Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Practical Geezerometry

It's well understood that human beings endowed with the epochal and geographical good fortune to go through their lives on a fast arc of percieved progress and economic mobility make precisely two imprints of the technological universe. The first one occurs during those formative years of early childhood, consisting of the suite of toys, family cultural accoutrements, and oppressive "labor saving" devices that enslaved Mom and Dad. We savor these doodads and doohickii with the sweet tang of nostalgia (oh, how we gathered around the radio, as Mother flattened shirts in the background with her electric iron), and if you ever wondered why we gradually gentrifying Gen Xers are such insufferable little shits, it's because we still fantasize about those halcyon days of sitting around in our Underoos and flipping the score on the Atari Pac Man (bramp! bramp! bramp!) just like our lying young peers used to claim. We are the television-gorged children that an older generation realized could actually be consumers, and our fondest memories are of the marketing pitches for those endless acres of plastic or sugarized crap we somehow lived off of.

The second lasting impression of the gadgetary zeitgeist occurs when you are old enough to buy all this cool stuff on your own, and you fill your own space accordingly, before you have children to suck up your disposable income. If you take the internet as an indicator, you'll note that any identifiable generation of its communication technology has a dedicated age group of users, spread out like a neat bell-shaped curve. At a premature 36, I'm a painfully typical blogger, demographically speaking, but I text-message only with great reluctance. My parents, meanwhile, are only recently seeing any value whatsoever to this electronic mail dealie. (And no, don't ask me why your elderly grandmother is on Facebook. Generational trendwatching isn't even a science, never mind an exact one. It's bullshit all the way down.)

As with youth, we often try to unconvincingly stretch out our technological coolness. Sometimes it's a valid pursuit: for example, I don't know anyone who has an iPod (or equivalent) that doesn't love it, and those of us who use them are always happy when the computers go faster. But there does eventually come a point where we fail to be impressed with technical improvements, and that's precisely where geezerhood starts. And sometimes that's valid too. After all, how many times can Bill Gates fool us with a new version of the dancing fucking paper clip and other auto-formatting? (But then again, a geezer would say that!) It goes from there to caviling about the newfangled gimcracks the kids are bonding with, whatever they do exactly, and, if circumstances demand that we late-adopt the silly thingamabobs ourselves ("here's your Blackberry, Keifus") we do so with voluble unwillingness and feigned incapability (and occasionally secret eagerness). In advanced cases, we simply opt out of those improvements altogether, and no doubt some of you are dialing up now (twEEET-ksh-kshhhhhhhh) to read this, and it's got you pissing and moaning about the adequacy of good old WordPerfect to anyone who is unfortunate enough to listen. Yellow on blue was a superior viewing scheme, I'm telling you.

And really, you'd think some things should have basically peaked, with changes about as ornamental and useless as the constant updates afflicting toothbrush and razor technology. I was surprised recently, as I went to replace my old telephone, that I didn't recognize the things they were selling. I mean, advance the landline interface? Why would anyone bother? Well, they have developed phone systems that operate wirelessly through the house from that single pedestal, using only one jack, and obviating the need to run endless filaments through your home. (I still have a little crimper tool that I bought in the nineties to cleverly wire internet into my bedroom. Obsolete! As a matter of fact, the phone company took out the old copper landline coming down from the pole, no doubt to recover miniscule costs, when they installed the fiber, but I still have a phone jack running from the modem.) Modular handsets are not exactly an improvement that people couldn't have worked in earlier, and I suppose it's too bad that it wasn't done in time to be really innovative and useful. Maybe they sat on it too long. Needless to say, they all work like shit. Nothing like Mom's old rotary dial, let me tell you.

If you happen to be a traveling geezer, there is some solace for you in the places you stay. It's interesting to me that the hotel room interface is upgraded significantly less often than home, office, or coffee shop technology. You don't find HBO advertised too often on the sign anymore (at least not in the city), but there are plenty of hotels with horrible wired-in internet service, which they feel the need to embarrassingly advertise as productivity enhancer. And you know, in my day, I could get wireless service in any Starbucks, for free. If you're evil enough to charge $12.95 for this non-service on top of the $300 stay, then you deserve the flop sweat I'm going to soak into your sheets. (I am accessing the internet through my Blackberry now, and no doubt a self-respecting teenager would be aghast at this cobbled-together access, having already thumbed the age-appropriate version of this nonsense into a pithy 23-character tweet.) It's only in the last year or two that many of the residences have clumsily retrofitted above-desk electrical outlets to drive your business electronics. You can still find big touch-tone phones with complicated and expensive instructions on dialing out (and at which you can still dial 'O' for a wakeup call), and fat CRT televisions with a tenth of the useful services that digital subscribers have been enjoying for ten years outside of the bubble, with the occasional NES-vintage video gaming systems as a dubious bonus for us ever-aging youth. Nostalgia is no fun when it's forced on you. It just makes you feel old.

This has all got me very depressed. I'm going to snuff the candle, and make a point to go off and read a book. Are the kids still doing that these days?

[Note: Updated some of the less-pleasing typography]


artandsoul said...

I go back and forth between regular books and my Kindle.

Love them both.

But, I'm not a kid so I feel pretty good about paradoxes - they just don't bother me any more. :)

switters said...

When did we all get old?

I've stayed in a lot of motels this past Spring, and I hear ya. Beautiful observations. But my favorite stay, if you could call it that, was at the Burr Oak Motel in Algona.

Gen-Xers, I think, have seen the most spectacular advance of human innovation, such that it is (you know where I stand on this), in history. I suspect Y will renege on us.

Speaking of which, when I went off to school to New York City at 18 years of age, I had books, music paper, and some clothes. When my young friend, who just graduated law school, moved into my neighborhood, he wouldn't stay at the house until the Direct TV was installed.

I.e., the entitlement of each generation of our youth (including yours and mine) will ultimately be our downfall, I think.

Great post.

Keifus said...

They used to gauge it by transportation. I recall that my great-grandmother went through horse-and-buggy days up through to routine air travel, as my parents liked to announce breathlessly. The old woman was not notably impressed with it all, however. (One would have hoped that easy communication would have contracted the human footprint a little more.)

At 18, off to RPI, they expected us freshman to buy good scientific calculators, which was a handy thing. I was pleased that I could enter some basic algebra into mine (had Newton's method on-my fingertips). At that time, there were a rare expensive few calculators that could talk to each other across the room. It was a big deal, and the professors treated them with great suspicion (taking a policy similar to Prof. Opteryx's).

twif said...

i spend so damn much time at a computer for work, i tend to avoid it at home. i'm not much a tech gadget guy, mostly because of stubborness. held out on the GPS unit and iPod due to sheer contrainess. have 'em now and love 'em both. still don't text message though (cause, well, i have a phone) and will only use a blackberry if my corporate overlords force one of those things on me.

Keifus said...

The corporate blackberry is evil, but indeed pretty handy sometimes. Especially in meetings. I was perplexed by a text I got on it once--indistinguishable from email.