Google vs. Grandmom

I'm so stupid," she said, either to the computer or to me, or perhaps both.

My poor grandmother. She survived the Nazis, the Russians, and the Poles. She braved postwar anti-Semitism in Germany. She immigrated to the United States with her husband (my namesake) and two children, raising them on a chicken farm in New Jersey. This woman has known hardships the likes of which I could never imagine.

Now, with my help, she's trying to fulfill her greatest challenge: mastering the Internet.

Even knowing her life resume, I'm convinced this is one challenge she can't win. But it's not her fault. The Internet's simply too powerful to be simple. A computer is not just a TV upgrade, just as newspapers were not just an upgrade from the town crier. As easy as the point, click, search concept may be for us, the Web's on-ramp is slanted a little too deep to accommodate everyone.

One theme that arose during the computer lesson I gave my grandmother is that she has not been trained to ignore vast swaths of information. For instance, she uses Mozilla Thunderbird for e-mail (I forgot to mention -- my grandmother's cool), and she always reads the welcome screen over and over aloud: "Features: Adaptive Junk Mail Controls. RSS Reader. Global Inbox Support." Similarly, when I show her a Google search, she reads the "Business Solutions" link on the home page and the links bar atop the search results when conducting a query. That's too much information, even in the nmost streamlined of interfaces. If I tried to explain why some things are important to read and some aren't, I don't think I'd have made much sense to her.



During my visit with her, two days before the lesson, I found a reason to Google something for Grandmom. She was telling me how she'd attended a rousing local lecture by Daniel Libeskind, the architect designing the Freedom Tower, which will rise in the footprints of the World Trade Center. Recounting the story, she said she couldn¹t wait to see what the building would look like. I told her I could show her -- through a search engine, of course.

I opened Firefox, which defaulted to the Google search page. Then I typed in "new World Trade Center design" (as the building's moniker had escaped me), and clicked the link to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation site. It was all a cinch for me, and a blur for her. I knew what I was looking for existed, I knew how to search for it, and I knew the LMDC site, (ranked first), would have the answers. None of this is intuitive for an Internet newbie.

I've also realized that for my grandmother, searching in general is counterintuitive. She always has an answer to everything. I could just picture her response if someone suggested that she turn to a search engine for answers.

On searching for driving directions: "You think I don't know where I¹m going?"

On searching for recipes: "What, you don't like my cooking?"

On searching for product recommendations: "And I should trust some [insert choice Yiddish word here] instead of calling Mrs. Reisman who's been living next door in the same house over 35 years and [insert choice non-sequitur: still goes for a walk every morning/always serves my favorite grapes when we play cards/donates every month one hundred dollars to charity]?"

Maybe she doesn't really need search, when she'll happily supply an answer (in the form of a question), whether someone's seeking an answer or not.

My grandmother's computer sits in her den atop a series of cabinets that are in front of a wall of photographs. She likes having the photos there to keep her company. I thought it was a little sad that the computer blocked a few of the photos.

I loaded dozens of family photos onto her computer and then set her screen saver to display them. She loved it. It's a pretty pricey picture frame, though, and the ones on her wall never require rebooting.

Grandmom, we're the stupid ones, thinking search engines have all the answers. As smart as they are, as much as I'm crazy about them, and as invaluable a part of my daily life as they've become, I'll take your answers over Google's any day.

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