Courtesy of Morguefile

No, not that kind of apple. I am referring to, of course, the store that houses everything i and Mac. I had to go there yesterday to buy a new keyboard and mouse for my 7-year-oldish Mac, which is still running strong, although slow. While I use my iPhone and iPad more often than my desktop, I do like to write (as in long emails and this blog) using the computer and a full keyboard.

This wasn’t my first trip to the Apple Store, and I always marvel at the crowd and the exceptional customer service, especially the ease of check-out. Yesterday was no exception on either count. The store was packed to capacity at noon on a Friday. I was approached immediately, directed to the section where the keyboards and mouses (mice?) were kept, and told that someone would be with me shortly.

As promised, very quickly, a young man appeared by my side. He was pleasant, friendly, and very helpful. And what follows is not a complaint about him or the store, but rather an eye-opening observation on my part.

We started the conversation about my keyboard needs.

Clerk (I bet they don’t call them clerks, though, I bet they call them “sales associates”): What kind of Mac do you have? Is it a tower, an all-in-one…? This question was accompanied by hand gestures that showed me (apparently) the difference between the two, and the question was asked in a way that indicated that I may not know the difference.

Me: All-in-one

Clerk: Okay. Now, the critical thing is going to be whether your computer has Bluetooth. (This was a statement not a question and said in a way that indicated he believed I probably thought Bluetooth was a dental accessory.)

Me: (Said without hesitation) Yes. My computer has Bluetooth.

Clerk: (Looking relieved and surprised pauses to muster the next question, which is framed in the way and with the same tension as the increasingly difficult questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? where the ratio of expectation of failure to know the answer rises in direct proportion to the number of questions asked.) Now, the really tricky thing is going to be knowing what operating system you’re running…(this question trailed off at the end as if all hope was lost).

Me: (Without hesitation) Leopard or Snow Leopard–one of those spotted cats.

Clerk: (Looking amazed and confused). Oh, well, good. Then I can show you which of these accessories will work with your current system.

After I made my choices and we were waiting for someone to bring the clerk one of those portable check-out devices they use, we chatted about the crowd in the store and about his technology preferences. He then actually took me over to one of the store computers and showed me what I would have to do to set up my new wireless mouse (difficulty level of zero). He is an asset to his employer, and I left feeling like I had been well taken care of and that I was an important customer in the day-in-the-life of the Apple Store.

But I also left feeling something else–I have to wonder where the obvious assumption that I would not know much about my computer came from? Do the clerks size up a customer based on age? Or gender? Or both? Or are they instructed to work from the least common denominator for all customers? I guess my initial thought was that a young, male clerk might assume that an “older” woman may be sketchy on the details. And maybe that happens a lot. I’m no computer expert, but I do know the features of my computer, and since I’m the one that upgrades the operating system as needed, I know that, too. But maybe they often encounter people–of all ages and genders–that don’t know the specifics or even the basics and simply want to fix a problem.

When we talk about the digital divide in libraries, we mostly talk about the haves and have nots and access and skills to use the internet. Yesterday’s experience made me think about the digital divide between the knows and the knows nots with regard to the technical aspects of the technology we all take for granted. And how much of this divide is age-based?

I remember being appalled when the book The Facebook Guide for People Over 50 came across my desk for cataloging. Seriously? We need a special guide? And why 50? This, too, points to an assumption that “older” adults are not comfortable with the internet or new technology. Is that a fair assumption?

I guess my preference would be to begin a conversation with the assumption that the knowledge base on either side is fairly equal. If it quickly becomes apparent that it is not, then that’s a different story. No one should be made to feel inadequate because they don’t know much about the technology they use. But neither should the default judgment be that knowledge or comfort or skill is lacking.

So, that is my observation in a nutshell. It was hard not to notice that an assumption had been made about my knowledge base. Just as it was hard not to notice the new, sleek, shiny computers. Instead of a new keyboard and mouse, I wish I had walked away with one of those.