My mom is 77. She’s had a digital camera for years and uses it all the time—but she’s never downloaded a single picture from her camera to her computer. Instead, she snaps her photos and then takes the memory card from her camera and puts it in the photo printing machine at Walmart. She has prints made of all her digital photos. Emotionally, it’s important to her that she have paper copies of all her pictures so that she can sort them, stack them, put them in a scrapbook. When I have suggested to her that she might just download her photos onto her computer, review them there, and then only get prints made of a select few (if she has a place in her house she wants to display one, for example), she literally shudders. It is unthinkable, undoable, for her to have photos that only exist digitally. Instead, she only feels easy and right when her photos have been printed, scrapbooked, and stuck on the shelf.
I understand this, as I struggled, when got our first digital camera, to let go of the need to have prints. Once my pragmatic husband pointed out that it made no sense to pay money to get something made that is then stuck into a box or on a shelf, however, I was able to peel back from my impulses. Cleverly, he opened my mood to the topic by pressing an Imperial Stout into my hand at the start of the conversation. When I tried to argue, “But what if I want to show someone my pictures?”, he said, “Take another gulp, and consider this: instead of going down into the basement and pulling a photo album off the shelf, just go to the computer and pull up the pictures you want to share. It’s as easy to sit in front of a computer and look at pictures as it is to sit on the couch and look at pictures. In either place, you can still bore your audience with endless details about places they haven’t been and people they’ve never met. If it isn’t hard copies holding them hostage, then you’ve saved on money, space, and the energy that would go into the creation of that paper and scrapbook and running the print-making machine, not to mention the sheer amount of glue that will be saved for later use, say, for making googly-eyed monsters at Halloween. In fact, there might be enough glue saved from not scrapbooking that you could invite the children to join you in that project this October instead of making them watch your googly-eyed joy longingly from across the enforced ‘Me Time’ buffer of ten feet.” By the time Byron had finished this lengthy prattle, I was eyeballing the bottom of my glass of stout, amenable to anything, particularly a refill. So, we don’t get many prints made, and I use online photo sharing systems for displaying my pictures.
Then there’s my daughter, who takes photos with her iPod Touch, uploading them directly to Instagram, where she plays around with all sorts of effects and messages. Her friends who aren’t on Facebook (technically, they’re all still too young) connect with her there, and they send each other messages and share fantastically-doctored photos on a daily basis. She is particularly proud of a photo of glitter sprinkling across a hand, the same way my mom is proud of her stack of several hundred pictures of flowers in Hawaii.
From my mom to me to my Girl, we all love the power of photographs, but the way each of us is comfortable harnessing that power differs. It’s generational, spanning age groups from older folks who consider big band music “too modern for my ears” to young nippers who think auto-tuned voices are “how people sound when they sing,” and it’s not just about pictures; the generation gap extends into all kinds of technology.
Of course, it’s unfair to stereotype technology use entirely according to age lines, as so much depends on the individual. My mom can’t figure out how to attach anything to an email, yet my husband’s 97-year-old grandfather spent his last years scanning old family photographs, digitizing them so as to preserve them for the future. This same struggles-with-attachment mom, however, formed a permanent one by using Senior Friend Finder (parent company: Penthouse…va-va-va-voom), an online matchmaking service that kept her in boyfriends for a few years before ultimately yielding the desired prize in the form of an 87-year-old husband. For my own 45-year-old self, I’ve hardly ever touched a smartphone, but my friend Kirsten, also in her 40s, spends her days responding to the buzzing vibration of hers. My 12-year-old daughter can add a sepia effect to a picture of her best friend swimming at the lake, but her 41-year-old father is the one who can use Photoshop to add flippers to her earlobes and place that best friend into a lake on Mars.
A sub-category here is Gamers. In cliched fashion, everyone bemoans that today’s kids are addicted to the Wii, the Xbox, their handheld devices–that they don’t read or spend their days outside getting dirty and sunburned. But that’s too easy a complaint, and it ignores the reality of the nine-year-olds I know who will read for three hours at a stretch as recovery from running through the sprinkler wielding swords. It also ignores the reality of the forty-three-year old Call of Duty: Black Ops addict who opens conversations with “I’ve got enough kills to unlock the cherry metal camo for my weapon!” My old lady reaction to this type of peer is to find his “juvenile” technology use jarring and to gasp, “At our age, honey, shouldn’t we be talking about scotch and mortgage payments and our mistresses?”
Despite the frequent disconnect between age and technology use, some broad observations can be made about the generation gap, and they hold true so long as your inquisitive self keeps its magnifying glass snug in its felt-lined case.
For example, if you receive a forward through email, and the subject line reads FW: FW: FW: FW: while the contents are a rant about “This is not a racist email, but all the veterans in my family didn’t go to war under the Mexican flag,” you can pretty much be sure the sender of that email is over 65. Similarly, alarmist emails (anyone remember those dangerous bananas in Guatemala a few years back?) that spur me directly to Snopes.com so that I can send a link and a note of “You really shouldn’t believe this stuff, Auntie Bev” are invariably sent out by senior citizens, as well.
It also seems that people over 65 or 70 are reluctant to join Facebook, and if they do sign up, they rarely post updates or comments. Perhaps they are happy to lurk; perhaps they are confused as to who can see what bits of information; perhaps they recoil from the easy dropping of privacy; perhaps they are uncomfortable with the quick back-and-forthing that constitutes communication; perhaps they can’t remember their log-in information; or perhaps they occasionally visit The Book of Face just to stare at their thumbprint-sized avatars, marveling that their tiny face is out in public, being famous like that, and wasn’t it nice of their grandson to sit down with them that Sunday and help them resize a photo and upload it to this website that they now can’t figure out how to navigate.
