The secret shame in the office

Every schoolkid may soon get a lap-top, but grown-ups are still terrified of new tech. Alex Spillius on a fear that dares not speak its name
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In every office in the land, you can hear their plaintive cries: "Omigod! Where's it gone? I didn't touch a thing and suddenly it's vanished." Every office has its techno-dunces, an underclass of computer illiterates who each day switch on their machine (if they can remember how) and dread: what are you going to do to me today? During which important document will you choose to crash? At what point will something simply "disappear" from the screen and never be seen again? And how often will one of those infuriating boxes pop up, stating: "Document could not be opened - try opening it from within the application." (What is an application anyway?)

If computers could simply be anthropomorphised, the anxiety might be easier to handle - at least one could communicate with them on a one-to- one human basis. But they become beasts. Like horses they need considerable taming and regular riding to keep in check. However, just as some people suffer equine fear, others cannot look a PC in the eye and call it servant.

This is probably not their fault. Experts in the field of computers and human behaviour concur that companies are generally poor at managing IT (that's information technology to you). New equipment and software are dumped on employees without explanation; training is often cursory and help is rarely at hand - "Someone will be up in a couple of weeks to sort out your problem." Then, just as staff have got to grips with the system, it is "upgraded". Complaining is not an option.

"Staff often feel they are forced to change and then are blamed for mistakes as they learn to deal with new systems," says Martin Corbett, a senior lecturer at Warwick Business School. "They know it's not their fault, but they feel it's better to keep quiet as they perceive the company will be down-sizing soon."

Research has shown that computers have contributed substantially to higher levels of stress, absenteeism and a general feeling of valuelessness at work. "People often look at the mainframe computer in its guarded, air- conditioned room and resent that it is treated better than they are."

In the modern world, where technology is God, businesses easily fall into a software arms race, determined to keep up with the opposition even though repeated (and expensive) additions to the stockpile of software often end up wrecking morale and performance. In America it has been calculated that computer fatigue accounts for $50 billion (pounds 33 billion) worth of lost productivity every year.

"It is often hard for employees to see the benefits of computers, and very few of them understand how they actually work. They take it on trust that they are good for them," says Dr Corbett.

It is usually only managers who can afford to ignore new technology, obliging their PAs to do their understanding for them, while older employees tend to struggle compared to their younger counterparts.

"I tend to learn the basic minimum," says Debbie, aged 32, a PA at a publishing house. "But you get these college leavers who positively enjoy the computers. They're the bloody Nintendo generation. It does make you feel inferior, but I have to tell myself I am better at personal communication skills - whatever they are." The day before we spoke, Debbie had spent three hours trying to print a set of envelope labels using the computer. "They made it sound so easy, but it was impossible not to get two addresses on one label. By the time I had messed about trying to work it out I could have done it on a typewriter."

It may come as a surprise to Debbie to hear she could be a bit short of cognitive playfulness. A lecturer in organisational behaviour at Strathclyde University, Nicholas Bozionelos, explains: "This relates to the extent someone likes to experiment when they learn, how much they enjoy trial and error. Those with greater cognitive playfulness will suffer less computer anxiety." He adds that typically masculine characteristics such as "assertiveness and low sensitivity in interpersonal relationships" aid facility with computers. Men also "may be more confident". Or, it could be argued, men are more nerdish.

Some women are computer-phobes and proud. "I think nerds are inferior. Computers should be tools, not objects of obsession. It's like men's attitudes to cars - they see them as penis extensions or objects of love, where women on the whole see them as a means from A to B," says Sheila, a magazine sub-editor.

"I have a new Apple Mac at home. I have not mastered it and I have no intention of mastering it. I don't know anything about computers and I don't want to. Women have always been told they are no good at XYZ, and I take perverse pride in proving that true.

"I really would rather spend time painting, singing or learning a new language than struggling with some impenetrable computer manual."

As for many IT-haters, necessity has forced her to endure innovation at work, while at home she has found her level with a deluxe electronic typewriter, banishing the Mac to a dusty corner. "It was so frustrating, I was going bananas trying to work this thing. I was quite capable of smashing it to bits, but it was too expensive. It is not smarter than me, it is just irritating."

Sheila speaks for the millions who feel overtaken by a world of mobile phones, PCs, e-mail and video games, though these "everyday" technologies are used far less than the hype suggests. According to the Henley Centre for Forecasting, 72 per cent of consumers have never used a camcorder, 64 per cent a word processor - and 29 per cent even refrain from cashpoint machines.

It is perfectly possible to live unaided by new tech, however. If prizes for computer phobia were ever awarded, the Indian author Vikram Seth would be a front-runner. Seth composed his 1,349-page opus A Suitable Boy in longhand, writing as many as 12,000 words a day in an unimaginably punishing stint from 3am to 6pm.

Come to think of it, he might also be eligible for a decoration from the ball-point pen industry.

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