Charles Arthur: The Geek

Over 44? You'll never understand the digital age
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The Independent Online

So he was delighted when he plugged cable A into socket B and voilà, music from the computer started coming out of the speakers. But having achieved that, Marcus's ambitions moved on. Now he wants to connect multiple computers around the house.

So he started quizzing me on what to do. The standard answer to the problem of, "I've got more than one computer in my house, what next?" is, "Set up a home network." The trouble is that it's very much more easily said than done.

True, it's pretty easy to plug a wireless router into your broadband connection and then equip your separate computers to get their internet connection from that wireless feed. (Make sure you give your network a password, though, unless you want the person next door or two floors up to borrow your connection.)

I told Marcus that. He pondered a bit. "So where should I plug the printer in so all the computers can use it?"

By now I was starting to feel itchy, because Marcus was drifting into waters where brave men abandon hope. For the fact is that home networking is tough, especially if you have (as you should) Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2) installed. SP2 is essential because the vanilla flavour of XP is too insecure on a broadband link. But on installation it puts up all sorts of barriers to connections with the outside world, including your local network. There's the firewall, and the problem of what "network neighbourhood" your machine is on.

Last month the pollsters Mori released the results of a survey for Hotwire PR with some interesting data on how, and how many, Britons use computers and technology. For instance, mobile phones are used by 83 per cent of the population aged between 15 and 99. Now, census statistics show that of the total population aged between 15 and 99, 49 per cent are over 44, making that a useful "pivot age" in looking at overall trends. So for mobile phones, 8 per cent more people aged under 44 use them (ie, about 91 per cent aged 15-44) and 8 per cent fewer aged over 44 (ie about 75 per cent). The numbers are almost identical for digital TV. Those turn out to be the two most "democratic" technologies around.

Shift to MP3 player use, and it's very different. Only 19 per cent of the overall population has, or intends to get, one; predictably, that's skewed heavily to the young. Of the one in five who answered yes, 76 per cent were under 44. This is followed closely by home networking, where only 12 per cent of the population had created one, and 69 per cent of them were under 44.

My conclusion: people don't do home networking because it's too difficult. The over-44s, the age group you'd expect to have multiple computers (because they'd have older kids), aren't setting them up.

What that tells me, then, is that the dreams the computer-makers throw at us of the "digital home" where the fridge orders our supermarket shop, and the door can be opened by our mobile phone, aren't going to happen without some dramatic change in useability. And as long as we have to wonder what a "network neighbourhood" is, and whether we belong to one, that's not going to happen.