20 Years of ‘Help Me!’ Tech Questions

This week marks the 20th anniversary of what is now known as “Tech Tip,” the technology-based help column I write for The Times. The current column appears five days a week in the Personal Technology section online and in print on Thursdays, but it all grew out of a weekly item called “Q & A” that first appeared on Feb. 26, 1998, in a new Times section called “Circuits.”

“Circuits” focused on the then-emerging world of the web and “anything with a chip in it.” And “Q & A” was dedicated to answering questions about the technology, devices and apps in our lives. (For a taste, the very first piece I wrote was about why the computer input device is called a mouse.)

“Circuits” shorted out as a separate weekly section in 2005 but readers needing tech advice did not, so as the world of consumer technology expanded into everyday life, and culture and society at large, “Q & A” lived on, and was rebooted as Tech Tip in 2015.

Today I still get Windows and Mac questions, but many more are about Android and iOS. And as the technology available to people in their daily lives has proliferated, so has the range of interest, including readers asking about hardware, software, cameras, gadgets, social media and getting around online.

So what makes a question worthy of a public answer? For starters, I look for queries that have the most appeal to the general user, such as how to stop loud video clips from automatically blasting in your browser. I also go for questions that address current events, like dealing with social-media privacy or the latest security concern — issues that in the end may touch on domestic tranquillity or keeping personal tech inoculated against hacks and viruses for the common good. I get an average of 30 questions a month and they come from readers around the world of all age groups. But no matter who’s doing the asking, I always try to answer in the simplest nontechnical language possible.

Once I choose a question, I begin researching. I burrow into support databases, user manuals and forums to educate myself. When I can, I try out my answers on the collection of gear I use for testing. My patient spouse will often come home to find me with three different laptops lined up on the kitchen counter. (I make a mess but she gets free tech support.)

Visuals are a big part of the modern online experience — and help explain certain things — so I also now illustrate each column with my own photographs and screenshots as I create the web articles. (I wrote and illustrated consumer tech manuals for Pogue Press and O’Reilly Media for 10 years, so I know my way around Adobe Photoshop.) If I don’t have the necessary widget, I bug product managers or Pedro Rafael Rosado, my co-host on our self-produced Pop Tech Jam podcast about pop culture and tech.

Writing about such a wide variety of hardware and software helps me from getting bored. I’m a Generation X kid with a childhood that was half Air Force brat and half small-town Indiana, so I was always looking for ways to entertain myself — often with science, technology and comic books. “WarGames” arrived in theaters in 1983 when I was in high school and made computers seem fun, accessible and powerful. (What ’80s child nerd hasn’t been shooed away from the demo computer by a Radio Shack manager for putting obnoxious words on the screen with a few lines of BASIC?)

After two decades and thousands of questions, I continue to enjoy writing “Tech Tip” because I, too, am an end user. I get peevish when software crashes or hardware conks out. If someone writes into “Tech Tip” with a question asking why something is confusing or isn’t right, I want to solve that mystery. I think Douglas Adams, notably in “The Salmon of Doubt,” said it best: “We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/27/insider/tech-tip-technology-help.html by J. D. BIERSDORFER