Unintended Insights from the documentary Cyber-Seniors

Cyber-Seniors, currently making the rounds of indie cinemas, is a well-meaning documentary by filmmaker Saffron Cassaday that chronicles the efforts of her siblings and their high school classmates to introduce Toronto seniors to the Internet.

It’s a grandchild’s valentine to the grandparent generation, which is both its charm and its flaw. There’s too much condescension to the “cuteness” of seniors; it would have been far better to see more of what the participants felt from their own point-of-view. Still, it ought to be required viewing by anyone designing technology or offering tech tutorials for older seniors.

Some of the awkward unfamiliarity is a bit surprising, when you consider that if you subtract twenty years, all but the very oldest would likely have encountered computers in their workplaces. Nevertheless, aging itself makes even the most basic of computer tasks difficult; for example, we see a 77-year-old flummoxed by double-clicking.

In truth, we take clicking so for granted, we forget that it’s actually a proprioceptive challenge: The brain must determine and signal how much pressure is required to differentiate clicks, further complicated in the old by compensating for arthritic fingers. Unfortunately, proprioception, like other senses, declines with age, so the “simple” act of clicking becomes akin to mastering chords on a guitar. Similarly, reading on a monitor becomes like trying to find a grey cat in a fog.

Watching Cyber-Seniors, you see clearly that navigating the Internet is a double-whammy for the advanced elderly: It requires both understanding new intellectual concepts and mastering novel movements. The cognitive challenges cannot be underestimated: Many of the participants forget not only their passwords, but their security prompts. When asked, “What is your pet’s name?” one nonagenarian replies, “I don’t have a pet anymore.”

As much as it intends to celebrate the efforts of the young volunteers, the documentary also unintentionally demonstrates that generosity and kindness don’t quite make up for lack of preparation. Some of the cognitive load would have been lightened if the volunteers had a practiced script with well-tested procedures. It would have been extremely helpful for the seniors to have a printout with reminders of the basics, from steps to get on the Web to a box to write down passwords.

Yet in one respect, the seniors caught on fast. The filmmakers encouraged them to produce YouTube videos for a clickbait contest (the videos are still online). When one woman’s video is thumbed down, she asks—with just the right tone of shaming–“Who could dislike something so innocuous?”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bemDf6wuHJ0]