I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue

In which The Author becomes Technical Support

Don’t get too excited. Radio 4’s long-established ‘antidote to panel games’ isn’t coming to the Coliseum any time soon. This is a phrase which I’ve grown extremely accustomed to hearing over the past few months. All I have to do is produce the Netbook and one of two things will inevitably happen:
  • I will be approached by at least one relative stranger and greeted with an implausible mixture of respect, fear, suspicion and outright contempt. The majority of the nascent pub comedians (usually the macho men and steroid boys) will start their stand-up routine with the time-honoured words, ‘Oh, butt, can you look at porn on that?’ I’m usually tempted to reply, ‘Of course you can – but why would you want to look at porn? Aren’t you enough of a wanker as things stand?’ I live in fear that my unspoken thought will one day be verbalised. The consequences might be interesting, to say the least.
  • I will be approached by just about everyone who’s never worked in an office environment. None of them are really concerned with what I’m doing per se. I might be writing a blog entry, processing photos, playing with audio files, updating the Aberdare Book Stall inventory (see Up the Amazon), working on a presentation, editing a video clip, doing the crossword online, reading a news item, watching something on YouTube, or just browsing Facebook. It really doesn’t matter. The mere sight of the Netbook is enough to trigger this almost Pavlovian response. It makes no difference if they’re tradesmen, craftsmen, labourers, shop workers, care workers, older parents, grandparents, middle-aged folk, retired people, people who went to university when I did and failed to keep up to speed, or simply die-hard pissheads. Each and every one of them reacts in exactly the same way: ‘Computers, eh? I haven’t got a bloody clue!’ Sometimes the language is stronger but the sentiment remains the same.
In 1961, Arthur C. Clarke wrote, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ This has become known as Clarke’s Third Law, and was first recorded in his non-fiction book Profiles of the Future – which is missing from the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library, now I come to think of it. (I wonder who borrowed that …) In 2012, it seems that the technology is sufficiently advanced if you can text your mates silly jokes, check the lottery, horse racing or football results, buy stuff on eBay, go on Facebook, and watch porn. Anything beyond that is magic!
A couple of months ago I was referred to a course at a training consultancy in Aberdare, where I was able to hone my CV and explore ways of finding work online. Bear in mind that I’ve either been in work or studying for the last twenty years. Things have moved on. There was a guy there, about the same age as me, who had never, ever used a computer in his entire life. The first thing Jan, the adviser, had to do was to set up an email address for him. Even that took about twenty minutes, while he and the guy fiddled about trying to find a name that hadn’t been used before.
Brother Technophobe would have been in a similar predicament. It’s been a long time since Phil last used a computer, and he’s sworn never to touch one again. He did once have an email address, though. I know that for a fact – I set it up for him so that he could apply online for a job, five or six years ago. His mobile phone, camera and Freeview box are the furthest he’s dipped his toe into the digital ocean. I bought him a T-shirt in Camden Market which said NO, I AM NOT ON *&%)r$”£^ FACEBOOK! He loved it.
I’ve currently got seven active email accounts for various purposes, not to mention several which I no longer bother with and have probably fallen by the wayside. I’ve got five blogs (including this one), two registered domain names, a free-hosted website, a Facebook, a Photobucket account, a Twitter feed, and a YouTube channel. I fumble my way around Audacity, GIMP, Hugin, OpenShot, Pinnacle Studio, and get the Ubuntu Command Line Blues occasionally. I remember to put the ‘close’ tag at the end of HTML code more often than not. Even that’s changed from the old days of Dodge This, when Vicki F. and I regularly caused chaos on Aberdare Online by being too clever for our own good. If my IT skills were equivalent to the English of a non-native learner, I think I’d probably fall into the Intermediate category. Maybe Upper-Intermediate on a good day. Certainly nothing more than that.
In the meantime, friends of mine work as web designers, programmers, software engineers, systems analysts … I even know a systems engineer. My old school pal Will B. showed me his MCSE credentials the last time we had a pint together. That’s pretty high-powered stuff by anyone’s measure.
His interest in computers started at the same time mine did – in school, with the Sinclair ZX81, Spectrum, Atari, Acorn and BBC B computers. I used to enjoy playing with them, but never had the interest in coding and programming which Will did. I wrote a very simple program in BASIC to extract rational roots of quadratic equations. That was about as far as I got. By contrast, Will got hugely into computing – A levels, a degree, further study. He’s worked for all the blue-chip companies, earning a small fortune. Last time we met he’d burned out, still in his early forties. He was driving a street sweeper in Cheltenham. He reckoned it was the best job he’d ever had.
I could get by, of course. I knew as much I needed to. I worked in the office with Will’s late father Dave, in the dying days of the Cynon Valley Profile, preparing the typescript for final publication, back in 1987. During my second stint with the Community Programme, I took the opportunity to explore the IT systems in the office. When the Teleordering system came to Blackwell’s in about 1990, I was the one who sat with the engineer while he explained its operation. Subsequently, I trained everyone else how to use it. I also made a little database to handle the returns of unsold stock. It was all very basic stuff, admittedly – but everyone has to start somewhere.
