Science fiction luminary and activist Cory Doctorow had many moments of brilliance during his visit to the Cronkite School last month (catch a video of the event here!). During his discussion of hacking, activism and cyber-narratives, he spoke about the life of Aaron Swartz and issues of online accessibility. Doctorow outlined some generational divides between internet users and why certain age groups have seemingly more access than others. He briefly mentioned that his mother learned to use Skype to communicate with him after he moved across the Atlantic; he said, “We like to think that old people are stupid and resistant to change…when, really, my mother just has better things to do with her remaining years on this earth than look at progress bars.”
This was the first time I had ever heard anyone present such a frank and compassionate viewpoint when discussing the unique relationship between older generations and new technologies. I grew up living with my mother and my grandparents, frequently making use of film cameras, a very large record player, and this thing. However, we also had the more modern equivalents: digital cameras and recorders, an HD television, iPods, and several computers. Of course, the learning curve was a bit steeper for my grandparents than for my mother and me, but all of us quickly learned how each of these technologies was best suited for us; I check Facebook and write papers, my mother researches renal physiology and buys artwork on Ebay, and my grandmother checks her e-mail and plays Scrabble with her friends in Tuscon.
But our differing relationships to technology run much deeper than the applications we use on our computers. Because I grew up engulfed in a swelling sea of technological advancements, I often find myself taking for granted the same pieces of technology that my grandmother is utterly astounded by. Things as simple as picture messaging (even on our obsolete flip phones, without Snapchat or Instagram) amaze my grandma. She isn’t stupid. She is just, well, old. And with these technologies exponentially expanding, even younger people cannot constantly keep up. So how can we expect someone like my grandma to know things like Siri even exist, let alone how to use them correctly or effectively?
Yet, we still find ourselves scoffing at elderly people with their landline phones and dial-up internet. It is somehow unacceptable for old generations to be ignorant of new technology, but when we attempt to teach our grandparents how to use more modern tools, their inability to learn quickly and understand the applications of this knowledge frustrates us. But it is also frustrating to elderly people, and they are left feeling childish, inadequate, and far outside the digital reality in which most younger people reside. Technology often serves to distance us from one another, not bring us closer, like common rhetoric surrounding the internet suggests.
Perhaps young people, myself included, ought to reevaluate our annoyance with old people and technology. Instead of blaming my grandmother for her irritating chides about texting too much, I ought to learn from – for example – her absolute awe over Skype. Everything about it simultaneously confuses and excites her; when I am irritated by the poor wi-fi connection, she is beaming at even the remote possibility of seeing her granddaughter speaking to her from 300 miles away. Every time we video chat, she stares at my glowing, pixelated face, completely astounded that we have the technology to do this. “I never would have thought this would be possible. In my life…or ever.” She appreciates the beauty and the complexity of tools that I regard as commonplace.
Though I roll my eyes at her inability to use a trackpad and her excessive use of CAPS LOCK (a common geriatric trend), I try to remind myself that my grandmother most definitely has better ways of spending her remaining years than looking at progress bars, as Cory Doctorow said. But, now that she knows how to send me picture messages from her phone, I get daily updates about her new dog, Willie Nelson (Yes. Actually. See photo for proof.). Thank you, Nanee.
Also, in case you haven’t seen this video, you’ll understand the title much better.