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Computer cat, scared mouse

A woman who can read and write will ensure that her kids read and write too, but there's no such guarantee in the case of a man

Women are more comfortable with technology.

ARE YOU one among those terrified of the computer? Do you stand and watch in awe when your own child, or friend or neighbours plays one of those computer games with indifferent ease? You could also be the person planning to take that computer course but keep putting it off, finding new reasons for procrastination, but really are in absolute terror of being found wanting.

Strangely, the fear of new technology, especially of the simple keyboard-CPU-monitor-mouse combination, seems to have little connection with language skills. By some absurd connection, the reckoning appears to be that those from science or even commerce courses will be better at computers than those from the humanities. It doesn't matter that in most cases, the technology and skills that go into the making of hardware and operating software is equally opaque to most IT professionals.

Fear of computers

At an orientation programme for schoolteachers recently, the participants confessed that the fear of computers was one of the biggest contributors to the gradual lowering of self-esteem that afflicts so many professionals today. The teachers were committed and articulate, but seemed to apprehend that computers could conceivably replace them altogether one of these days. Barring one, the participants were all women and it could be interesting to find out exactly what percentage of schoolteachers are women. And why?

There is this great belief in development economics that it is better for the rural home when a woman is educated. Because a woman who can read and write will ensure that the children will read and write too, but there is no such guarantee in the case of a man. Similarly, when the woman is also a wage earner, the rupee goes a longer way towards proper nutrition and home expenses. Extending the logic, just imagine what computer comfort among teachers could do for the digital divide?

Anyone who has worked in a computer-intensive environment will testify that women are faster when it comes to learning the intuitive shortcuts available in most applications. They are more honest in admitting that they really don't know how the thing works and why it hangs when it does. There is a certain type of person, a member of the small minority among computer users, that `knows' what it is with a computer and we all try to be friendly to him because he has this relationship with the temperamental thing and will coax it to work. But the rest, the terrified teachers should know, understand nothing about it. We just know how to use it when it works. And it works, more often that you might think.

So, it might be enormously useful for children at home, children at school and the community that women look at the monitor, which is not the actual computer, with friendly eyes. It needs to be forcefully communicated to the frightened lot that learning the basic skills on a computer, like typing words, making and filling tables with text, figures and formulae, drawing shapes, making slides, sending and receiving e-mail and embedding all these with moving images and sound do not require any understanding of technology. We just find out that when we press some buttons or click on the mouse when the cursor is at a particular point on the screen, desirable things happen. When you add a certain ingredient at a certain stage in the cooking, things tastes better. That's it. What chemistry who knows?

Moving closer

The fantastic growth of computer technology and the accompanying software development have brought the horizons of human possibilities closer. The next generation of computers is likely to come without keyboards. Which means that a person could just dictate to the microphone attached to a computer and it will carry out the commands. There is already technology in use that enables a computer to understand basic differences in standard accents and dialects, assemble words for grammatical interpretation and synthesize responses.

If a person could talk to the machine, ask it to frame it as a letter, report or other standard document, choose language for translation, font, size, and colour, mode of delivery, all by talking, the term "illiterate" could become obsolete. If computers were not essentially also devices of communication, their use would be very limited. If the best communicators among humans were not allowed familiarity with computers, the loss would be terrible. We could leapfrog across the digital divide. Women must lead the enterprise.

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