When I started buying for the Computing department of Dillons, back in 199–, the books devoted to networking of any description occupied a shelf; maybe a shelf and a half at most. I didn’t know what TCP/IP or Compuserve or Cix or America Online or Demon were. A bulletin board was something we had in the staff room, to display the latest faxes from Head Office. There were weird abbreviations flying about at the end of stories in the quality papers: http, www, .co.uk, .com, .gov – it was a foreign language to me. In about the year 1998 things changed.
‘Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18: 3, King James Version).
Pam was the first person I knew who was online at home. I went round to her house one evening and she baptised me into the Virtual World. I became as a little child. Her own little child, Steve (not named after me, I hasten to add!) cheated something rotten while we played an online game. He was among the first of the children to really grow up in the digital era, fully embracing it. I realised with a shock that I was being left behind. Reality check! The man who’d been preparing himself for the future since the age of ten was suddenly out of his depth. This wouldn’t do at all!
Just before my thirty-fifth birthday, in March 2001, my uncle Tony E. suffered a fatal heart attack at home. After a decent interval, I inherited a beaten-up ex-public sector PC which Tony had been planning to recondition. It wasn’t even worth taking the back off it, to be honest. It wasn’t upgradable. I flogged it to death anyway, writing letters to the papers and working on my as-yet unperformed pantomime. About a year later I spent £100 on a second-hand PC in a shop in Aberdare. By 2003 I was online at home. (I can date that from one of my obsolete email addresses!) Using the Net with dial-up was like wading through treacle on a good day. But at least I wasn’t out in the cold any more.
For no apparent reason (other than my ability to talk the talk, I suppose) I became the go-to guy in Dillons if something went wrong. The old Bookdata system, operating from a twin-CD server in the cash office, would crash at least once a week. I had the IT Helpdesk pretty much on speed dial during this period. I reinstalled the system so many times I could do it from memory.
Good thing, really, as it turned out. I hadn’t been awake long one Sunday morning when Laurie rang me at home. The bloody thing had crashed again, and nobody was answering at the Helpdesk. I talked him through the reinstall procedure, and presented him with an invoice for Technical Support the following morning. Instead, he paid me in lager over the next few lunchtimes. I didn’t have to declare that as ‘earned income’, after all.
(I won’t name this particular man, but suffice it to say that two years ago I had to show one of my lecturers how to copy files from his office PC to a flash drive. I wouldn’t have minded, but it was his PhD work. He’s my age, if that. A Twentieth Century Boy, and happy to stay there.)
A number of years ago, before I was blogging (before just about anybody was blogging!), I used to log onto Aberdare Online on a Sunday morning and post a Thought For The Week. That’s the way that Inhibitions and Exhibitions first took shape. Another of my musings gave rise to Stone, Paper, Scissors. I don’t know why, but I’d been reflecting on the sudden pervasive influence of the Internet in our daily lives. From a shelf and a half five years earlier, suddenly Dillons had two entire bays (twelve shelves) devoted to books on or about the Internet. Every newspaper article, every TV programme, every piece of company stationery, every party political broadcast, every government department leaflet, every utility bill, every book, every pop music video, every cinema trailer, every advertising billboard and every beer mat bore the letters www. And this was the gist of it:
Since the dawn of time to the last five thousand years or so, Humankind has existed in the Stone Age. That was the one great leveller. Our species subsisted by hunting and gathering. As James Burke made clear in the first programme of his TV series Connections, the development of the plough was the trigger that propelled the first humans out of the Stone Age.

The plough gave rise to agriculture. People abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and settled in one place. Increased food production led to a population increase. Land needed to be divided up between different owners. Writing and simple mathematics arose from this necessity. The surplus crop production enabled specialised crafts to develop, as people were freed from the task of food gathering. A means of exchange was developed so that work could be rewarded. This required a centralised bureaucracy, taxation, and education to perpetuate the system. Thus, gradually, Western civilisation entered the Paper Age. Even if the first ‘texts’ were in fact clay tablets rather than papyrus scrolls, the fact that knowledge could be preserved, transmitted, and handed down through time fundamentally altered our nature as a species.
I’d been reading a lot of Robert Anton Wilson’s books by this stage, and they fired my imagination – especially his references to Alfred Korsybski’s ‘time-binding’ model of information. Knowledge increases in the same way as compound interest accumulates. Each increase in information gives rise to the next one, until eventually our species reached the stage it is at today. And that’s the logical conclusion of the late Paper Age.
Twenty-five years ago I signed up for a second stint at the Community Programme. It was Induction Day. Will’s father Dave was in charge of the process. I offered to help the new trainees complete their paperwork. (I was already in the system, so I’d have been just sitting about drinking coffee otherwise.) We gave each of them a blank form to fill in, and a specimen form to use as a template – a modern day ‘Tommy Atkins’, if you like. After a little while, one guy, about twice my age, called me over. He’d slavishly copied out the specimen form, letter by letter, and wanted to know if it was okay. Straight away I cottoned on to the fact that the poor bugger was functionally illiterate. I sat down beside him, whispered that it would be our secret, and picked up the paper.
