Finally, a Google for Grandma

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A pilot program wants to bridge the Internet's generational divide.

Students and teachers at "Age Engage" in Cambridge [via CCTV]

Internet usage, studies have suggested, can improve older people's mental and emotional wellbeing. And yet, for many seniors, the shiny machines sitting on their kids' or grandkids' desks (or in their hands, or on their laps) are just that -- machines, foreign and cold. Nearly 80% of all Americans, Pew says -- and nearly 80% of all baby boomers -- use the Internet; only 42% of seniors do.

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The digital divide, in other words, has a corollary: the generational divide.

It could be, sure, that older generations simply aren't interested in making use of the new technologies now available to them, the television and the telephone being more than enough to suit their needs, thank you very much. More likely, though, the web's generational discrepancy has a deeper root: intimidation. Computers, when you're completely new to them, are incredibly weird and difficult to use: A mouse-to-screen infrastructure, whether it involves an actual mouse or a touchpad, actually requires a fairly significant cognitive leap on the part of its users. And as far as the Internet itself goes, there's very little that's intuitive about the languages and protocols that have come to define its usage. "H-T-T-P-colon-forward-slash-forward-slash-doubleyou-doubleyou-doubleyou" is not, even for 'Net's non-n00bs, the most user-friendly of interfaces. For new Web users -- and for older Web users -- that coding can become downright hostile. The World Wide Web, without meaning to, has become just a little bit ageist.

So it's both ironic and fitting that the young company that made its name simplifying the web is now trying to bring that simplicity to the web's oldest users. In a pilot program at its Dublin offices, Google has rolled out classes that pair up older people with (generally, much younger) Googlers, providing instruction on everything from email-sending to photo-uploading to searching for information to, in general, navigating a not-always-intuitive Internet.

In December, "Age Engage" rolled out to the States through a collaboration between Google's Cambridge office and the city's local cable TV station. Like the Dublin version, the this-side-of-the-pond manifestation focuses on one-on-one instructional relationships between community members and Googlers, with a particular emphasis on teaching seniors the skills that they'll find most useful in their own lives. One man went to a doctor, and wanted to look up some of the terms the doctor had used. One woman wanted help with navigating Google maps. Many more just wanted to learn the general computer and web skills that would make increasingly ubiquitous computers increasingly less mysterious to them. 

It's a small program that is -- like most everything else at Google -- in beta. (Last month, twenty seniors participated in two 2-hour-long classes.) But -- like most everything else at Google -- the plan is also to expand. "Age Engage" has an "ultimate goal," project lead Amanda Del Balso says, of providing instruction to 250 local seniors before the end of the year.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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