I love technology, and I welcome its involvement in every aspect of my life. The first things I see when I wake up in the morning and the last things I see before I go to bed are various Internet transmissions from my two computers and three phones. I wish I was a cyborg, I participated in the production of the first-ever Google Glass porn, and I have a 50-column TweetDeck open on my desktop at all times. I opt for the term technophile over “Internet addict,” because while an addiction implies destructive overuse, technology’s impact on my life is awesome.
It was my love of tech that convinced me to start my own online media company, LadyBits (which you may have seen here on Refinery29), and why I’m excited to be kicking off The Techtress — R29’s new column on everything tech-related, from fashion and culture to work and sex.
While lots of people talk about “being good at technology” as if it’s some mythical gift you’re born with or without (and one that women are more likely than men to be lacking), I am here to assure you it is not. Being technologically inclined is a learned skill, just like Spanish or parallel parking. And, it wasn’t a skill I came to acquire in a straightforward way. I grew up as an only child in a single-mother household, I only had two options when it came to achieving my technological goals: figure it out myself or forgo all the glorious benefits of using technology — like hours of Super Nintendo playing or browsing the edition of Encyclopedia Britannica I installed on my first computer. In our home, this was true for everything that required a little elbow grease: putting together furniture, fixing broken electronics, and changing the spark plugs in my car. Life may not come with an instruction manual, but almost everything in it does; there's no reason men should be the only ones to crack those booklets open.
What I quickly discovered in my willingness to tinker as a kid was, once I got over the initial frustration of screwing something on backwards or putting the batteries in upside down and managed to finish my project, it felt freaking AWESOME. The sense of completion, the praise from providing a valuable service for others, and getting to use the new thing that I set up prompted a little dopamine release in my brain’s reward circuits that compelled me to try more and more things “girls don’t do.” It was no wonder, I thought, that guys have been grudgingly laying claim to being the Mr. Fix-its of the household and society all these years — they wanted to keep all the glory for themselves!
By telling myself that I was capable of solving techy problems as a woman, I got braver about trying new things and less bothered by failing at them at first. The first time I picked up an Xbox controller, my Halo avatar wound up hopelessly stuck in a corner staring up at the ceiling while the guys in my college dorm picked me off like a fish in a barrel. Then I played it again, and again. Years later, when my colleagues had a post-work gathering that erupted in a spontaneous multiplayer game of Left 4 Dead, I was the only woman in the room who asked for a controller. I will always revel in their surprise and amazement when I slaughtered zombies all the way to the completion of the game, and the respect it earned me in the office.
1. Don’t ask someone to fix it for you — at least not before you’ve tried to fix the problem yourself for a good 30 minutes. The first step to solving a problem is realizing what exactly the problem is, so if you can get beyond “this doesn’t work” and instead frame the issue as “how do I get from point A to point B,” you will know exactly what solution to look for.
2. The problem is usually not you — whatever technology you’re using was most likely built by someone very different from you. If you get stumped, don’t get down on yourself and think it’s because you’re dumb or you “don’t understand technology.” Understand that there is often a huge disconnect between the people who are tasked with building technology and the people they are building it for in terms of language, culture, and education.
3. Use the force of the Internet. Once you know the exact problem, you can search online for possible solutions by inserting “How to ___” and gain access to the hundreds of databases problem-solvers have been building over the past 10 years with questions and answers to just such quandaries. Whatever issue you are coming across, I guarantee that you are not the first person to face it. Find descriptions that most closely match your situation and read on to figure out what solutions worked for whoever posted them. And, don’t be afraid to create a username and post your problem in a new thread in a help forum if it really is unique.
4. Ask for help, not a favor. If you truly have hit a wall and need expert assistance, instead of asking someone else to do it for you, ask them to show you how to do it. Don’t give someone else the total satisfaction of being the tech savior to your damsel in dot-com distress! Ask them to walk you through the process so you can replicate the steps next time the problem occurs.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail, a lot. The first time you tried to parallel park, you probably wound up more perpendicular to the curb instead. That didn’t mean you were destined to be a bad driver, though, you were just new. You could have resorted to being chauffeured the rest of your life, or walking, but my guess is you got back in the driver’s seat and figured out the intricacies of the controls until you got it right. Remember the little successes when taking on new problems, and know that nobody is born with the knowledge of building and using most of the modern technology in our world today — regardless of what Apple claims about its “user-friendliness.”
Technology can be incredibly intimidating, but it can also be extraordinarily empowering if you learn how to wield it to your advantage. Remember that you can start building the problem-solving skills today that will wind up saving you a lot of time, money, and dependency on other people in the future. So dive in, and stay tuned!
Tech Journalist Arikia Millikan — who founded the LadyBits collective in 2013 — has contributed everywhere from Wired to Gizmodo to Vice. So, it's only appropriate that the self-described feminist cyborg has helped launch The Techtress. Here, she's the lady you turn to for smart, personal tech support — whether you're gadget-savvy or not.