Journal: News & Comment

Friday, June 06, 2003
# 8:28:00 AM:

Age and wisdom

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When you're young, old people are incomprehensible (and, I'm sure, vice versa): why do they move so slowly sometimes, why are they so often set in their ways, why don't thet get it?

Bill (whose "new" company just turned three years old—Google is only five) is, like me, no longer all that young. He wrote about his mom's new high-speed Internet access, and it made me think about technology and the older people in my family.

My in-laws had almost never used a personal computer when they bought an iMac with my assistance in the summer of 2000. Before that, I had loaned them one of my older Macs, and they were even unfamiliar with how a mouse works. Today, they remain in the let-me-write-down-the-exact-steps phase with most tasks and applications. Still, they saw the benefits of high-speed Internet within months of their purchase and got it as soon as it was available in their neighbourhood, and they're online all the time.

Yet they're far from technophobic—it just takes longer to get used to some things as you age. Or maybe not—maybe it depends on what you know already. I realized that fully when I helped my father-in-law, who has been a dentist for decades, set up a presentation about dental technology. He was flying through terminology, evaluating the smallest details about complicated devices whose very purpose I could barely understand, other than that they sure looked neat. I'd certainly rather have him wielding a dental laser than me.

My dad, on the other hand, has been a computer geek way longer than I have. He has at least seven computers running in his little den (which often smells of solder) at any time, not to mention various printers and other electronic devices. In the 1970s, he brought me down to check out the mainframe computers on which he was learning FORTRAN programming, and I tried playing Wumpus without much success while he ran his processing jobs. In the early '80s he hand-built an interface and motor system between his Apple II and his Celestron telescope, so that he could program where it would point in the sky, and that was unusual enough at the time that it got him on the cover of our community newspaper.

He's also the kind of guy who knows exactly which wires in a high-voltage circuit you can touch safely without killing yourself, which is always an impressive skill. Yet he's never bothered to learn HTML, something I use every day and know pretty well. (I'm glad there's finally something I'm better at than he is.)

My mom intentionally avoids online time-sinks like eBay, but she's still the fastest typist I know. I think I recall her telling me that, back in the days of mechanical typing tests, she was faster than the machine could record. She has been frustrated over the years at why computers, which are so fast, frequently can't keep up with her fingers. I trundle along at 40-60 words per minute because I never learned to touch-type properly: I use all my fingers, but in a haphazard way that has my right hand drifting all over the keyboard and my left rarely reaching further right than the F key.

But these are all toy techniques anyway, perhaps glorified versions of knowing the button combinations to execute a complicate move in one of those virtual fighting games. Understanding life isn't about knowing technology, though it's interesting how often truly wise people also try to keep up, because they want to stay involved in the world, and technology is a big part of how many of us live today.


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