their cell phone break. (Again, not surprising if you've been around a teenager and his cell phone.)

Feelings of frustration may be especially acute in the coming weeks with many people trying to e-shop at peak periods. An Internet security company, PC Tools, says that next Monday may be the most perilous day online, based on the high level of "spyware" attacks it recorded three days before Thanksgiving last year.

John B. Horrigan, associate director for research at the Pew Internet Project, said the impetus for his group's study flowed from an earlier survey for technology users that found marked degrees of frustration with information technology.

That study, in May 2007, concluded that nearly half of computer users considered that they had little tech knowledge. Another 20 percent considered themselves "middle of the road" users who were less intimidated by technology, but used it mostly for communication. And the remaining 30 percent or so were the "elites," who considered modern communications technology a form of self-expression.

"One consequence of these findings: if the industry could improve ease-of-use, particularly for the less-tech literate in the population, more people would be drawn into using online resources," Horrigan wrote in an e-mail.

The Pew report noted that it can take years for the public to get comfortable with new technology. People in Wabash, Ind., reportedly fell to their knees upon seeing electric light in the late 1800s. And though the first U.S. patent for photography was issued in 1840, it wasn't until 60 years later that George Eastman's easy-to-use "Brownie" camera made the hobby popular.

The Pew study also determined no significant differences in emotional reactions to tech device failure based on income or education levels. Rich or poor, high school or college-educated, when it comes to technology, most of us are in the same leaky boat.

WHAT GROUP ARE YOU?

Omnivores (8 percent of adult population): They have the most information gadgets and services, which they use voraciously to participate in cyberspace, blog or manage Web pages.

Connectors (7 percent): Between feature-packed cell phones and frequent online use, they connect to people and manage digital content using information and communications technologies (ICTs) - with high levels of satisfaction.

Lackluster veterans (8 percent): They are frequent users of the Internet, less avid about cell phones.

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