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A Baby Boomer at the Filling Station



I remember the moment when I realized that learning by osmosis was supposedly afoot. I was at a filling station.

You may have had the same experience years ago. It seemed that a new kind of pumping equipment had been installed overnight that allowed customers to use their credit cards. A little diagram showing where the swipe strip would go was clear enough, and so I inserted my card correctly. Then an instruction appeared on the screen: “Enter five-digit zip code.”

I am proud to say that I thought this through and realized that this was a request for the PO box zip code where my credit card bill is delivered, not my home zip code. I punched it in. Nothing happened. Maybe my deduction was incorrect. I punched in the zip code of my residence. Again, nothing.

I was afraid that my electronic field had sabotaged the technology. This happens a lot.

The sun sets on the digital age?

How did I figure out what to do to get gas? I forget. Maybe another customer helped; maybe osmosis did kick in. Somehow I found the right button.

What I actually needed, though, was further instruction like this: “After you type in the zip code where you receive mail, push the ‘Enter’ button. I know it isn’t labeled, honey, but it’s the green button on the right side below the screen. And from now on, every time you have to act on something, just remember to finish up with “Send,” “Call,” “Talk,” “Enter,” or press something green. That should work.”

The truth is that there were probably many people–young tech-adept people who could also drive–who never missed a beat. However, I was clearly behind in deploying a new, digitally-driven logic. This must be due in part to having devoted most of my intellectual life to writing. Words mean everything to me, and I am as disabled by their absence in instruction as by inaccurate use. People like me are not writing manuals or developing computer screens.

But there is more than this to my sense of being technologically impaired.

Because I am a writer, I have been through generations of Microsoft software and currently work with Office Home and Student. I was perfectly happy with the earlier version, but the day came when an oddly worded message appeared on my screen saying that it could no longer function. I am suspicious. Does Microsoft embed obsolescence after a certain number of key strokes? Are all these software manufacturers doing this? I am referring to a forced upgrade, and I know of one clear example.

Sister Kate is a certified consultant in time and billing software, and a certain brand refuses to provide support for an older version as soon as it has a new one ready. This drives clients crazy. The strategy compels them to spend sometimes several thousand dollars for the new version that is more complicated than the previous one, and it often contains flaws. These are not corrected because the company is focused on developing new software, not correcting the old. This is not a customer-friendly approach, but it makes money.

I have had a similar experience with increasingly complicated Microsoft software. It now incorporates so many options that an upgrade could reasonably involve continuing education at the community college. New software loads the keyboard, screen, and mouse with so many functions sensitive to the slightest movement that a sneeze could instantly translate a manuscript into Sanskrit.

The tool bar also grows steadily more intrusive. It’s like there is an obnoxious entity usurping skills long cultivated. “Get out of my face!” I mutter. “I know how to do this.” All the while I know that the situation is only going to get worse as in more complicated, more confusing, and less helpful. Spell check was good. They could have stopped there.

This brings me to a vital point that should be of concern to the computer industry. I have a computer because I write, and I have Internet service for research and distribution. If I didn’t write, would I need one or both? Would I invest hundreds of dollars in equipment and service to be able to email my relatives? Probably not after a certain point.

I am on the leading edge of the baby boomers, that huge population moving through American culture like a pig through a python, as the comparison goes. There are a whole lot of us–79 million in the beginning–and how we relate to the world of computer technology should probably be of interest to the industry.

What is happening is that we start giving up on computers for the very reasons I have illustrated above. You may have had a job that required you to be adept; however, when you retire the technology and the software continue to advance, leaving in the dust anyone who does not stay online and continue to progress in tandem.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that 44% of Americans age 65 and older do not use the Internet. Within that 44% polled, 32% responded that usability was the issue. They found it too difficult or frustrating, they didn’t know how, or they were physically unable for some reason. This is up from 20% in 2010. That’s a radical drop-off.

Every new development in technology seems to have the shelf life of a ripe tomato, and they are coming in at warp speed. “That is so last week,” is the joke about whatever you have, and the impossibility of keeping up will cause more older people to drop out. This means that the presumptive learning by osmosis won’t be happening. More and more people will be losing access to all the information and all the transactional functions the computer and the Internet enable.

The story was that the digital age would facilitate communication and the sharing of information worldwide. However, the statistics seem to suggest that it will, to the contrary, end up isolating a very large and rapidly growing segment of the population–the elderly. And don’t forget that the US Postal Service seems to be heading toward bankruptcy and telephone land lines toward extinction. Having trouble breathing yet?

Another interesting statistic is that Americans over 65 are on average watching television about 50 hours per week. That’s more than seven hours a day. If we are not to become captive in our own homes, we need to turn the TV off for a few hours and engage with the digital world in new ways.

This reminds me of the note the young clerk put on my Android box. “Play with me!!!” it said. In my quaint way, I see a cell phone as a tool, not a toy. Maybe the huge cohort of incoming elders needs to frame that perspective in some form of consumer demand.

4 Responses to “A Baby Boomer at the Filling Station”

  1. Marilyn Whiteman

    Aren’t I a wonder that at my age I can use e-mail and the Internet?

    I’d like to reply to Ann Karlstrom. I can turn my cellphone on and off;I can receive calls if I turn it on–which is only when I make a call. I don’t want to be bothered when I’m driving, shopping, or doing much of anything. It’s for my use!! We did very recently purchase cordless phones so that I wouldn’t risk breaking my neck rushing across the room in the evening only to answer a robocall or survey.

    P.S. Last Friday evening Kate showed me how to use my debit card to pay for gas. Now if I can just remember all the steps involved.

    • celeryellen

      You are, indeed, a wonder, Marilyn. Yes, before I lost my cell phone, it was just my “911” phone for travel. Funny how we used to go on trips without telephones and think nothing of it. Now when we set out without one, it feels as though we are in real danger. Now that I have this Android, I’m wondering if I should ultimately make it my home phone. Don’t know. Time will tell. And I have to learn how to work it first.

      Ann is our sister, so when she comes next week for a visit, maybe we’ll all practice with our new Androids.

  2. Elizabeth Robechek

    Right on! with this missive; as true (frustrating) as it is sidesplitting funny. Man, oh man, this was good.

    Toodles, I’m off to press something green……! Hope it helps.


  3. Ann Karlstrom

    One of your better ones. And timely for us–I think today is the day! We’re going for our Androids. Many of our friends no longer answer their land-line phones–they just carry their “smart” phones around, expecting you to call them at that number. They say only robo-calls seem to come through on the home phone–and judging from the number we receive (and ignore when we don’t recognize the phone number displayed), I guess we’re all having the same experience.

    But do I want to be at everyone’s beck and call all the time? I guess I won’t be if I don’t remember to turn the Android on. (Turning on an Android–doesn’t that seem like an oxymoron? Or is that what I will become if I become a slave to my phone?)