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In November 2007, I was one of two winners of The Guardian's Mary Stott Competition, the prize for which was to be editor of Guardian Women for a week. This included writing the article below and editing/annotating the one on the next page. Hyperlinks were not included in the published article. Both articles were based on ideas I submitted in my entry to the competition.
The Guardian Friday 13 June 2008
(this article was also published in The Lady on 26 August 2008, re-titled Cyber Champions)
Where are all the older female geeks?
Since starting her blog, Natalie d'Arbeloff has found that she is not the only older woman in the cybervillage. But they are still in the minority. Come on, she says, what are you waiting for?
If you are of a certain age, the generation that passed the half-century a while back, and you don't fancy spending your rapidly dwindling time watching television, playing bingo or doing any of the other things that oldies are expected to enjoy, why aren't you sitting in front of a computer wasting your time in a creative way, like me? Maybe you are. I'm a very enthusiastic computer geek myself, and I know I'm not the only one in the village - but it would be nice if there were a whole army of us, stirring up cyberspace with the wisdom, grumpiness, sexiness and devil-may-care bolshiness that our long life-experience has awarded us.
A report last year, which analysed Britain's media consumption patterns, revealed that a quarter of all internet users are over 50, but that 80% of internet surfers over 65 are men. Another report found that older people and those on lower incomes felt alienated from digital life, and the older groups were especially frustrated by the lack of clarity in the information given to them about technologies. But there are older women out there who are finding a space for themselves online. Penelope Farmer (or Granny P on her blog, Rockpool in the Kitchen), author of, among other things, the children's book Charlotte Sometimes, lives in Lanzarote."I blog because I'm a writer and it's what I do - to be read not least - and because in a kind of exile it's a means of making and keeping friends," she says. She writes about "life as an ageing expat on a Canarian island with goats, chickens and a mad professor. About ageing, grief, love, life. Not a geek me, just a long-term show-off. Duck to water, really."
My own cyber journey began in 2001, when I bought my first computer and was instantly, and incurably, hooked. I took a short course at a local IT centre, as an introduction to turning the computer on and off and basic word processing, but I wasn't interested in the finer points of spreadsheets. What I wanted was the fun stuff: digital graphics, making movies and music. So I got the manuals and the software and took a couple of evening classes, but mainly sat alone with my Mac, getting to know it.
I wanted to build a website as a showcase for my work, and gradually it became one of those DIY projects that never end. That's the beauty of the digital world: you don't have to commit. I used Dreamweaver software, which lets you design a website without having to learn HTML. It wasn't as easy as falling off a log - more like trying to assemble a flat-pack log cabin from instructions in Chinese - but eventually I got it. I understood the lingo and could even speak it. My website went out there, joining the millions of others in cyberspace jostling for attention.
It was when I started seriously surfing that I discovered blogs, and in my many voyages exploring the teeming cyber ocean, I found some quiet islands inhabited by really good writers, artists, observers and original thinkers who were blogging, some on a daily basis.
I wanted to be part of that community, and so I added a new section to my website: Blaugustine, the blog of Augustine, my cartoon alter ego. And presto, I became a blogger.
Everybody knows about blogs now, but eight years ago, when I first heard the word, friends would ask: what's a blog? My blog is about what I'm working on or what I'm wondering about, if it seems as if it might be of interest to others. I upload satirical or philosophical comic strips, paintings, photos, videos and an ongoing illustrated autobiography.
A webcomic I started posting two years ago, The God Interviews, is now a book because of the enthusiastic comments people made about it on my blog. Blaugustine was five years old in April this year and I can't imagine ever giving her up.
Being a geek - or as I prefer it, a compulsively creative geek - you must take control of the technology. Feel the fear but do it anyway, over and over again, until the machine no longer rules: you are the boss and that sleek, snooty plastic box and all its software exists only to serve you, not vice versa. I read computer manuals for pleasure and adore following instructions, especially if they are incomprehensible and I can, by sheer stubborness, decode them. If something doesn't work I rarely bang my head against the desk and reach for the 0845 number. Instead, I reach for the manuals, and calmly re-read every chapter that might apply. If the manuals don't have the solution, I start surfing: all the answers are out there. (Once I Googled 'What is the meaning of life?' and there were thousands of answers, which I intend to investigate one day, if I have time.) Unless it is the server's fault, which it often is, I can usually solve a technical hitch by myself. Do not accept the common perception that this is impossible for a female of your generation.
Fran, 70, from Redondo Beach, California, whose blog is called Sacred Ordinary, has been a computer user since 1990. "I joined a local users' group and have learned so many new things, mostly from self-professed geeks," she says. "I blog because I find it a form of community and am obsessed with daily writing. It helps me separate what is important, versus the same old stuff I do every day. I actually learn more about the world through the research I do in order to post a blog entry. Also, down deep, part of me doesn't believe I actually have a life. I prove to myself with a blog that I do indeed have a life - a rich and full one."
Mature printmaker Marja-Leena Rathje (marja-leena-rathje) in Vancouver says: "I started using a computer in 1998 as one tool for my art-making. My Finnish roots became of greater interest in recent years with so much new material appearing on the internet - history, ethnology, archaeology. The blog is a place to put up my work, to write about printmaking and other artists, a way to store all the fascinating information that I have gathered over the years and still keep finding."
I met these and many other creative people online, and occasionally in the flesh, thanks to blogging. If you spend much of your time on your own, the internet - and especially blogging - opens a window to the outside world and, if you so choose, allows others to look into your world. The interaction, the mutual support, is stimulating and encouraging.
One of the long-established bloggers I first met virtually, who then became a close friend in the real world, is the writer Beth Adams (a youngster at 50). Her biography of the controversial gay bishop Gene Robinson was published last year and her blog (the Cassandra Pages) is a treasury of finely crafted observations of the world around her. She has an artist's eye for the telling detail, and an ear for dialogue to rival some of our best playwrights. Another blog-pal I've actually had a drink with in my local pub, when she was visiting London last year, is Tamar from Philadelphia, whose blog is called Mining Nuggets. She is a 59-year-old teacher and counsellor who writes movingly and honestly about her inner and outer life, and about politics, currently as an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama.
"I have made some wonderful friends through blogging who are as important to me as those I have in the real world," she says. Rain, whose blog is called Rainy Day Thought, is the pseudonym of an outspoken 60-ish woman who lives on a farm in America's Pacific Northwest, though she bears no resemblance to the stereotypical farmer's wife.
"After reading a newspaper article about a blogger in a town near our farm, I started a blog, but I didn't do much with it until I came across other bloggers whose writing inspired me," she says. "Blogging for me is about sharing my ideas with others. My interests are creativity, dreams, relationships, politics, photography, ageing, country living and spirituality."
I'm a blog missionary: I try to get everyone to believe in blog. You don't have to be a geek to be a blogger, or a blogger to be a geek. So why aren't more older women taking advantage of all that digital technology and the internet offer us, not only as a source of information and entertainment but as a stimulating creative medium in its own right?
Hewlett Packard is conducting a campaign, Generation Nation, to find out what people want from technology. Well, I can tell them: don't just give us cake, let's have the bread too. The gimmicks and gadgets are great, but we oldies don't need so many of them. Lower the prices, raise the standard, simplify the language. And don't assume that innovation comes only from the young: we, the compulsive creative oldie female, and male, geeks are out there too.