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CUTTING-EDGE CAREERS

A Sure Cure for Cyber-Phobia

Even technology resisters realize that a basic familiarity with computers is becoming a crucial job and social skill.

February 26, 1996|CAROL SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If all the hype about the Information Superhighway makes you want to take the next exit off it, you may be one of a growing subpopulation--people who are cyber-phobic.

Many people are techno-phobic to some degree. Maybe you never figured out how to program your VCR or your microwave. Perhaps you still think of surfing as something you do on water.

Take Glen Holden, former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica and an admitted former cyber-phobe. Holden, currently chief executive of Holden Co., a group of financial companies, found computers daunting but knew he had to learn how to use one.

"As time goes by in this technical age, you can become obsolete very quickly," he said. "Frankly, I felt I was becoming obsolete."

So in December Holden enrolled in a five-day technology retreat for cyber-phobic and techno-illiterate executives run by CEO Institutes, a New York-based executive training firm, and Computer Associates, a New York-based software company.

At the retreat, which the two companies have been running nationwide since 1993, each executive is assigned a personal technology advisor, then given a color notebook computer loaded with software and equipped with a portable printer.

For the next few days, the executives are immersed in computers. The executives meet with panels of other chief executives and chief information officers to discuss how information technology is changing the way they do business.

They also attend hands-on workshops teaching the fundamentals of e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets and the Internet.

Although their technology advisors are always standing by, the participants do all the computer work themselves so that they understand firsthand how the keyboard, screen and computer programs look and feel.

"It's like I stepped through a door to a new world," Holden said.

The camp didn't make him an expert in computers, but it did make him more comfortable around them.

"Compared to the lack of information I had before and based on the timidity I had, I just feel like I'm doing great," he said.

And being able to learn with people he considers his peers made a big difference. "Everybody else was almost as bad as I was and a few were even worse."

Holden was among the 30% to 40% of the population who are technology "resisters," said Michelle Weil, a clinical psychologist based in Orange who has been studying techno-phobia for the last decade. "They do not like technology at all. They feel very intimidated by it, nervous, dumb and overwhelmed."

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And yet having a basic familiarity with the latest technologies is becoming a crucial job and social skill. "At any cocktail party you go to, every conversation ends with 'dot com,' " said Dorothy Ollie, spokeswoman for MCI Communications Corp.

The workplace is full of technology resisters who can't admit to anyone how they feel, Weil said. They are afraid to use the computers at work for fear of something going wrong. And they're afraid to ask for help for fear of showing their ignorance.

"A lot of people are afraid to try new technology," agreed Debra Caplan, a spokeswoman for MCI. Caplan was part of a 50-city road trip last year sponsored by MCI in which a "cyber-rig," an 18-wheel truck outfitted with the latest in communications technology, went to schools and businesses to let people experiment with the technology. "But if you sit down and show them how easy it is, then they are more apt to pick it up and try it for themselves."

But there is hope, even if you're among the most severe resisters, Weil said. The first step in overcoming cyber-phobia is to admit you're bashful with computers.

"If you don't let on, you can't get help," said Weil, co-founder of Byte Back Technology Consulting Service, which helps people cope with and use technology.

The next step is to identify someone to help you.

Many community colleges and adult education centers offer classes to help people familiarize themselves with computers and software. Looking through course catalogs or asking around at computer stores can be a good way to find a class to take.

Many people, however, are less intimidated if they take a more informal approach, Weil said.

Most people know someone who understands computers, whether it's the child of a friend, someone at work, or a person in their church, Weil said. Choose someone you know and trust and then ask them to show you something on a computer that would make your life easier.

"Tell the person not to use any jargon," she said. And make sure that after demonstrating something to you, the person lets you try it.

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Once you get comfortable with one task, it's much easier to tackle the next, Weil said. "You can apply what you've just learned to another form of technology."

Having the opportunity to play with new technology may be crucial to becoming cyber-confident, but it also helps to remember you're in charge of the technology --it's not in charge of you.

Focus on learning whatever will be helpful in your job or for your personal life, and don't worry about trying to learn everything.

"Remember, there's always going to be more technology than any one of us could ever want or need," Weil said. "Don't buy into the hype."

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