Uncle Jake: How the internet confuses regular users and what we need to do about it

As the internet winds its way onto more and more devices, we can expect increasing confusion on the part of regular users, whether in the consumer or work environment. David Gewirtz tells us a cautionary tale.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

11:45pm: The phone rings.


Hello, this is your uncle Jake.

[Uh, oh. Someone died.]

"Hi... Uncle Jake. Is everything okay?"


[I knew it. Aunt Sally? One of the kids?] "What's wrong? Is everyone okay?"

No. I told you. Everything is certainly not okay. My internet won't work.

"Uncle Jake, it's almost midnight. Didn't you call your son?"

I did. He told me to call him in the morning. It's almost midnight, you know.

"So, you're calling me. We haven't talked since Thanksgiving, what, two years ago?"

I know. I called your mother. She said it would be okay for me to call you and you'd help.

[Mother... sigh...] "She did, did she? Okay, I'll see if I can help. What's not working?"

I told you. My internet.

"Okaaay. Do you know if it's your connection to the internet or something on the internet that's not working?"

My internet isn't working.

"Let's try this. When I was down there last, you were running that Windows XP machine in your den. Is that what you're still using?"

I don't know. I don't worry about that stuff. But it's not working.

"Okay. Is the screen on? Can you see the Start menu in the lower left corner?"

No. The computer isn't on. It's in the other room.

[There's grunting, fumbling sounds, something crashes, a few profanities, and a couple more grunts.]

Okay. It's on.

"Is there a round circle with a flag in it in the lower left corner?"

There's a clock. Oh, wait. That's on the other side. Yeah, there's a flag in the corner.

"Okay. Can you click that and drag up until you see a big E with the words 'Internet Explorer' next to it?"

But that's not the internet.

"No, it's not. But it's how we get to the internet, or at least test if it works."

Okay, but I don't like it.

"Just launch it. I want to see if you can get to the internet."

I clicked the E. It's open.

"Can you get to Google?"

I don't want to go to Google right now.

"I'd like you to type 'google.com' into the address bar and then hit Enter to see if we can get out through your internet connection."

It says "Google" and has one of those stupid pictures.

"So, Uncle Jake, it looks like you have the internet. Is that what you need?"

Well, it's not what I want. The internet isn't working.

"We just checked and you are connected to the internet. You went to two different web pages and it's working. Is it your email?"

I don't care about email. It's the internet.

"But Uncle Jake, the internet is working there. We just..."


"C'mon Uncle Jake. No need to yell at me. I'm trying to help. We just connected to Google, and confirmed that you have an internet connection. Your internet is working."

It's not. And I don't know why we're even screwing with this computer. I hate this thing.

"You said the internet isn't working. Are you talking about something other than the computer?"

Of course! If if the computer wasn't working, I'd tell you the bloody computer isn't working. I don't care about the computer. I care about the internet.

"Okay. But to get to the internet, you have to use a device. Are you talking about your phone or your iPad?"

I don't like that phone. It keeps hanging up. And that stupid little tray thing is too small to watch anything good on.

"Are you pressing the red button on your phone after you call people? That's the call-finished button. Only press that when you're done with a call."

I don't care about my phone. I called you because the internet isn't working. I'm using the phone just darned fine now, so don't give me any lip.

"Uncle Jake, give me a minute to figure this out. Your computer works and connects to the internet. You're not talking about your phone or your tablet. Wait a minute. When you said you couldn't watch anything..."

I can't get to my programs. I'm tired. I'm cranky. And I want to watch my programs.

"Are you talking about your TV?"

Well, of course I watch my programs on my TV. Follow along, kid. You're not my brightest nephew, you know. But you're the one who answered the phone, so you'll have to do.

"O...kay. Thanks. I think. Uncle Jake, do you watch your programs on Netflix? Is it Netflix you can't get to?"

I can get to Netflix just fine. Shows up big and red and white on the TV. Can't get to my programs though. The internet doesn't work.

"Uncle Jake, can you tell me what it says on your TV when the internet doesn't work?"

[A groan is heard.] Well, I was in front of the TV when I called you. Now I'm on the other side of the house. Just hold your horses. [More grumbling and thumping] Okay, I'm looking at the TV and it says "login".

"That's probably your problem. You just have to log in."

I did that already.

"Did it give you some sort of error message?"

How am I supposed to remember that? It just worked.

"Well, if it just worked, then you should be able to watch your programs."

Not now, boy. Then.

"Uncle Jake, when did you last log in to your Netflix account on your TV?"

I didn't. When my son set up the TV, he did it for me.

"That wasn't recently, was it? Like in the last few days?"

No, of course not. I've had this TV for a while. That's why I want to watch my programs.

"Okay, so let's log in. Just type in your user name and password."

How am I supposed to know that?

"Do you know your email address?"

Of course I do. I'm not stupid!

"Go ahead and type that into the email field. Do you know your password?"

I don't know. My son set this up.

[Time for a educated guess, knowing Uncle Jake and my cousin...] "Go ahead and type in 'password' into the password field. Click the login button with your remote."

[Grumbling, followed by silence, followed by a series of profanities]

"Uncle Jake? Are you okay?"

Yeah, I got my programs! You know, you're not as bad as everyone in the family says you are. I gotta go now.

"Okay, Uncle Jake. Have a nice night."

Yeah, yeah. [Click]

What lessons can we take from this conversation?

How many of us have experienced similar tech support experiences with our families?

As the Internet winds its way onto more and more devices, we can expect increasing confusion on the part of regular users, whether in the consumer or the work environment. A few days ago, for example, my octogenarian mom asked me if I could move Dropbox to the cloud for her. What she really wanted was her Dropbox files moved to Google Drive, but she thought of Dropbox as the folder on her desktop and Google Drive as "the cloud".

We're already managing too many email addresses and passwords, and the regular users are going to use overly simple identification techniques or rely on others to set things up for them.

As we move into an Internet of Things and ubiquitous-access world, we're going to need to keep an eye on engineering these things so the Uncle Jakes of the world (whether part of our family tree or sitting on the top of our org charts) can be safe, secure, and able to take care of their own identity management.

Tethered Bluetooth devices are one possibility. Better integration with other location-based access systems are another. But no matter what form new solutions take, they will need to not only be easily used and understood, but also rock solid and secure.

And it all needs to happen. Soon.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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