Thank Your Mom—She Taught You How to Tech

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She may think "LOL" means "lots of love," but she's more tech-savvy than you think she is.

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"It's so simple, even your mom can use it."

"We need to explain this app in a way your mom would understand."

"I knew this network was here to stay when even my mom signed up."

In the tech world, moms are regularly invoked as the bottom of the user barrel, the hopeless laggards any tech product has to serve in spite of our limited skills. We're too numerous (and too sought-after by advertisers) to simply ignore, so tech companies and developers have to make the intuitive leap of imagining what it might be like to be that strangest of creatures, a Mother With a Keyboard (MWK).

As a mother -- and a techie -- I see the temptation of writing moms off. No matter what we moms do, it seems, we're doomed to fail in anticipating our kids' future online lives, to prepare them for the world they will live in but which has yet to appear. No wonder so many moms throw up their hands and don't even try to keep up with their own kids.

Perhaps it was easier for our mothers, who didn't anticipate how impossible it was to anticipate and prepare us for the future. And yet, looking back at the skills my own mom indoctrinated in me -- skills for a world, and a set of technologies, that are now thoroughly deprecated -- I'm struck at how fundamental those skills have proven to be in the tech world I now inhabit:

The card catalog: I was eleven years old when my mother marched me into the graduate research library of the University of Toronto, and taught me how to use their card catalog (printed on actual index cards) and the giant bound volumes that indexed each of the academic journals in the collection. I wrote high school essays on everything from Woodrow Wilson to the history of vice, each time burrowing my way through keywords and library shelves to find the answers I needed.

It has been nearly a decade since I last did research using printed books, but I use my card catalog skills on a daily basis. The ability to convert general questions into specific searchable keywords is the essential talent or any Google ninja, so my mom's insistence on developing library research skills has provided the foundation for quickly finding accurate information online.

The typewriter: Many of my women friends relate how their mothers discouraged them from learning to type, lest they be relegated to the secretarial pool. My mom took the opposite approach, first prodding and later outright bribing me into taking a touch-typing class. The electric typewriter I received as my reward was sidelined within a year by the arrival of our first home computer, and my comfort with QWERTY made me feel right at home on the new machine. Today, my wicked fast typing speed -- the product of a full thirty years of touch typing! -- means that I can blog as quickly as I can talk, or tweet as quickly as I can think. Without the barrier of hunt-and-peck, expressing myself online feels as intuitive as using that old IBM Selectric.

Microfiche: Some family basements house rec rooms or workshops. Ours housed the microfilm and microfiche reader my mother used for her research on Ancient Egypt, peering into the screen to fill in the gaps in a photo of a decayed piece of papyrus. She taught me zip through reels of newspaper archives, skimming just enough of the text to quickly find the relevant article or date. That ability to power through screen after screen of text, zooming in on the one phrase or fragment of interest, is what keeps me afloat in an online world that hurls forth volumes of links and articles each day.

Thank-you notes: Stocking up for a birthday in our house meant buying cake, ice cream, and a box of note cards. No sooner did I finish unwrapping my presents then my mom set me to work, writing heartfelt thank-yous to each person who had given me a present. While I longed for the freedom to play with my new Barbie, I clutched at the pen until my hand cramped, and eventually made it through the pile. I can't remember when I last wrote a pen-on-paper thank-you, or even sent a personal letter via snail mail, but the habit of courtesy has translated to the online world. While my thank-yous go out via e-mail and Twitter, the discipline behind it -- to send thanks at the earliest possible moment -- has helped me develop online and collegial relationships in which appreciation is the norm and not the exception.

TripTik: Some of my happiest childhood memories come from the road trips my mom and I took each summer to visit my grandparents in New York. Before we left town, we visited the automobile association to get a TripTik, a customized map that showed our route, alone with any current road work or detours. As soon as I was old enough to read, it was my job to navigate according to the TripTik's instructions, signalled the appropriate turnoffs and warning of slow-downs ahead. Using a child as a turn-by-turn GPS system might sound antiquated, but I do the same thing today: now it's my daughter's job to hold the iPad, watching the blue dot that signals our location on Google Maps, and telling me whenever there is a traffic jam or if I'm in danger of going off-course. If my fluency with a printed map has empowered me to travel the world with an iPhone and access to Yelp, I can scarcely imagine what kind of globe-trotting ease will belong to a kid who grows up on Google Maps.

That is just the point: I can no more imagine the world my kids will live in than my mom could have anticipated the world she was preparing me for. And yet she did, by insisting on skills and fluency with the technologies of her world, even if those tools, and that world, were quickly deprecated.

If the core work of motherhood is independent of the technologies and tools of any one moment, that doesn't mean moms can ignore their tech context. Indeed, it's that very context that instructs us in what we need to teach our children. The very tools and tactics that we find non-intuitive are the ones we recognize as learned rather than innate, and thus, the areas of technology in which we know to guide our children rather than following them.

So developers, stop dumbing things down for your mom. Your mom must be smarter than you think, because somewhere along the line, she laid the foundation that turned you into a digital native.

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Alexandra Samuel is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, on CBC Radio, and in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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