Grey-Haired Gadgeteers

Part of the "shoe-leather" portion of my morning commute involves taking the short-cut through the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This route serves two purposes: 1/ It protects me from the elements just a bit longer on inclement days, and b/ It provides occasional fodder for this column.

Case in point…

Recently the MTCC (as they like to refer to themselves) played host to "The International Conference on Technology & Ageing." Judging by the signs posted outside various halls, it appeared to be a series of seminars to teach old people how to program a VCR. They had a wonderful Power Point presentation prepared, but no one could figure out how to hook up the projector. Passing one hall, I heard a cacophony of guttural griping peppered with phrases like, "new fangled" and "frimmin’ frammin’". Looking in, I saw about two dozen octogenarians gathered around a lap-top computer wielding television remotes, angrily pounding the "Vol" button. Burgess Meredith’s older brother was in the corner screaming, "Change the batteries, you idiots!"

It was a truly staggering sight to behold and it made me wonder, "Why can’t seniors cope with new machines?"

You would be hard pressed to find anyone alive today who was born before machines started to have an impact on society, before the so-called industrial revolution. The automobile, the phonograph and moving pictures are all more than a century old. Today’s technology is just the result of incremental improvements on things that have been around for a hundred years. Reasonable logic would seem to suggest that all of society would be able to keep up with things meant to improve all of society.

Yeah, you’d think.

A couple of years ago, thinking blindly, my brothers and I gave my dad a CD player for his 70th birthday. Despite the fact that for more than a decade he had been calling me every time he wanted to record a television show on his VCR, this seemed like a good idea. (I think we just wanted a place to listen to our own Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong CDs without being embarrassed in front of our friends.) Amazingly, he adapted well to the CD player.

This confused me at first. Initially, I thought it might be because it was music-related technology and Dad likes to listen to music. Growing up in that house, I remember a large floor-unit Hi-Fi monster machine with a built-in AM radio receiver. The thing was huge and intimidating, with all sorts of knobs and dials. Dad had no problem working this thing.

Pondering this, my theory began to develop. Successful use of technology can be judged only in the context of what you expect to do with the technology. My dad played CDs. Lots of ‘em. Start to finish. That’s it. Beginning to end. He didn’t use the "Shuffle" option. He didn’t use the "Program" feature to, say, play Track 3 then Track 8 followed by Track 5. He pressed "Open" and loaded the CD. Then he pressed "Play" and walked away from the machine. It was from these observations that the "Two Button" guideline was first identified.

The results of this study seem to suggest that there is an arbitrary stopping point for a person’s absorption of new technology. You hit your 55th year and say, "That’s it. My brain is full. No more gadgets." From that point on, a person will use a maximum of two buttons on any new technology that they encounter.

My parents have successfully rented movies and watched them on their VCR at least three times that I know of. However, their house is filled with recordings of ten year old test patterns on VHS tapes labeled "Road To Avonlea."

It seems to me that if we, as a society, want to continue developing technology and gadgets and suchlike stuff, we have only a certain number of options. We can: a/ stop having old people; b/ only accept inventions from people over the age of fifty; or c/ impose a two button limit on EVERYTHING.

That’s my two cents worth, anyway.



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