Trust me: for each of the possibilities listed above, I have the face of a real person flashing onto my mind’s screen as I type.
Then there are the people in their middle decades of life who adapt to the various new technologies, who can see that smartphones and texting and social media can help them stay organized or track their kids’ whereabouts or revive faded friendships. Part of the Middle Agers’ use of technology, though, is rueful. They download new recipe apps happily…yet they recall, wistfully, the illicit fun of listening in on a party line, of winding a spiral telephone cord around their fingers distractedly during long phone conversations, of using cassette players to record Saturday Night Live skits off the television. They may use their cell phones as their alarm clocks, but they’ll also bend your ear with nostalgic tales of diving boards and AM radio. What’s more, they view the conventions of texting with undeniable disdain, harrumphing about misspellings and the death of apostrophes with a mixture of agony and condescension.
Trust me: I know someone exactly like this, and she wears my pants and drives my car.
A bit younger yet are those in their 20s or late teens, people who adapted technology use deeply into their lives early in their existences. They grew up with gaming systems, DVDs, never using longhand to write an essay. Their earliest years of elementary school were shaped by the movement to “get computers into our classrooms,” and they took it for granted that they could stand outside their houses and have a chat on the cordless telephone, if they liked. They were funneled towards IT jobs—always assured that there was demand for employees in computer programming and Web design.
Trust me: these are today’s college students, and their voices are in my head.
Even younger still
are the kids—
those preteens and elementary-school leg tuggers–
who have had pervasive technologies so deeply woven into their every hour that they have no frame of reference for “before” and “after.” Being able to tell anyone, anywhere in the world, that they are eating a Fudgsicle, as they are eating it…distracting their minds by lobbing birds that are inexplicably angry at pigs that are inexplicably green…writing a research paper without ever visiting a library or touching a periodical…checking the weather by looking at an app instead of the sky…watching, along with thirteen million others, the Harvard Baseball team lip-sync Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”…developing friendships with people they’ve only met once (or never at all)…learning long division on a Smart Board…
all of these things are the new normal for First World kids and, therefore, we might argue, for the future leaders of the planet.
I’m not a fan of complaining about change or pushing back against the tide. At one point, parents and screaming teens alike had their breath taken away by Elvis’ swiveling hips. Attempting to censor or modulate Elvis didn’t make him stop (a job better left to prescription pills and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches). Nor did forcing teenage boys to get haircuts put a damper on The Beatles. If it’s coming, it’s coming, and all we can control is our responses to the nebulous force of It.
Personally, I do okay. I’m on par with my generation, perhaps a bit ahead in a few things and a bit behind in others. Sounds like life to me. I look at my daughter’s relationship with technology and, rather than feeling despair, I trust her judgment. As she told me a few weeks ago, when I noted that she was on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter (among others) and that she should always be thinking of how much she wants to expose herself and how other people might use the information she puts out there, her reply went, “I have all those accounts, but I don’t really use them very much. I’m only 12. It’s not like I have a lot to report.”
Ultimately, I guess I’m keeping up, if occasional limping qualifies as “keeping up,” and I can rely upon that Girl of mine to keep me current. Take, for instance, one of our finest moments of mother/daughter bonding in recent months. It occurred entirely on Facebook as we sat in the same house at the same time. I saw I had a new private message from her, written in response to a joking “So what’ve you been up to since I saw you last?” question I’d sent.
“Here’s what’s been up,” her message read. Then she had attached this:
The same way Elvis’ hips swiped the breath from the chests of WWI vets, this image of my Girl’s first break-up (it had been a low-key 6th grader “going steady” kind of thing, largely facilitated by the fact that they both rode the same bus) caused me to emit an “Oof.” I tried hard not to put myself inside her head during those Adjustment Minutes between 8:55 and 9:06 p.m. It almost worked.
Jinkies. Thanks to technology, I was witness to my first baby’s first time getting dumped.
Naturally, because I’m Old School, I immediately walked to her room for some face-to-face and said, “So, I just saw your message about you and Now-Ex-Boyfriend. How are you doing with that?”
“Fine. It’s not a big deal.” She wasn’t lying. At no point during the year has it been a big deal; more than anything, it was like these two agreed to “date” so that they didn’t have to deal with the pressures to “date.”
“So you’re all right?”
“Totally. Right now, I’m just trying to figure out right now who sings this new song.”
Okay then. I let it rest–while still shaking my head a little at learning of my daughter’s love life on Facebook from a screenshot taken on her iPod.
Apparently, this is how we’ll continue to roll. Two weeks later, I got a FB message from her, asking: “Can I… Or could I? I don’t know which one ^. Start shaving my legs sometime soon?”
You better believe I hit reply and then we hit the Walgreen’s.
An hour later, we sat together on the edge of the tub, lathered up our legs with shaving cream, and practiced not cutting ourselves with razors. We talked about soccer and the heat and how dirty her feet were. We talked about armpit hair and when I started shaving, way back nearly thirty-five years ago. We wondered when Daddy had started using a brush to apply his lather. We speculated about when Paco will start being hairy.
The thing is
and here’s the thing:
the best moments of life
are charged without a cord
and happen in real time
with nary a pixel in sight.
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