Deft at DeFT

Was it just me who flinched when Doug was talking about how to explain digital technologies in a way that was simple enough even for his old mum to understand? We were invited to have a good laugh at the image of this simple woman coming to grips with modern technology.

“There but for the grace of god (and Anna) go I,” I thought.  With their help I am now slightly more digitally literate than I was at the start of this project, but am probably the same age and definitely the same gender as Doug’s mother.   I could not succeed in ‘othering’ (see Fine ) myself completely from her and did not like this stereotype.  As it was repeated, I became more ill at ease.

I think that the statement made me feel uncomfortable because it reveals a particular attitude to women and age.

Firstly, why was his mother– not his father or even his son used as an example of digital incompetence?  I know many men who are self-confessed digital illiterates- so they do exist. Even if his mother was the least digitally competent person in the family,(and to be fair, it is widely accepted that men do spend more time on computers than women) is he right to imply that she is intellectually challenged?  Is he subscribing to the trope that women have an inferior intelligence, especially in the male dominated realm of digital technologies? And how far does this belief in intellectual inferiority extend?

Secondly, does age predefine levels of skill and interest in technology? Are we to believe that older generations have no proficiencies in this area?  If Doug had looked around he might have noticed quite a few veteran experts in the field, and that one very eminent professor had just become a Grandmother.

Jokes on age and gender- not a very good cocktail to present to an academic audience- I was not the only one who was- shaken not stirred- by the performance.  In fact if Doug’s mother was there she might have made him sit in the naughty chair.

For dissing his elders.


13 thoughts on “Deft at DeFT

  1. Your blog ate my first comment. I’ll try again.

    How *dare* you twist my words for your own ends!

    If you’d actually listened to what I had to say (and I’ve got the recording) you’d notice that I was actually using my grandmother as an example of a digital refusnik and my mother as an example of middling digital literacy skills. Why did I choose my mother rather than my father? Because my father has a higher level of skills. Gender didn’t come into it.

    I’m extremely disappointed that you’ve taken my keynote (without quoting anything I actually said) and used it to fuel your own diatribe. More than anything, I’m shocked that you think that this is suitable fodder for a JISC-funded blog.

  2. Pingback: Because obviously I’m a male chauvinist pig. | Doug Belshaw's blog

  3. I use the “mom test” metaphor often myself – and it is a real test that I use as well, both in terms of hardware, software, and websites. Sometimes I can predict how things will go (I knew my mom would like TED talks for sure, and she does), and sometimes she surprises me (she completely fell in love with her iPad and has all but abandoned her laptop). It’s not a joke, it’s not making fun, it’s not an insult, it’s just a way to get out of my technology space and into someone else’s. My father doesn’t even use the Internet, so you can add that into your gender stereotypes if you want. My mother is an adventurous but not very sophisticated computer user and I learn a lot from what she tells me about her computer use. I think we would all do well to talk to people different from ourselves about their computer use – and my mom is someone fun to talk to about that. So, I understand where Doug was coming from but I do not understand this irate reaction here at all.

  4. Doug, (followed you here from Planet Mozilla, since you don’t have comments on your blog)

    you obviously didn’t mean to be offensive, but at the same time you’ve fallen into the classic trap of using old people and women as a short-hand for technically inept.

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone:,_your_mother_could_do_it

    Notice how pretty much everyone in that list was a well-meaning, nice person, who loves and respects their mother and is working hard to make software easier to use for everyone. Yet it still annoys people to be stereotyped so maybe find another way of making your point now you’re aware it’s an issue.


    • Dave, it sounds like you are the one making the stereotypical generalization, listening for it when it is not even there. How did Doug generalize? He was talking about a person, his mother. Bringing the perspective of another person into a discussion in order to broaden that discussion is not the same thing as stereotyping.

    • Doug absolutely was NOT “using old people and women as a short-hand for technically inept”. To be broader: saying “my mother” is very different than saying “your mother”.

      If I say “my mother has a hard time with this”, I’m giving a concrete example about a person. If I say “so easy your mother could do it” I’m engaging in a sexist stereotype.

      There’s a difference. Failing to appreciate it causes people to stop paying attention to you because you sound like an alarmist disconnected from reality. The end result is that they ignore you when you complain about real cases of sexism that ought to be stopped. There’s more sexism, not less. That’s a bad outcome all around.

      • Doug’s words, as quoted by him, on his blog: “I now have the ‘my mother test’. My mother reached the grand old age of sixty a few months ago and now if I can explain it to my mother, then I think that the average person can understand it.”

        His mother (with her age emphasised) is being used (as a lower bound!) to guage how difficult something is to understand. Now this is probably factually correct. I’m sure his mother has better things to do than keep up to date with the ins-and-outs of OERs, and yet is happy to listen to her son talk about whotever he’s interested in and give him useful feedback about what’s confusing in his explanations.

        But it’s just a shame that of all the people in this world (real and fictional) who know nothing about OERs that he could have used to talk about simple and effective communication, he chose a woman, and then underlined her age. And it’s clear to me, if not to you, that he did so because there’s a shared stereotype about old people and women that made it easier for him to illustrate this point, at the cost of annoying some old people and women in his audience.

        That’s why the “my butler test” or the “my nephew test” or “my Chinese friend test” or “my probation officer test” wouldn’t have worked in the same situation, people wouldn’t immediately jump from that generic description to “bad with technology” even if it was true that your actual, specific butler, nephew, Chinese friend or probation officer was a complete disaster when it came to understanding OERs or Facebook. (The “my Dad test” might have worked, but again that’s because everyone *knows* that old people don’t understand computers, even if they were inventing them and building them long before we were born) That’s why even talking about your own specific mother or father to a crowd of people who have never met them can still be taken as a generalization.

        I don’t really want to make a big deal out of it but it’s something that I would strive to avoid saying in order to avoid causing offence, and I hope I’ve explained my reasons suffiiciently, as some people seem to think that the people who take offence are in the wrong,


  5. “If I can explain it to my mother, then I think that the average person can understand it.” Well, whatever his intention was in using his mum as an example, Doug needs to be aware of how pervasive and keenly felt the stereotypes of age and gender are, particularly when it comes to digital literacy. And as someone viewing both the academy and a world of digital tech development from the outside, I had assumed that all projects – and particularly those which are paid for by all of us – rigorously address matters of inclusion in their message. The digital world offers possibilities of community, cooperation, equality and transparency like nothing else ever has. So Ms. Watts is right in her lively critique of condescending stereotype. Weary old trope it might be, but apparently alive and well in an important keynote digital conference speech.

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