Using a computer, like pottery and unicycling, is a fairly solitary pursuit. Unencumbered by meddlesome advice, we develop our own peculiar methods of operating them and ways of navigating around their screens – so it's not surprising that watching someone else at the keyboard can be unexpectedly hilarious.
Exclamations such as: "What on earth are you doing?" and: "For crying out loud, give it here!" are frequently uttered as we see people executing the computing equivalent of stripping wallpaper using a shoehorn. (Such as, for example, typing "google.com" into the Google search box in order to search for Google.)
Our poor level of electronic literacy was exposed this week by Dan Russell, a search anthropologist at Google, when he revealed that 90 per cent of Americans – based on a statistical sample of thousands – were unaware that you could use CTRL+F (or CMD+F) to find a word or a phrase on a webpage.
And if Dan hadn't dropped the hint, they would probably still be looking for it.
But can you blame them? After all, we are blundering in the dark with much of this stuff. Gadgets and software tend not to come with manuals – but even if they did we probably wouldn't bother reading them; we'd just battle our way through using a process of trial and error.
The more inquisitive of us will always make an effort to seek out new features to streamline our workflow, but the rest will stick with what they know until someone tells them to the contrary.
If Russell's statistics were broken down by demographic, we'd find the younger generation to be more skilled than their parents, or parents' parents – but the development of gadgets and software may be outpacing the need for us to acquire these skills at all. A friend of mine told me at the weekend about his 85-year old computer-illiterate mother's adoration of her iPad and, as voice recognition technology develops, our wrestling with CTRL+F will seem laughably archaic.
But while we wait for that, let's share tips when we see people struggling. They might resent our intervention, but it's more that likely they'll say: "You're kidding!" and gasp with delight.
I did a quick Twitter survey the other day on this subject and quickly had to rein in my technological smugness as people replied with supposedly "obvious" things that I'd never twigged.
For example, you don't need to endlessly swipe down an iPhone to scroll to the top; just tap the top of the screen. And when you're typing in a web address using an iPhone or Android phone, holding down '.com' gives you a pop-up list of other domains. These revelations almost made me weep with joy. It was like catching up with a lesson I'd somehow missed, but that everyone else had attended.
Other exposés and confessions of computing ignorance poured forth on Twitter; some people were unaware that a quick look at a recent documents folder is faster than navigating through a hard disk, or that tilting a smartphone horizontally switches it to landscape mode, or that swiping a trackpad with two fingers is the new way of scrolling. Skipping between boxes on a website using the tab key is akin to witchcraft for those who've never seen it done before, while some of us still engage and unengage the caps lock key to type capital letters, unaware that the shift key performs the same function. Also, note that you can lift the handle on the toaster to get the bread out and pierce the foil of the tomato puree tube by using the spike in the cap.
It's easy when you know how.