‘Dave,’ I said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. ‘Can we have a new form and a new pen, please? This one’s leaking ink all over the place.’ I winked at my new pal, crumpled up the form and chucked it in the bin. Then we sat down together and I helped him start from scratch.
Literacy was the key to enfranchisement in Post-Industrial Society. There was a time (not that long ago!) where a young man could leave school and get a job in a factory, down a coal mine, on a building site, or in the armed forces, without being able to read or write. Those days have gone. Now it’s all NVQs and CSCS cards and Military Preparation Colleges. If you leave school unable to read or write, you’re on the scrapheap. Let’s be honest, you can’t even claim the dole unless you can write your name. You’re still in the Stone Age, to all intents and purposes.
Henceforward, this is the way our species is set to develop. IT Literacy is going to be as important to our grandchildren as Literacy is to us now. Unless you can use the Internet, you’re already excluded from so many aspects of society that you’re a second-class citizen.
Terry Wogan and Ken Bruce have both remarked on the way their own radio shows have changed in the wired world. Twenty years ago, a throwaway remark on Monday’s show would give rise to a handful of letters by the Wednesday. Now, email, text and Twitter allow almost instant feedback. Phil has often heard an item on Jeremy Vine’s show to which he’d love to contribute. A text is too small. A phone call’s too expensive. An email is something which other people do.
Tony A., the guy I mentioned last time, really does take Clarke’s Third Law to heart. He’ll never come to terms with the 21st Century. He was born in 1940. He loves history. So do I. We’re planning a trip to Brecon soon, just because we can. It’ll be nice for both of us. But if there’s something to look up, I’m the go-to guy again.
In the past year I’ve managed to rescue one PC, two laptops and a Netbook (as well as my own, when Windows XP gave up the ghost.) All their owners thought they were fit only for the scrapheap. I don’t know about the PC, but the other devices are working a treat. I pulled all the data off Mags’s laptop using a live Linux disk, installed Ubuntu, restored the data, and it’s as good as new. I backed up, reinstalled and dual-booted Sammy M.’s Netbook when that became poorly. I managed to unlock Sarah P.’s museum piece of a laptop last weekend. It looked like the LEKTOR machine in From Russia With Love. It was running Windows XP SP 1, for fuck’s sake. When I finally did hack my way into it, I was half-expecting to find Alan Turing listed as a Power User. Still, I got it running and it looks as though it might even connect to the Internet – through the Ethernet port, of course. (No self-respecting dongle wants to play with USB 1.0, after all!) This week, I’ve got to pull the data from Tom’s old laptop and transfer it to his new one. That’s not to mention all the phones, Facebooks, blogs, PowerPoints and printers I’ve helped out with over the last six months or so. I’m the White Lion Tech Support Department.
Everything I’ve learned about IT in the last twenty years has been acquired by trial and (mostly) error. Friends of mine have given me pointers, tips, useful advice and shoulders to cry on when everything went supine. I’ve filleted books, raided forums, and dabbled about in the shallows of the Virtual Ocean until I became confident enough to offer help to friends. Which is where I am now. I’m sorry, but I do have a clue.
Leighton L— contributed to my Caribbean holiday fund earlier today. A fortnight or so ago, he asked me if I had any ideas about why he couldn’t access the Internet through his phone. As things panned out, I did – he’d forgotten his password! I accessed his account on the Netbook and talked him through setting up a new one. I saw him before the game this afternoon. He’s happy as Larry.
Ironically, Leighton’s former partner Jennifer teaches IT at Merthyr College. Their daughter Keira is also a techie – she was my first MySpace friend back in the day. Leighton is happy to be a 20th Century Boy except under duress. While we were chatting, he said, ‘Fair play for sorting that out. I didn’t have a fucking clue!’
At this point I told him my cunning plan to make money. Every time someone tells me they haven’t a clue about IT, they need to pay a £1.00 levy towards my Caribbean Holiday Fund. Or possibly (as a couple of my friends suggested last weekend) my Knee-Length Boots Fund. In fairness, Leighton paid up immediately.
Leighton P— is acquiring a computer soon. He’s already asked me to show him the basics when it arrives. He’s 50, and realises that unless he gets with the program soon (every pun intended!) he’ll be totally unable to cope with the world as it’s evolving. He’s at least prepared to dip his feet into the Virtual Ocean.
He might not like it. Dad never learnt to swim, after all. Mother and Phil loved it. I splashed about in the shallow end, generating more sound and fury signifying nothing than making actual progress. But when it comes to the Virtual Ocean, I’ve left them behind in the bathing huts.
Because the real dividing line in the 21st Century isn’t between the landed and the dispossessed. It isn’t between the wealthy and the poor. It isn’t between the West and the East, the North and the South, or any other dichotomy that we’ve seen until now. It’s between the Technocrati and the Lo Teks. The gulf between the IT Literate and everyone else is the Scissors which will separate Humankind in the future. We’ve been through the Stone Age. We’re leaving the Paper Age. The future will be the Scissors Age.
And in this game, Scissors will always win …
Meanwhile, I spent twenty minutes on Friday night in the Command Line. I now have a brand new screensaver, especially designed to piss off the aforementioned steroid boys:

Works for me …
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